Why masala movies from the south are storming the Hindi box office
Dubbed versions of films such as Pushpa: The Rise are topping the charts. They’ve got all the elements of the traditional Bollywood blockbuster: gangs, fights, songs, sibling rivalry, love angles. They’re the kind of mass entertainer Bollywood rarely makes anymore, says Anupama Chopra.
In an interview with me in February 2020, a few weeks after the release of his blockbuster Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (the second-biggest Telugu grosser after the Baahubali franchise), superstar Allu Arjun called Hindi cinema “aspirational”.
“It is the main film industry of the entire country. We have to accept that. I love Hindi films and I wouldn’t mind doing one,” he said to me.
As it turns out, Arjun didn’t have to star in a Hindi film to conquer the Bollywood market. His latest film, Pushpa: The Rise - Part 1 (released in theatres on December 17 and now also streaming on Amazon Prime) was one of the biggest Hindi hits of 2021. The dubbed Telugu film has netted over ₹80 crore at the box office so far.
In its third week in theatres, the dubbed Hindi version had higher daily collections than ’83 and Spider-Man: No Way Home, and without any marketing push.
Pushpa is the explosive story of the rise of a criminal in the sandalwood smuggling underworld. Director Sukumar creates some stunning set pieces (the interval point is superb) and Arjun delivers a solid performance as the ferocious but wounded Pushpa (his father never married his mother and his illegitimacy consistently undermines his power). The film has its flaws; it is punishingly long, at nearly three hours, and lacking in connective tissue. The romantic angle is both redundant and problematic.
This doesn’t seem to have bothered viewers, who have turned up for it in the tens of thousands, especially in Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Trade pundits believe this might be because the film, which features thunderous confrontations, punchy dialogue and a provocative item song, speaks the masala, mass-entertainer language that Bollywood barely dabbles in anymore.
Harminder Sandhu, editor of trade website Box Office India, identified the problem thus: “We have this thought, that this film is a ‘multiplex film’ and that film is a ‘mass film’, rather than just making good films. Hindi cinema will have to change as it is about giving supply to the demand. If we don’t, then others will.”
Exhibitor Akshaye Rathi echoed the sentiment. “Top Telugu filmmakers and stars have kept their storytelling style accessible to the least common denominator of the cinema-going public,” he told me.
Arjun and other Telugu stars such as NTR Jr, Ram Charan and Mahesh Babu are increasingly popular in Hindi-speaking markets, Rathi pointed out. Over the years, as Hindi cinema has become more urban and genre-specific, these heroes with their larger-than-life personas have stealthily filled the gap.
The stupendous success of Pushpa has surprised even its makers. “The numbers are bigger than I thought,” Arjun told me via text message. “Pushpa fits into what I call the Indian multi-genre format. It has been packed with fights, songs, emotions and love. There are few films that cater to this genre. This is what Hindi audiences connected to.”
The actor added that Pushpa 2 is “being planned on a grand scale”. “We plan to come down and promote the film and ensure that it has a bigger release and reach.”
Last month, in an interview with me around the upcoming RRR, NTR Jr said, “We are not regional anymore. We are one big Indian film industry.” The success of Pushpa attests to that. It also proves that certain large audiences are still hungry for a very specific kind of theatrical experience. Which gives me hope for the post-Omicron entertainment landscape. Despite the current grimness, there is much to look forward to.