The spectacular success of the war epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, a Tamil-Telugu bilingual dubbed in Hindi, took regional cinema to new heights in 2017. Online ticketing platform BookMyShow reported average occupancy of 45-46% for regional films last year, compared to around 39-40% in 2016. Within the regional space, Gujarati films registered a 44% increase over 2016 in terms of transactions on the site, followed by Malayalam movies that registered a 38% rise.
In contrast, Ashish Saksena, chief operating officer, cinemas, BookMyShow, said Hindi films registered around 5% lower occupancy compared to 2016. The progressively impressive returns brought by regional cinema are also manifest in data from cinema exhibition chain Cinepolis. Devang Sampat, director (strategic initiatives) at Cinépolis India, said in 2005, Hindi films would contribute around 90% to their revenue while regional and Hollywood films would bring in 5% each. By 2016, the dependence on Hindi films had declined to 60% with regional and Hollywood bringing in 20% each. For the first time in 2017 though, regional films brought in 22% of Cinepolis’ revenue while Hollywood contributed about 18%.
There are several factors for the broader appeal of regional language films. First, a lot more regional movies are being made now.
“Until a decade ago, one Gujarati movie used to happen a year. Now we have almost 100 movies planning a release in 2018. A similar thing has happened in Marathi and Bengali. The number of films (being made in local languages) has gone up in all regions,” Sampat said.
This of course has to do with theatrical investment, the advent of multiplexes has increased the space to watch films in India and people don’t have to travel far and wide to catch a film not necessarily made in the language familiar in their geography.
“Then there are mega-plexes which are 14- and 15-screeners giving a longer run to the movie and the right platform to alternative content,” Sampat said.
Besides, there is good content. Away from the glare of big budgets and star-driven vehicles, some regional language filmmakers are bringing out path-breaking content. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s acclaimed Malayalam crime drama Angamaly Diaries, widely regarded as one of the most impactful films of 2017, may be a case in point.
“At least Malayalam and Bengali cinema are extremely content-driven,” Saksena pointed out. “Even though 90% of the revenue for these industries still comes from theatrical showcasing, the growth of vernacular television in these regions has added much scope for movies to be made and sold.”
Tamil and Telugu cinema, on the other hand, Saksena added, are a potent mix of content-driven and star-centric projects. Unlike Bollywood, where the reign is limited to the three Khans, the south Indian language films boast of a number of stars. Besides of course, surprise successes like 2017’s blockbuster romantic drama Arjun Reddy, a modern Telugu language take on Devdas about a man whose failed love affair leads him to drink to self-destruction. The film earned in its first week double the Rs12 crore it cost to make.
“Over 2016 and 2017, there has definitely been a change (in regional content),” agreed Arjun Reddy director Sandeep Reddy Vanga.
Along with his own film, other recent Telugu movies like Pelli Choopulu, Ghazi and PSV Garuda Vega have enjoyed box office success, he notes. Baahubali 2, Vanga said, is a rarity that can only happen once in 10 or 20 years. Apart from theatrical exhibition, digital streaming platforms have helped in taking regional content to wider audiences and increasing the money-making avenues for producers.
But Vanga is cautious. “Only if we see such hits for three or four consecutive years, like about four films each year, then the kind of money and respect that is going to come to independent cinema will be almost comparable to commercial cinema,” Vanga said.