The trend of pan-India South releases first began with Telugu films in 2015. Prabhas’ ‘Baahubali: The Beginning’ (2015) set the proverbial benchmark, while ‘Baahubali: The Conclusion’ (2017), ‘Saaho’ (2019) and Yash’s ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ (2018) followed up the trend. Most recently, Allu Arjun’s ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ (2021) made South films popular across the country, making a huge impact in Northern theatrical markets. To highlight the problem of Tamil films underperforming in pan-India markets, we need to go back to 2018 when, soon after ‘Baahubali’ created a historic blitzkrieg, Rajinikanth‘s Tamil sci-fi thriller ‘2.0’ (2018) was released pan-India in multiple languages, with Rajini locking horns with Akshay Kumar. With the pandemic having halted progress for a few years, Ajith’s ‘Valimai’ was the next big, pan-India Tamil film that released in February this year. Now, Suriya’s ‘Etharkkum Thunindhavan’ was also a pan-India film (not multi-lingual) released in March, but it’s interesting to note that none of these Tamil films made a mark as much as the previous Telugu releases outside the state of Tamil Nadu.
Ajith’s ‘Valimai’ may have received mixed reviews, but the film grossed over Rs 100 crore in the first three days itself. However, most of the collection came from Tamil Nadu and trade experts ascertain that 10 to 12 percent of the collection came from the rest of the country, despite the star power of Ajith. Likewise, Suriya’s ‘Etharkkum Thunindhavan’ grossed over Rs 100 crore in five days, but only about 8 percent of it came from states other than Tamil Nadu. Vijay’s ‘Master’ had released in 2021, while 50-percent restrictions on theatres were still in place and it still managed to break box office records. While ‘Master’ had gross collections of Rs 34 crore on Day 1, ‘Valimai’ broke all records when it earned Rs 37 crore on opening day. Despite this blistering pace in their home state, both films did not create a similar impact in north markets.
Very few Tamil films make a box-office impact all over India, but that’s not the case with Telugu pan-India releases. In this week’s #BigStory, we attempt to dissect the reasons behind Tamil films failing to ‘wow’ audiences outside their home state, with insightful perspectives from trade pundits and filmmakers.
Role of promotional strategy
Kollywood (the fan-made name for Tamil film industry) stars, who rule the box office in their home state, still struggle when they step out of the Tamil Nadu market. This is where other pan-India films get an advantage. Telugu films have both the markets of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and along with it, the promotions that are held in other states with the entire star cast is like an added bonus. Case in point, the promotions of ‘RRR’ had Ram Charan, Junior NTR, Alia Bhatt and Rajamouli travelling to every state capital – Chennai, Cochin and Mumbai. This national level promotional campaign helped them generate more buzz and film enthusiasts are really looking forward to watching the movie in theatres, later this month. Same was the case for Allu Arjun’s ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ as well, as the team went all out with promotions in cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Cochin and Hyderabad.
Film analyst Sreedhar Pillai says, “None of the Tamil films are being aggressively promoted in other states. If you see in the last one or two years, none of the Tamil films have done big promotions on the northern side of the country. Promotions are the only way to reach out to a mass audience and the presence of the actor and director is very important.”
Further reflecting upon the success of Telugu pan-India releases, he adds, “If you see ‘Baahubali’ or ‘Pushpa’, there were huge promotions in North India. Also, now for ‘RRR’, the promotions were done in over 13 main cities in North India apart from Mumbai and Delhi. Today, people in North India know who Allu Arjun is, because he was present for the movie promotions here. And Rajamouli is a big name, so there is a separate expectation for that film and we also need to note how ‘RRR’ has roped in Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn which is an additional exposure for Telugu films in North India.”
Social media buzz
Social media is one of the most essential and effective marketing tools in today’s times. The Telugu film industry seems to have cracked the formula right and their songs become a rage on social media platforms in no time. From celebs to influencers and commoners, everyone is hooked to the viral songs and reels. Be it lip sync or hook steps or even memes, ‘Oo Antava’, ‘Saami Saami’, ‘Naatu Naatu’, ‘Butta Bomma’, ‘Inkem Inkem’ are best examples of the songs that became an internet sensation worldwide.
Not just songs, even the looks and dialogues are used as marketing material. ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ generated a huge buzz with its dialogue, “Did you think Pushpa meant flower? It is fire.” Allu Arjun’s look was interpreted by many including cricketers Ravindra Jadeja and David Warner, which helped the movie amplify its reach and generate curiosity among movie enthusiasts.
Perhaps, such marketing strategies are amiss with Tamil films. Vijay’s ‘Beast’, which is expected to release in the next few months, could be a game changer for Tamil films in this respect as its first single ‘Arabic Kuthu’ has garnered attention all over the world.
Film expert Ayyappa Prasad says that promotions of most Telugu films are far bigger when compared to Tamil movies, as Telugu stars reach out to their fans in two states – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. He adds, “The promotions for Tamil films happen in Chennai, but here in Telugu, apart from Hyderabad, the actors travel to other parts of the state as well, as they are highly connected with people who belong to their caste. Also, commercial Tamil films having a marquee cast is not enough, because the concept of Telugu films adds an edge to their popularity.”
Do Tamil movies work better when remade?
In recent times, quite a few Tamil movies got recognised for their storyline and content across the country. ‘Vikram Vedha’, ‘Soorarai Pottru’, ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Maanaadu’, to name a few, are now being remade in other Indian languages. While these films were released only in Tamil, their popularity fuelled by social media conversations made an impact throughout the country. Ayyappa Prasad also states that many Tamil and Malayalam films are now being remade in Hindi because of their fresh concept and story. “If you see ‘Pushpa’ itself, it was released in Hindi and many watched it. But if you see the story, there is nothing offbeat about it. It is just a gangster story. But if you see Tamil or Malayalam movies, they have a different and new story and that’s why they are a preferred choice for Hindi remakes,” he says.
Comparing Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films and how they work in North India, trade analyst Atul Mohan neither agrees nor disagrees that Tamil films ‘do not work’ in other states. “Tamil movies like ‘Ghajini’, ‘Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’ (‘Kalyana Samayal Saadham’) and ‘Holiday’ (‘Thuppakki’), all worked well. When comparing Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films, Malayalam movies have a perception of intelligence and Telugu films cater to the masses. Tamil films try to balance it between these two metrics,” he says.
Comparing the dubbed version with the Hindi remakes, Atul adds, “When Vijay’s ‘Master’ was dubbed and released in Hindi, it did not run well. Vishal’s film (‘Chakra’) that was released last year in Hindi was not a success. But when remade, Tamil films run well in North circuits. As I mentioned earlier, Telugu films run well because their concept is massy and we connect with the humour, because a large part of the Northern audience is intrigued by the high-concept of Telugu films and whether such things can happen in real life. The audience laughs at it and enjoys that experience. But that’s not the case for Tamil movies, which are aligned closer to reality. Also, it is not necessary for South films to turn these things around, because they are successful down South. Most big stars are really happy with the film’s success in their states.”
Filmmaker Boney Kapoor chimes in, “Telugu dubbed films in Hindi are more successful and more in demand than other South languages. Of course there are exceptions like the Rajinikanth’s Tamil film ‘Robot’ and ‘2.O’ which were very successful. And Kannada film ‘KGF’ was very successful… these are some examples. In the ’70s, some Malayalam films which were on bold subjects were sought after by distributors. The first 3D film ‘Chhota Chetan’ was also originally a Malayalam film, a trendsetter which was a huge success. Earlier, quite a few mythological films in Telugu and few in Tamil were very, very successful.”
The competition with Telugu movies
Barring a few Tamil films, the other pan-India releases have never made the cut, whereas Telugu films like ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ or ‘Baahubali’ earned way more at the box office from the North circuits.
Filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar, who has made Tamil films like ‘David’ and ‘Solo’, and the ‘Edhiri’ episode of Netflix’s Tamil original ‘Navarasa’ says, “Telugu films have the effect of making the film in a mass way, which takes us back to the old times when Hindi films were made like that. Tamil films also have that quality, but it is not as exaggerated as Telugu, and maybe that’s the reason why Telugu films work better in North India than Tamil.”
‘Pushpa’, ‘Baahubali’, and ‘Valimai’, all had a run-time of nearly three hours, but what possibly did not work in favour of ‘Valimai’ was the lack of nationwide impact. While ‘Pushpa’ and ‘Baahubali’ focussed on lead characterisation based on the story, ‘Valimai’ focussed on emotion and stardom. Sreedhar Pillai says that the emotional quotient of any film is important in India and it will sell itself for the family audience. “No movie can just have all the mass and no emotion to it. Being in India, the emotional quotient for the movie is very important. To explain this, ‘Thangachi paasam’ or ‘Amma paasam’ (mother’s affection and sister’s affection) is an important factor for Tamil movies.”
Additionally, Telugu films feature stars who have huge fan following in other states, too. While ‘Baahubali’ had Nassar, Ramya Krishnan, Sathyaraj and Sudeep, ‘Pushpa’ had Fahadh Faasil.
Telugu films have reached a point where they establish their brand and it starts to promote itself irrespective of the language barriers. Though ‘Valimai’ had Huma Qureshi and Kartikeya Gummakonda, and was backed by Boney Kapoor, it failed to promote itself in other states apart from Tamil Nadu. It was not promoted enough in neighbouring states with their own stars.
Learnings from Malayalam cinema
Even though Malayalam films are not released pan-India, these films manage to garner their share of popularity throughout the country. The main reason is their focus on story, content and realistic settings even if it is a fictional story. For instance, films like ‘Trance’, ‘Nayattu’, ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’, ‘Home’, ‘Jalikattu’ and ‘Drishyam 2’ have made an impact of late.
These Malayalam films, for most part, do not focus on caste or politics in the state, and are purely perceived as ‘entertainment’. There is no resistance from society and no pressure from politicians. But Tamil films do not enjoy that liberty, because these movies reflect upon the political inclination or ideology of the people. ‘Jai Bhim’ with Suriya being the classic example.