Why Isn’t Bollywood More Popular In The ‘South’?

While Hindi-dubbed versions and remakes of Tamil and Telugu films are minting money all over India, the market for commercial Hindi cinema seems to be shrinking
Why Isn’t Bollywood More Popular In The ‘South’?

In December last year, Pushpa: The Rise (2021) took everyone by surprise. No one had expected the dubbed version of a regular masala film about a smuggler in Andhra Pradesh to make over Rs 100 crore in the Hindi market. The popularity of the Allu Arjun-starrer was allegedly enough to rattle actor Kartik Aaryan, who is the protagonist of Shehzada, a Hindi remake of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo another one of Arjun's hit films. Aryan reportedly threatened to walk out of Shehzada if a Hindi-dubbed version of Ala Vaikunta Puramaloo was released in theatres.  

While there have been a few duds like Radhe Shyam, films like Baahubali, Pushpa: The Rise , RRR, and K.G.F: Chapter 2 from the southern Indian film industries have made deep inroads into the Hindi market with their dubbed versions. In contrast, Hindi films are yet to make similar headway into the southern markets. Capturing the Hindi market has long been an attractive prospect for those making films in the south and big-budget films have spared no effort to woo Hindi-speaking audiences. From casting actors from Bollywood to running extensive marketing campaigns, producers and directors have gone all out to bring Hindi-speaking audiences to theatres. Bollywood, on the other hand, is yet to actively pursue audiences in the southern states. 

Over the decades, many films have been able to cut across linguistic barriers. The romantic drama Aradhana (1969), action films like Dabangg (2010), and comedies like PK (2014) are among the long list of titles that found an audience in the southern states. Mukesh Mehta of E4 Entertainment pointed out that the sports drama 83 (2021), which underperformed in Hindi-speaking states, did well in the south. "It all depends on the content and what appeals to the people. When the drama film Black (2005) was released, a lot of south Indians went to watch it because they loved the story," said Mehta. 

There are three distribution circuits for Hindi cinema in the south – Mysore circuit (Bengaluru and parts of Karnataka), Andhra circuit (the Telugu states), and Tamil Nadu circuit (Lakshadweep, Kerala, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu). Of these, the Tamil Nadu circuit has the lowest percentage of Hindi speakers and this is reflected in box office collections. The latest Bollywood blockbuster Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, a horror comedy, made only Rs 1.25 crore in the Tamil Nadu circuit. It earned Rs 6.92 crore in the Telugu states and Rs 6.78 crore in the Mysore circuit. Interestingly, 83 outperformed the hit film Gangubai Kathiawadi, a biopic of a mafia queen, in the Tamil Nadu and Mysore circuits.  

The best way to get non-Hindi speaking audiences to watch Hindi films, if they have a big star cast, is to release the dubbed versions simultaneously, said Bipin Shah of Hansa Pictures, one of the leading distributors for Hindi films in Chennai. 

"Hindi films will have a better reach in the south if they're dubbed into southern languages and released simultaneously (one such example is the action thriller War (2019)). However, this works only if the films have big stars. Small Hindi dubbed films without stars haven't fared well previously," he said. He added that the market for Hindi films has become stagnant in the south since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In southern metros, Hindi films that are released with subtitles and have good word-of-mouth publicity tend to attract non-Hindi speaking audiences. "When the comedy film Badhaai Ho (2018) came out, my friends who didn't know the language watched it because they heard good reviews. We make it a point to ask producers and distributors of Hindi films to include subtitles because it's a guaranteed way to get non-Hindi speakers to the theatre," said Sreemanth Candagaddala of Ega Cinemas in Chennai. 

However, not every Hindi film that releases in the south comes with subtitles. "When The Kashmir Files (2022) came out, a lot of people wanted to watch it but it was only in the second week that we received the subtitled version. In the first week, it was mainly Hindi speakers who came to watch it," Candagaddala said.

Traditionally, the popularity of Hindi film music has been a major factor in helping Bollywood gain an audience in the south. Yet, Hindi filmmakers have failed to capitalise on this and push for a wider reach, particularly in recent years. Meanwhile, south Indian films – especially Tamil and Telugu – have steadily increased their following by entering Hindi-speaking households through dubbed films on television. On any given day, a Hindi entertainment channel like Sony MAX has at least two dubbed Tamil or Telugu films in its schedule. These are typically masala entertainers that have songs, fight sequences, a comedy sidetrack, and a plot that can be easily followed even if the viewer has not tuned in from the beginning. 

The rise of these films coincided with commercial Hindi cinema becoming increasingly metro-centric and attempting to cater to a multiplex audience. "Around this time, single-screen theatres were being replaced by multiplexes, and filmmakers who made masala action movies started making films that were multiplex friendly. There was a shortage of action movies from 2005 onwards but that's what satellite channels wanted," said Manish Shah of Goldmine Films, who has been at the forefront of introducing dubbed south Indian films to Hindi audiences through television channels. Shah began with stars who had done a few Hindi films previously – Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, and Rajinikanth – and quickly realised there was great demand for these movies. He bought the rights for the Nagarjuna starrer Mass for Rs 7 lakh in 2004. Now, the rate for action films in Tamil and Telugu is around Rs 20 crore. 

While dubbed versions of older Hindi films are available on YouTube and Hindi television serials are regularly dubbed, current Hindi films haven't been packaged in this way for television audiences in southern India. 

Bipin Shah believes that it's time the Hindi and non-Hindi film industries joined hands to woo pan-Indian audiences. "Including a south Indian actor in the cast will help Bollywood films attract more audiences across the south. Producers should also certainly focus on marketing Hindi films in south India. The market for Hindi films in the south is slowly going down, and if promotions are done properly, the business can still be revived," he said. 

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