Is Prabhas India’s First Legit PAN Indian Star?’

A series of conversations in search of answers for some very pressing questions…
Is Prabhas India’s First Legit PAN Indian Star?’

Baradwaj Rangan and Vishal Menon speak about Prabhas, his three big-ticket announcements, and the changing landscape for stars from The South. Excerpts

VM: Yesterday, they announced Adipurushanother big Prabhas film, his third during the lockdown after Radhe Shyam and that film with Deepika Padukone. This one seems even bigger, that too in 3D, and it will be directed by Om Raut, who made Tanhaji. At a time when no one's really sure about the future, Prabhas seems super confident announcing three major spectacle films that are tailor-made for theatres.   

BR: Not just tailor-made for theatres, but (at least from the sense we are getting of these films) tailor-made for the pan-Indian audience, i.e. mass and class, East and West, South and North. This makes me wonder if Prabhas has finally managed what many Southern heroes (Chiranjeevi, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Mammootty) tried to do and couldn't, which is to make it big outside their comfort zones, i.e., across India. I have read reports that the Hindi  version of Saaho was a bonafide hit, while the Telugu/Tamil versions were seen as under-performers. 

VM: Exactly. For a film that was panned by critics, it went on to collect around Rs. 400 crore. This would not have been possible without some major star power. It's like it has become unreasonable to expect Prabhas to make movies just for the Telugu-speaking market anymore. But haven't there been instances of the same happening before? Didn't we have legit all-India stars before this? 

BR: Well, let's disregard the Khans, for instance. Hindi films have traditionally had a market all over India, so it's not a big surprise when a Dangal or a Sultan does well in Chennai and Hyderabad and Kochi and Bengaluru. 
But I'm talking about the reverse, a big hero from down South whose films have conquered the North. Now, that is pretty radical. Most of the earlier names I mentioned had one major pan-India hit (say, Pratibandh for Chiranjeevi), and then… nothing. Even a huge superstar like Rajinikanth, in Hindi, was content doing more double-hero roles than solo starrers. But now, i.e. post-Baahubali, I feel things may have changed. 

VM: Yeah, and one thing he's doing differently is that he's not differentiating between Hindi and Telugu. He might choose to dub the film or make it a bi- or tri- or multi-lingual, but he's not saying, 'Okay, I will do this script as a small Telugu film. I'll do the next one as a proper, big Hindi film'. He's scaling up every film for that big all-India, multiple-language release. Even that, I think, is a pretty ballsy move, even if that comes at the cost of nativity and specificity. 

BR: I think he has also been helped by changes in culture. When the earlier heroes tried to "conquer" Hindi cinema, so to speak, masala cinema was still a thing — and that's the only, genuine pan-Indian "genre". But over time, Hindi filmmakers have gotten more "classy", more urban, and a lot of neglected Hindi viewers began to consume dubbed Tamil/Telugu films on YouTube and on TV. I am always surprised by the comments under these films. The bad lip-sync does not seem to matter. People really enjoy them. It took a Baahubali to show Bollywood that people across India craved this sort of entertainment, and that it's not something to be looked down on. And Prabhas, I think, rode that wave and is now at a point where he can position himself as the first genuine pan-Indian star from the South.

VM: Yeah. Come to think of it, it was always a matter of time. We saw this coming when Salman's career changed completely with Wanted, a remake of the Telugu blockbuster Pokiri. He went on to act in many South remakes after that like Kick, Bodyguard, Ready, and more. Maybe it's just the audience accepting a proper South star in an original masala movie, rather than having to wait for a Hindi actor to remake it there. Salman's space….that must be what a star like Prabhas can fit into.  Bad dubbing, reading subs, all that comes second. Like you were saying, maybe Hindi cinema has forgotten the recipe for great masala. A films like War is damn good, but it's probably too Western an action movie for the majority.  

BR: Yeah, sadly Hindi cinema has largely forgotten how to make good masala cinema, and what a strange coincidence that solid instances of both flavours of masala (i.e. masala drama and masala action/fantasy) were Hrithik Roshan starrers: Super 30 and War, respectively. And though Salman is still shouldering the load, I think there's more than enough space for a fresh face. Yes, there's a possibility in Tiger Shroff, but right now, he's too young. Prabhas has the right kind of gravitas to anchor a masala movie. But tell you what? In a way, Prabhas has proved he's bigger than Salman. He has delivered big hits in Salman's space, i.e. Hindi cinema. The vice versa has not happened. 

VM: Remember that iconic The Week headline 'Bigger Than Bachchan' for Chiranjeevi, back in the 80s? Maybe, it's now time for something like 'Salman Ka Bhai' for Prabhas. But before we get killed, a lot of Prabhas' star power is still Rajamouli-powered isn't it? If one of the next two or three flop, he might have to retreat to Telugu cinema alone like many others. So, isn't it Rajamouli who is actually the bigger star? 

BR: Yes, the credit for the Baahubali films goes to Rajamouli. At a time when people kept talking about "audience fragmentation", he proved that all of India can be united about a movie. But Saaho's success in Hindi is a lot due to Prabhas alone, I'd say — apart from the film's scale, of course. I come back to a certain kind of star signature that is necessary for masala cinema. You can't fake it. You have to look it. Prabhas may appear "softer" than the traditional masala hero, but he's got that presence, that "I can just direct one look at you and make jelly of your knees" presence. Now, it's up to the writers and directors to exploit this presence in scripts as good as the 
ones in the Baahubali movies.

VM: Strangely, I feel only one other South star seems to have found this space and he's from the smallest of the four industries. That's Yash with just one monster hit KGF. Call it conviction or confidence, but it's these two who've really made space in the hearts of the heartland. He too has that star swagger you see in Prabhas. But don't you think even classy movies from the South have been travelling to the North? Maybe, the audiences are different and perhaps restricted to OTT, but I think good films of a star like Fahadh Faasil or of a director like Thiagarajan Kumararaja, are really finding an audience in the North, perhaps more than what a Nawaz, Irrfan or a Naseer could manage down South.

BR: No. As much as I love Fahadh and Kumararaja's work, this is again a relatively "class" phenomenon. These films are never going to be pan-Indian hits. Let me explain a little more. If, say, a sweet social drama Njan Prakashan is remade in Bengali, it may become a hit there; a good-sized "local" success. But if the makers of a Njan Prakashan say they are going to do a Baahubali or KGF, and release it in multiple languages and carpet-bomb theatres in all corners of the country, it will never work. Because, for that, you need something that makes people say "I want to go to a theatre to see that", and that almost always involves scale. The biggest non-Rajamouli example of recent times? Shankar's 2.0, with Rajinikanth — though even that film, I'd say, got a big boost from the presence of Akshay Kumar.

VM: True, but maybe we've still only seen the good side of this model. I remember reading that Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy didn't do as well as one had expected even though they did everything, including collaborating with a Mumbai-based distributor (Excel), to take their film to the Hindi market. 

BR: Yeah, but a film can't become pan-Indian just because it is "masala + big budget + multiple languages". It also needs a good script, plus Sye Raa's titular character was perhaps too unknown outside of the Telugu market.

VM: It will be interesting to see what KGF 2 does here. The first film, of course, was huge and there's no doubt that KGF 2 will open bigger than most other films around the country, whenever it comes out. It's another one of those cases where a star goes national with just one film. Plus it also has Sanjay Dutt.  Whichever way you look at it, this period has only broadened genres more into 'theatre films' and 'watch-at-home films'. In such a scenario, it's unlikely that Hindi and Hollywood cinema alone produce those big tentpole event films like before. We'll perhaps see a time when there's a big 300-crore film releasing every month, with 3D and the works. That can only be possible when there's a version in at least four or five languages, and with the help of a truly pan-Indian star. For now, Prabhas seems to fit the bill.

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