Bollywood has a serious rival now in India. It’s bigger, louder and is making more money than its prolific, glitzy Hindi-language cousin known for its signature dance moves and opulent wedding scenes.
A new genre of films from southern India — epic, big-budget, over-the-top action flicks, some of them served with a dollop of toxic masculinity and gory violence — are increasingly dominating the country’s $24 billion media and entertainment market, and in some cases, making their mark beyond India. Though shot in regional languages like Telugu and Kannada, they are drawing millions of viewers to theaters screening dubbed versions and to streaming platforms carrying subtitles.
At the vanguard of the movement is “RRR,” a story of two Indian freedom fighters battling British colonialists in the 1920s. It has raked in as much as $150 million worldwide, according to The Numbers website, since its release in March, while Rolling Stone magazine and some other US publications have featured glowing reviews of the movie. The “K.G.F.” and “Pushpa” action franchises garnered about $200 million in total, local media reported, following on from the wild success of a two-part mythical fantasy “Baahubali” in 2015 and 2017, which collected about a combined $290 million.
The numbers represent a high-water mark for India’s movie industry that’s long been struggling to match the size of China or the US, despite being home to a population of almost 1.4 billion. Consultancy Ormax Media estimates that the Telugu-language film industry — known as Tollywood — earned about $212 million last year, eclipsing the $197 million made by Bollywood, which has long been based in India’s business center, Mumbai.
The success, indicative of a power shift toward the country’s south, comes at a time when Bollywood is reeling from a string of flops, as its increasingly westernized content limits its appeal to a mostly urban audience.
The movie makers in southern India “have figured out content that transcends regardless of language,” said Karan Bedi, chief executive officer of Indian streaming platform MX Player. “If you look at the couple of films that have gone ballistic, it’s all that superhero formula.”
And, the run of hits are also good news for streaming giants such as Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Walt Disney Co. who are courting these film makers for local content to boost users in the vast but price-sensitive market. India’s media and entertainment industry is set to grow 17% this year to $24 billion and then to $30 billion by 2024, according to a March report by EY and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry.
India’s more affluent south is home to a passionate movie-going audience and thousands of cinema screens. The region is also reputed for churning out hundreds of films a year considered kitsch even by Bollywood standards, often featuring larger-than-life heroes and heroines. Some of those stars have become successful political leaders.
SS Rajamouli, 49, the maverick redefining Indian entertainment with the new genre, shot “RRR” on a budget of $72 million, something unprecedented in India. Many of these pictures are grandiose with no dearth of histrionics. They are also enhanced by special effects. In a signature fight scene in “RRR,” the hero grabs a heavy motorcycle and uses it as a club to thrash the bad guys.
In a review of “RRR,” Rolling Stone wrote, “if ever a movie deserved to be seen with a crowd and on the largest screen imaginable, it’s this one,” but also warned it runs the risk of being “one long, context-less adrenaline rush.”
In a recent interview, Rajamouli said he pushes the finances of his projects and often overshoots budgets. Before the meeting, he was watching a YouTube reel of the “Top 5 Most Awesome Cinema Game Trailers” — a nod to the bombastic style that propelled him to the top.
“Obviously the film has to be a success,” the director said in his office in the southern city of Hyderabad, home to Tollywood. “Otherwise everyone is going to be in big trouble.”
Little known outside India, Rajamouli has filmed only in Telugu, the fourth-most spoken tongue in the country, throughout his two-decade directorial career. He also made the “Baahubali” franchise, for which he spent 600 days shooting on a gigantic custom-built set at the world’s largest studio complex, the Ramoji Film City — a sprawling 2,000-acre site and theme park on the edge of Hyderabad.
His vision has always been “bigger, bigger and better,” Rajamouli said, reeling off Hollywood inspirations ranging from “Brave Heart,” “Spiderman” and “Superman,” along with the 1957 Telugu fantasy epic “Mayabazar.”
Streaming with subtitles has changed the game for some of the regional movies, said Anupama Chopra, a film critic and director of the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
“That also kind of enabled the stars, especially of Telugu cinema, to find an audience that was outside of their specific region,” she said. “Now suddenly everybody’s woken up.”
That success has also been aided by a two-decade trend in which Bollywood’s Hindi-language productions became “extremely westernized,” according to Chopra, focusing more on educated, urbanized Indian audiences at the expense of 70% of the population that lives outside cities.
“Meanwhile, Telugu cinema has never stopped catering to the larger audience,” she said, characterizing the films as “extremely male centric,” where mythical heroes fight in slow-motion sequences and female characters “are kind of relegated to the sidelines.”
Chopra is also among critics asking makers to tone down the testosterone a notch. Many are warning that these hits, with their hyper-masculine protagonists, can stoke casual sexism and gender violence in India — a country already deemed notoriously unsafe for women.
The Telugu-language “Pushpa,” the Kannada-language “K.G.F.” series and to a lesser extent, “RRR” — come loaded with toxic masculinity and misogyny. Violence is glorified. Attempts portrayed by male characters to court women on screen could often be construed as stalking or kidnapping in most other cultures.
Rajamouli has dismissed criticisms surrounding the male-centric content, saying his focus is on story-telling and emotions and not gender.
Despite the high volume of movies produced each year, Indian films haven’t yet managed to earn the kind of global crossover appeal South Korean content has, with award-winning titles such as “Parasite” or Netflix’s “Squid Game.”
In India, “that’s not happened yet,” said Rajamouli, adding he isn’t planning to change his style to appeal to a wider global audience. “But the doors are open. Finding your kind of audiences in the rest of the world has definitely become much easier” than it was about 10 years ago, he said.
Box-office collections in India are also smaller compared to China or the US. Total ticket sales reached only $470 million last year, slashed to a third due to the pandemic, versus China’s 47 billion yuan ($7 billion) and $4.5 billion for Hollywood.
But huge silver-screen domestic successes in India are unlikely to gain widespread traction with foreign audiences, according to Chopra, who sees the most likely candidates to come from smaller and digitally streamed productions.
“The mainstream, traditional Indian film — which is the song-and-dance, fantasy, color, drama, violence — I think that’s a tough sell as a crossover,” she said. “It’s a very, very unique taste. I don’t know that western audiences really buy into that, they always see it as kitsch.”