Regional Cinema is no more ‘regional’ in India: The action is now outside Mumbai

Subtitles and OTT platforms have helped films overcome the language barrier

Bollywood actor Tapsee Pannu
Bollywood actor Tapsee Pannu
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Subhash K Jha

For way too long, Indian cinema has been synonymous with Bollywood whereas the truth is, right from Satyajit Ray’s Bengali Pather Panchali in 1955 to Abhishek Shah’s Gujarati Hellaro in 2019, non-Bollywood cinema disparagingly dubbed “regional cinema” have been the true hallmark of excellence in Indian cinema.

To put it bluntly, outside Mumbai is where all the action is, especially in the past five years when South Indian cinema, specially in Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam have made remarkable inroads into the film-watching habits of Indian movie-goers.

Shabana Azmi, who is India’s most accomplished living actress, says the boundary between Bollywood and the rest of Indian cinema has never really existed, “It was created to emphasise the importance of Bollywood cinema as a global merchandise. The truth is, even when Amitabh Bachchan ruled Bollywood, there was Rajinikanth in the South who has an equal fan base both in India and among Indians abroad(NRIs). The lockdown has given me and my husband (writer Javed Akhtar) a chance to see some of the finest works from Indian cinema in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.”

Abhas K Jha, a World Bank executive now residing in Singapore, says the streaming platform has opened up a whole new world for him. “Streaming channels now give top talent from all over India a much wider potential audience and makes word-of-mouth more effective. So, if I hear a friend say a Malayalam movie on Netflix is good, I will check it out. But at the same time because there is so much just awesomely good content available, it is hard to keep our attention riveted to one genre or language.Thanks to the OTT we are spoilt for choices. Bollywood is no longer Indian cinema.”

Yash Patwari, a 27-year entrepreneur from Patna, admits the digital platform has opened up a whole new world of cinema for him. “I can’t say I have watched as many films as I’d like to, to be honest. However, if I can lay my hands on it and if the storyline is good, no reason to not watch it. For example, I watched a Malayalam film Uyare on Netflix about an acid attack survivor. We can no longer call it regional.”

Sameer Nair, CEO of the production company Applause Entertainment, takes huge umbrage to cinema in places other than Mumbai being called ‘regional.’ “I take exception to the labels of Hindi and Regional. Actually, Hindi is as much a regional language as any other, just with a larger speaking base. Every language and culture create its own unique cinema and storytelling style.”

Nair admits the digital platform is a blessing for spreading the good word about non-Bollywood cine- ma. “I think the OTT plat- forms must get a lot of the credit for collapsing the language and cultural barriers that we faced in the past. Today with ease of availability and English subtitles, we are able to consume content from any language or culture, domestic or international. The acceptance of Parasite (Korean) is proof, as was the global success of Narcos (Spanish) and closer home, Super Deluxe (Tamil), to name a few.”

Thanks to the growing reach of non-Bollywood cinema, Telugu and Tamil actors such as Vijay Deverakonda, Prabhas and Yash (from Karnataka) are household names among Indians across the world. The Prabhas starrer Baahubali in 2015 and its sequel two years later, dissolved the invisible wall between Bollywood and non-Bollywood cinema. This Telugu costume drama in two parts earned the following revenue: Baahubali Part 1 in Hindi(dubbed) - ₹119 Crore ($15.6 million)/ Telugu- ₹155 Crore ($20.3 million); Baahubali 2 in Hindi (dubbed) ₹510 Crore ($ 66.8 million)/ Telugu- ₹ 327 Crore ($42.8 million), making it the most successful Indian film of all times.

Kannada-language film dubbed into Hindi. Its staggering box office collections were: KGF (dubbed Hindi) - R₹ 44 Crore ($5.7 million)/ Kannada- ₹ 135 Crore ($17.7 million).

No non-Bollywood film had ever shown box office collections of these two South Indian films. The young KGF star Yash admits his film turned the tide for regional cinema.

“When people say I put Kannada cinema on the world map, I feel good about it.When we made KGF, we consciously designed for a pan-India audience. The spoken language is regional, but the spririt of presentation is international. Or so we’d like to believe,” says Yash who has a massive fan following among Indians everywhere.

Telugu heartthrob Vijay Deverakonda broke through the linguistic barrier with his Telugu blockbuster Arjun Reddy. He soon makes his debut in Hindi with the action film Fighter but admits he had no craving to go to Bollywood.

“Today nowhere in the world is cinema language-restricted.Whether in Telugu, Malayalam, Spanish or Iranian, cinema is cinema.I don’t feel inadequate doing films in my mother tongue Telugu.”

Actress Tapsee Pannu, who has from the beginning of her career worked in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi films says the ‘regional’ tag is insulting to filmmakers like S S Rajamouli (Telugu, Baahubali) and Geetu Mohan, whose Malayalam film Mothoon has stirred up a collective surge of appreciation across India.

Says Taapsee, “I have always followed regional cinema, more because I also work there; I don’t know if anything has changed for other people during this lockdown. To me there was never a difference between a Hindi and Telugu film.But I sincerely hope more people are watching movies from regional languages now, thanks to the OTT. That helps us to know culture and storytelling from different areas of our country and cinema also grows in that sense. Like me. I hope many more actors from South India get a good presence here in Bollywood and vice versa. This can happen only when moviegoers consider Bollywood and non-Bollywood platforms equally important.”

One can say with certainty that Bollywood is shaken by the impact of the so-called regional cinema. Renowned film-trade analyst Taran Adrash concludes, “I am a huge fan of non-Hindi films. I do try to keep track of the regional films, a habit that I cultivated several years ago. In fact, even during the lockdown phase, I made it a point to watch regional films on OTT platforms.”

Taran feels the boundaries between Bollywood and non-Bollywood films broke before the lockdown. “The lines were blurred long back. Remaking South Indian films into Hindi was the first step. Additionally, the success of Baahubali franchise and KGF has worked won- ders. Also, with OTT platforms streaming mov- ies with subtitles, the fan base and viewership of regional films has multiplied rapidly.”

Adds Shibasish Sarkar, the CEO of Reliance Entertainment, “Even earlier before the lockdown, I used to regularly see films primarily in four languages, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali & Malayalam. And yes, during the lockdown there is an extra urge to identify good contents and see them.”

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