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The South Side Story

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In 2009, 53-year-old Siddique scripted a screen story and called it Bodyguard. Just a few months later, the director from Kerala got the story filmed in Malayalam, starring Dileep in the lead. Once shooting was completed, Siddique started remaking the movie in Tamil, titled Kaavalan, with superstar Vijay in the lead. Again, before the release of the film, Siddique took up the job of directing it in Bollywood with Salman Khan. Meanwhile, Siddique sold the rights for Telugu, Kannada and Bengali remakes.

Bodyguard went on to smash many records, and became the highest grossing story in the history of Indian cinema. In gross box office collections across languages, the movie amassed over Rs 415 crore. Here’s the breakup: Hindi Rs 230 crore, Tamil Rs 102 crore, Telugu Rs 55 crore, Malayalam Rs 20 crore and Kannada Rs 8 crore, according to industry estimates.

Bodyguard’s success is a watershed in the history of the south Indian film industry. Now, stories are adapted across languages and geographies, in a bid to explore untapped markets. In a small market like Malayalam, films are usually released in 40-60 screens, though scripts find takers in other languages. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, big budget movies are released in 500-600 theatres. In addition, they are also released in Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu belts, taking the number to around 1,000 theatres. Thuppakki, a Diwali release starring Vijay and Kajal Agarwal and directed by Ghajini-fame A.R. Murugadoss, was released in over a 1,000 screens. It became the biggest hit of the south this year, mopping up over Rs 100 crore in the second week of its release, thanks to Vijay’s fandom and sustained promotion. The other Tamil movie to have hit such a peak was Rajinikanth’s Endhiran (The Robot), which collected over Rs 300 crore in the first month of its release, according to its producers.
 
In South India, films now cut across geographies, exploring hitherto untapped markets
The south is showing the way. It not only provides Bollywood with talent and technicians, it also experiments with new business models. The Tamil industry, for instance, has become successful in selling its big budget movies across the south, some pockets in the north and a few countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, the UK and the US. Telugu does not have that wide a reach, but still enjoys a market that is around two-thirds the size of the Tamil industry.

Malayalam films may be limited to Kerala or, at the most, parts of West Asia, where a chunk of Malayalees live, but the rights for remakes are sold to other languages. Only Kannada cinema continues to struggle for size and reach.

The Budget Matrix
In 2011, 131 films were released in Tamil, with two super hits and four hits. Telugu saw 118 films, with one blockbuster (Dookudu) and  five hits. Malayalam had 87 releases with two super hits, while 104 films were released in Kannada, with five hits and one super hit, Saarathi. In 2012, 473 new films hit theatres in four south Indian states — Tamil (143), Telugu (113), Malayalam (126) and Kannada (91). Of this, a sizeable chunk accounted for movies that were not hero-centric, especially in Tamil which, ironically, has produced some of the biggest superstars in India. Today, movies with out-of-the-box plots and hyper-realistic content rule the roost. And most of these low-budget films (Rs 1.5-3 crore) have ensured high returns. Marina, Attakathi, Pizza and Oru Kal Oru Kannadi (Tamil); Eega and Ee Rojullo (Telugu); Ustad Hotel, Ordinary, 22 Female Kottayam and Thattathin Marayathu (Malayalam); and Addhuri (Kannada) are some of the big hits. This is a new trend in the history of the southern film industry, say analysts.

Megastars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan did not have a release in 2012. Telugu thespian Chiranjeevi too kept aloof, devoting himself to the political theatre. Malayalam superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal were active, but failed to deliver blockbusters. Big Tamil films with leading stars — Billa II (Ajith), Thaandavam (Vikram), Maattrraan (Suriya) and Mugamoodi (Jiiva) — bit the dust in 2012.
 
HALL OF FAME: (From left) Satyan, Prem Nazir (Malayalam); NTR (Telugu); MGR (Tamil) and Rajkumar (Kannada)

Now, content drives the movie at the box office, says Pushpa Kandaswamy, managing director of Kavithalayaa Productions. She is the daughter of legendary filmmaker K. Balachander. “People like to watch refreshing stories with unexpected twists. It is not important whether the movie is big budget.” For instance, the Rs 2 crore romantic comedy Oru Kal Oru Kannadi has grossed nearly Rs 16 crore from Tamil and Telugu markets. Marina, the story of two children doing odd jobs on the famous beach, had a budget of Rs 1.35 crore and raked in Rs 8 crore.

Telugu cinema saw one of its big budget flicks, Business Man, early in 2012. The Mahesh Babu-starrer, made on a budget of Rs 40 crore, grossed Rs 55 crore at the box office, says producers R.R. Movie Makers. R.R. Venkat, founder of R.R. Movie Makers, says, “We released Business Man in 1,600 theatres. This helped us make it profitable.” By mid-2012, another big production, Gabbar Singh, an adaptation of Dabangg, was released. Its producers claim that the Rs 30-crore film has grossed over Rs 100 crore, a record in Telugu.
 
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Venkat has an interesting philosophy. He says a movie needs to be either “big budget or small” to be successful. “There is no life for medium-budget movies.” He explains: “A big budget movie is usually over Rs 50 crore. If it is an average hit, it would gross around Rs 50 crore. After taxes and VAT, it will be deemed a flop. Only a super hit promises profits to the producer.” But such films always have a superstar and a premier team. So a good story and a wider release help. But in the case of medium-budget movies, the cost is Rs 6-20 crore. Often, they do not feature star actors or directors. Such films draw audiences in fewer numbers. Even if the content is good, the public will not get to see the film until three weeks after its release, by which time pirated CDs will flood the market, says Venkat.

Poor Cousins
Like in Tamil, new concepts and sensible scripts are yielding hits in Malayalam as well. All the latest blockbusters feature new actors and have budgets below Rs 3 crore. Ustad Hotel, starring newcomer Dulquer Salmaan, Mammootty’s son, collected Rs 8.5 crore at the box office, while 22 Female Kottayam was made on a budget of Rs 2.5 crore and went on to make Rs 5.2 crore.

Comedy drama Ordinary (Rs 3 crore) grossed Rs 15 crore, while another Rs 3 crore film, Thattathin Marayathu, collected Rs 10 crore. “Malayalam is the smallest movie industry in India,” says Mammootty. “The number of people who are regular film-goers is low here. A major chunk of our production costs comes from satellite rights, unlike in other languages,” he adds.

Further, while film buffs in other states find it difficult to understand Malayalam, people in Kerala watch movies in Tamil, Hindi and English, says Mammooty. “So, a big budget movie does not make sense for this industry. The total budget of a film made in Malayalam would constitute a slice of the pay a superstar gets elsewhere. So we focus more on content,” he adds. That said, two hit films from Dileep — Mayamohini (grossed Rs 20 crore) and My Boss (has earned nearly Rs 10 crore so far) — fared well.

Siddique complains about the lack of availability of theatres for release. “We could have released the movies in A, B and C class theatres for better collections. But the A-class theatre owners’ lobby opposed the move.”

The Kannada industry, too, is in the throes of a crisis. According to Madan Ram, a film analyst from Bangalore, the industry has been hit by the Tamil and Telugu onslaught. “Even new generation filmmakers in Kannada believe they won’t be able to match Tamil and Telugu movies. But there is a change in attitude now. This year saw confidence return,” he adds. Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna turned out to be the biggest hit of the year, grossing nearly Rs 40 crore. Kalpana, a remake of Tamil horror comedy Kanchana, was a low-budget hit, raking in Rs 10 crore on a spend of Rs 4 crore. The Rs 4 crore romantic film Addhuri collected around Rs 20 crore.

The Star Quotient
Despite the fact that content has become king, the ‘star’ remains a key factor in southern cinema. In 1998, Rajinikanth’s Muthu was dubbed in Japanese by the distributor Xanadoux as Muthu Odoru Maharaja and completed a 182-day run, grossing 200 million yen (Rs 12 crore) at the box office. Today, Rajinikanth has a large fan following across Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the US. Many say he is the highest-paid actor in Asia after Hong Kong’s Jackie Chan. Rajinikanth is learnt to have received a whopping Rs 40 crore for Endhiran. During the release of his film Kuselan in the US in 2008, candy maker M&M put the actor’s face on its chocolates. The movie performed poorly, but Rajinikanth’s fan following remained intact.

Rajinikanth belongs to an elite club of stars who can influence opinion in the south. Other stars have used their screen persona to enter politics. The most successful of the lot was, unarguably, Melakkath Gopalan Ramachandran or MGR, who became the first superstar-turned- chief minister of Tamil Nadu. In Andhra Pradesh, superstar Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao aka NTR founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982. NTR, who enjoyed a successful film career spanning three decades, became chief minister for three terms. Following in his footsteps is Chiranjeevi, who also had an eventful career spanning three decades. He founded the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in 2008, which was merged with the Congress in 2011. In 2009, he was elected to the state assembly from Tirupati constituency and the PRP emerged as the third largest party in the Andhra Pradesh assembly. After the merger, he was given a Rajya Sabha seat and made the Union minister of tourism in 2012.
 
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Politics is not the only off-cinema reason for which southern superstars make headlines. In 2000, when Kannada superstar Rajkumar (aged 72 then), his son-in-law Govindaraju and two others were abducted by forest brigand Veerappan, the state went into turmoil. Huge protest rallies and several suicide attempts ensued, prompting a massive manhunt. After 108 days, Rajkumar was released. Similarly, when MGR was shot at by co-actor M.R. Radha, the event triggered massive mob fury. His death in 1987 too triggered a similar outpouring, which saw some fans committing self-immolation.

In Kerala, major actors are treated as cultural icons. Many take up charitable causes through fan clubs. Except for superstar Prem Nazir, who was active in cinema from the 1950s through the 1980s, none of the superstars tried to enter politics. Nazir joined the Congress and campaigned in the elections but never contested. The current forest minister, K.B. Ganesh Kumar of Kerala Congress (B), is a popular character actor.

New Models
Clearly, the southern film industry is witnessing a shift. Today, stars shy away from articulating political views. The nexus between stars and politicians lacks the intensity and depth of yesteryear. For instance, Rajinikanth stayed away from politics, despite speculation about him forming a party or extending support either to DMK or AIADMK.

Like the change in the characteristics of its stars, the southern film industry’s experiments with new business models is giving rise to two new trends. Earlier, rich individuals funded movies under big banners; today professionally run production houses have taken over. Even the old warhorses have been forced to adapt to the times. Local moneylenders, who used to finance movies after checking the story and content and star lineup, have now turned to smaller productions, say industry observers.



Now, big banners buy call sheets of stars and then select a story jointly with major directors and technicians. The director and the lead actor play a key role in developing the story. If a production house fails to complete a movie due to cost escalation or other issues, it sells the half-made project to another banner. For example, Eros International and Ayngaran International sold the big budget Endhiran (The Robot) to Sun Pictures while the film was still on the production floor.

Sun Pictures, controlled by DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s nephew, Kalanithi Maran, was founded in 2008 and has produced over two dozen films so far. Most of these have been big hits. Even though Sun rose to be the most powerful film house in the state in just a few years, the telecom row seems to have taken a toll.

The new year will see two big releases. Rajinikanth’s Kochadaiyaan and Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam. Kamal Haasan, for his film, is trying a new strategy to make a quick buck. A few weeks ago, he announced that the film would be released on DTH (direct-to-home) a day before its theatrical premiere for Rs 1,000 per subscriber. While the move drew flak from theatre owners and distributors who felt it would hit ticket sales, Kamal Haasan said he would go ahead with the plan. It will be one-time-only show hours before the theatrical release. “It is a good opportunity to monetise my content without affecting the film. It is going to change the way the game is played,” he said. A section of multiplexes has threatened to boycott Vishwaroopam. Airtel, DishTV, Reliance Digital and Videocon have agreed to air the film on their network on 10 January, coinciding with the movie’s international premiere at Los Angeles. These four operators have 1.5 million subscribers. And Kamal hopes at least a third of them will watch the movie. This means he could be Rs 50-60 crore richer even before the release.

Will the move pave the way for similar ventures that could eventually change the way movies are distributed? Will the new trends  transform the industry? It is difficult to predict the end of the story just yet.

nevin(dot)john(at)abp(dot)in

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-01-2013)


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