It was an amusing moment for marketing executive Ameeta Munshi when she bumped into a former colleague at the local multiplex last week. The woman, known to everyone at the office as the original party chick, was surrounded by a posse of her mamas and mamis, all dressed in an assortment of colourful Kanjeevarams and kurtas.
“My relatives are visiting and we’ve come to catch Kuselan,” explained the seemingly reformed it-girl, ignoring Munshi’s rapidly rising eyebrows. And Munshi’s former colleague wasn’t the only one to walk into the theatre where the film was being screened. She was just part of a horde of people who streamed into the hall, making Munshi wonder: Since when did Tamil movies become so popular in Mumbai?
Sivaji :Rajnikant’s biggest flick to date.
Chandramukhi :Again a Rajni starrer . Was a huge hit in almost all areas.
Dasavataram :Kamal Hasan’s film where he had 10 roles.
Kuselan :A Rajnikant film again. Has had a good start in other parts of India.
Chokher Bali:Rituparno Ghosh’s film was a big pull as it had Aishwarya Rai in the lead.
Tamil movies have always been popular in Mumbai. And in Delhi too for that matter. It’s just that, in the pre-multiplex era, they were restricted to just a single hall in a whole city while Bollywood and Hollywood took over the rest. So unless we were interested in Tamil films ourselves, we never knew how popular they were.
But multiplexes have a lot to answer for. Because the multiplicity of small screens means that even niche audiences can be catered to, we’ve had fun at the movies watching Bollywood, Hollywood and even dubbed foreign films. So how could regional cinema be far behind?
– the latest Rajnikant starrer – for example. It has been released in non-Tamil-speaking cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi simultaneously and, according to the trade magazines, is making money hand over fist. And it isn’t the first regional film to be released in these cities in such a big way. It’s just one of many –
Sivaji, Dasavataram, Chandramukhi, Chokher Bali
and even the Bhojpuri
Kab Aibu Anganwa Hamar
, to name just a few.
Though Kuselan is also being re-made in Hindi as Billo Barber with Shah Rukh Khan and Irfan Khan, its producers – and multiplex owners – were sure about one thing. There was no need to wait for the remake. The original would do quite as well.
“Regional cinema is big today,” says Tushar Dhingra, chief operating officer, Adlabs Cinemas. “There is so much migration within the country now that it becomes imperative to maintain a balance and showcase films from all regions – at least the ones that have a strong connect – in equal proportion.”
That, of course, is only half the story. Multiplex owners have businesses to run, so there’s a financial angle as well. As Jayendra Bannerjee, vice president, operations, Satyam cinemas, says, “A multiplex works on the tenet that it will showcase as many films as possible. And, of course, introducing regional fare in an otherwise Hindi or English dominated space, gets in more footfalls.”
Those footfalls constitute just a small number, cautions Dhingra, because in markets like Mumbai and Delhi, nothing can compare with a Hindi film. But they are a number nonetheless. And that’s the basic premise of a multiplex. Cater to several small segments and you have an overall big market.
This is why multiplexes have begun to screen regional films in some of their halls. That, and the demand, of course. Because, if a regional film is a hit in its home state, there’s no doubt that it’ll be a hit with expatriates from their home state as well. As homemaker Meenakshi Bhatt reminds us.
“I love Rajnikant and all his films,” she says. “I don’t think any other star can match his style, dialogue delivery, mannerisms and jazzy dress sense. He can carry off anything.”
Home away from home
It’s helped that, lately, more of us have become open to ideas about cinema other than what we are used to. For instance, the German film
The Lives of Others
had an unprecedented three-week commercial run in Mumbai a few months ago, something even the distributors hadn’t anticipated. So language is no longer an issue for many of us.
“I have to admit it was the hype around the film that got me interested in it,” says lawyer Anish Mahapatra, “But I watched the Rajnikant film Sivaji in Tamil and though I didn’t understand the language, I really enjoyed the film.”
Mahapatra watched the movie at one of the few cinema halls in Mumbai that generally screens Tamil movies, in an area of the city with a large Tamil population. This is the same principle that multiplex owners work on. Regional films are generally screened in those multiplexes that are in or near the areas where the large populations of that linguistic group reside so the halls are always full.
“The key to this is location, location, location,” says Ashish Saksena, chief executive officer, film cell, PVR Cinemas. “Only then does it make business sense.”
Mind your language
That’s because most regional films are released without subtitling. Subtitling would help make these movies more popular, of course. If we knew what Rajnikant was saying other than the famous ‘Mind it!’, more of us would probably watch his films. But subtitling is not cheap and most regional filmmakers simply do not have the budgets for it.
That apart, says film distributor Sanjay Mehta, many people find subtitles distracting. “People concentrate on reading rather than watching the film,” he explains. “A dubbed version is a better option, but that happens only when the film is a big one.”
That said, these films seem to be running to full houses as compared to Hindi or English flicks. “That is just a perception,” says Mehta. “A regional film is generally screened in a smaller hall that has an audience capacity of only about 100-150. So even if the film is running for six shows and gets about 700 people approximately, it isn’t a great number to boast of.”
Not every film in a regional language makes it to the multiplexes of Mumbai and Delhi – a fact that migrants in these cities note with much sorrow. The films that are screened are usually big films, with big stars.
“A Rajnikant or Kamal Hassan can pull in the crowd. So can a Konkona Sen and Prosenjit. But not every film is capable of doing so,” says Mehta.
Though the script, as the average cinema-goer insists, is a necessity, the fact is that a spectacle works best. “Kuselan is a simple story about the friendship between a barber and a superstar,” says Meenakshi Bhatt. “And though Rajni’s superstar status is overdone – he’s made to look as though he has descended from heaven – I would watch it for Rajni any day.”
So, given the audience desire for spectacle, more often than not, films from the south are visible in states besides their own to. The fact is, southern filmmakers have the biggest budgets. Bengali cinema comes second, but is no way close enough.
There’s another reason why films from the south do so well in Mumbai and Delhi. “Filmmakers from the south have realised the potential of a film that is more universal in nature,” says Saxena. “And they have also understood the conditions that are needed to fulfill that arena.”
Sanjay Mehta agrees. “This started with Mani Ratnam’s Roja, which was one of the first films to be released in Tamil and then dubbed in Hindi,” he says. “The story, based on the Kashmir militancy, clicked with the northern masses brilliantly. Then came Bombay, based on the Mumbai riots.
People like Rajnikant, Kamal Hassan, Mammooty or Nagarjuna have understood this. So though they make films in their own language, they make sure there are elements that will attract audiences from other parts of the country too.”
Sivaji was about a software systems architect who returns to India with dreams of providing free medical treatment and education to the poor. But his dreams face a roadblock in the form of a highly affluent and influential businessman.
“It was about a common man’s fight against the system,” says Bannerjee of Satyam cinemas. “Kuselan is a story of friendship between a rich man and a poor man. Both films connect with us beautifully.”
It is this aspect of filmmaking that other regions have not been able tap properly. “Unfortunately, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and Bhojpuri cinema have remained very ghetto-like in their approach,” says Saksena. “Their themes, feel and portrayals are reflective of their own limited sphere. So the connection with the masses in general is very rare.”
But the biggest point in favour of southern films is their strong producers’ lobby. “That’s a huge deal,” says Saksena. “The other regions still have a long way to go.” But he’s convinced they will make the distance. Will that be the start of Indian cinema? Give it ten years, and we'll be back with another story.