For foreign audiences, Indian cinema long has been closely associated with Bollywood — sprawling, colorful spectacles that feature songs and dance routines — and often one of the three Khans (the unrelated trio of Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh). But there has been a shift across the past year as focus turned from Mumbai, which had suffered a string of misses until Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan took off on a tear early this year, toward Southern India.
The Indian film industry is one of the world’s most prolific, but it somehow feels like a switch has been flipped with interest from non-diaspora audiences. In part, that’s down to S.S. Rajamouli and his Telugu-language pic RRR, which became a phenomenon unto its own with worldwide box office appeal and awards recognition from myriad bodies including the Academy, which made “Naatu Naatu” the first song from an Indian movie to win an Oscar.
Rajamouli already had made waves globally with his two-part Baahubali franchise. But RRR put Telugu titles into the mainstream outside India, arguably fueling growth in so-called pan-India movies. RRR’s N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (NTR) recently was set to star with Hrithik Roshan in War 2, which, along with Pathaan, forms part of Yash Raj Films’ Spy Universe. The crossover could give War 2 wider audience appeal.
India, a multilingual and multi-ethnic country, consists of several different industries corresponding to different states, such as Bollywood (Hindi cinema), Tollywood (Telugu cinema) and Kollywood (Tamil cinema).
Given that Hindi is understood in almost three-quarters of India, Bollywood historically was the dominant player. As box office analyst Jatinder Singh says, “Due to the language barrier, the industries like Tollywood and Kollywood remained regional players, catering only to their state primarily.” That was until South Indian films began getting dubbed into Hindi — mostly for TV but also coinciding with the emergence of multiplexes in India, especially in the north. The multiplexes and their higher ticket prices, Singh says, “started making cinemagoing an elitist activity, and Bollywood started to cater to these multiplex audiences, cutting down on larger-than-life commercial masala films.” In turn, South Indian films dubbed into Hindi began to dominate television, too, as they provided what Bollywood was not delivering.
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Then, in a watershed moment in 2015, a Hindi version of Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning was released theatrically and became a huge breakout success. In 2017, the sequel followed suit. As the audience expanded for South Indian films, so did budgets and production values.
Says Sri Harsha Chundru, co-founder of Walls & Trends, which marketed RRR and regularly works with major titles: “Telugu cinema has proved that language does not matter. A good and emotional story can transcend linguistic and socio-cultural barriers. Also, we are one of the few industries that managed to strike a balance between commercial or colloquially speaking ‘mass’ elements and a larger-than-life message or any other inspiring and message-oriented takeaways. I think RRR and other unapologetic entertainers, so to speak, have paved the way for mainstream commercial cinema and inspired other filmmakers to dream big.”
He calls Telugu cinema “a melting pot of culture,” suggesting that audiences can expect “many more multi-starrer films featuring actors from different industries across India, if not the world.” Whatever comes next, it will be, “bigger, better and bolder.”
But Chundru also predicts: “While the quality of VFX and graphics are likely to exponentially improve, there will be a rise in small-budget films as well. Large-scale Telugu films put Telugu cinema as a whole in the limelight, so audiences across the world would be eager to explore more of Telugu cinema in all its shapes and forms.”
Actress Pooja Hegde, who has appeared in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi films, says that while the perception from outside of India is that Telugu cinema has only just emerged in the past year, this is not the case. It has been “years of audience building, hard work, and love. And when the dubbed versions were released simultaneously with the original language version in the theaters, the payoff has been huge. It is encouraging that the West is beginning to understand that India is a very culturally diverse country and that there is more to it than just Hindi films. There is a lot of talent in India and film industries from across the states are producing exceptional films, be it through its storytelling or technical skills.”
Says Singh, “2022 felt like it was the year when the result of this was on full display as multiple South Indian Hindidubbed films found success.” Those also include Pushpa: The Rise — Part 01, Kantara, Karthikeya 2, Vikram and Ponniyin Selvan: Part I.
Anticipation ahead is high for upcoming Tollywood titles including Ram Charan’s Game Changer, NTR’s next untitled pic and Hombale Films’ Telugu-language action thriller Salaar, starring Prabhas, who also features in Yash Raj’s Project K with Deepika Padukone and Amitabh Bachchan for release in early 2024. Hombale, which released Prashanth Neel’s Yash-starring Kannada-language smash KGF: Chapter 2, also is working on Kannada-language Kantara 2, directed by and starring Rishab Shetty. It’s part of an ambitious slate across four South Indian languages from the studio, which recently pledged to invest $370 million in films and series over the next five years.
“There is a great exchange of culture that is happening right now,” RRR star Charan says. “The boundaries are becoming seamless and blurred, and I think it’s important that my nation calls themselves the Indian film industry rather than sectioning ourselves into different industries. … I’m happy that I’m in an era where this change is happening. It’s good to be part of the global film industry now.”
Dylan Marchetti of Variance Films, who, alongside Potentate Films, Sarigama Cinemas and Raftar Creations, released RRR in the U.S. and led the Academy push, said recently that RRR could be a “gateway drug,” adding: “There are a lot of people — programmers, bookers, industry people — who were only peripherally aware of Telegu/South Indian cinema. There will be more films like this that can cross over.”
Today he remains bullish. “There’s always going to be an audience of film lovers that, if it’s good, they’ll find it. I’m interested in developing the secondary Western audience that needs to be marketed to. That audience, as it grows, will have offshoots leaning more toward action or the fantastical. You need to have a steady supply and marketing in conjunction with the global release. I think there’s a hunger now.”
Variance is looking for the next title to bring to U.S. cinemas. “We are doing our part to put the best of the best in front of the audience,” Marchetti says. “There is a curiosity — once you’ve seen something you’ve never seen before, you want to see more. My hope is that it continues to advance people’s minds.” He points to examples like 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which spurred folks to dig more into martial arts movies, or the success of Parasite, which turned them on to Korean cinema.
Rajamouli has said previously that the success of RRR and the rise of Telugu cinema is “really important” to him. “Because now I can expand even more,” he explained. “More and more films are going to come and cross these language barriers and tap into people across larger areas. Hopefully, we grow beyond, not just in the country, but into other countries, cultures and languages as well.”