Reams of stories have been written on why South Indian cinema is kicking Bollywood’s behind at the box office. And many more have been championing the ‘return’ of Bollywood thanks to SRK’s mad success. But the true advantage of South India lies in the numbers… of seats and screens.
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Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali
First, some numbers
In recent years, Bollywood has been mostly languishing in a sea of flops—while South Indian films chalked up unbelievable numbers at the box office. The stats are eye-opening:
- In 2022, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam flicks earned Rs 78 billion (7,800 crores)—accounting for 52% of all Indian film revenue. In comparison, Hindi language films earned only Rs 35 billion (3,500 crores).
- South Indian films have already beaten their pre-pandemic numbers by Rs 2-3 billion (200-300 crore)—while Bollywood and Hollywood are still struggling to recover.
- Seven of the top ten grossing films between 2020 and 2022 were from the South.
- Five years ago, Hindi language films accounted for 60% of the box office revenue in India. Today that number is around 37%.
- Last year, the collective share of South Indian films rose to a dizzying 50%—thanks to the success of ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ and ‘RRR’. As of July this year, it has dropped to 44%.
- That said, 2023 numbers don’t account for either ‘Jawan’ (Hindi) or ‘Jailer’ (Tamil)—or highly anticipated releases like ‘Salaar’ (Telugu).
- The South is also making more movies. The four language industries collectively released 998 films, while Bollywood managed only 194.
So what’s going on? Many arguments have been made—and unmade, mostly by Shah Rukh Khan—about the decline of Bollywood. Or the supposed superiority of South Indian cinema. Here are some of the most popular among them.
Argument #1: The OTT effect
The argument: The pandemic left everyone stranded at home and desperate for entertainment—and at a time when Bollywood was in lockdown. The Hindi language audience turned in desperation to movies in other languages—including the South Indian variety. Hence, the great success of ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ on Amazon Prime. Soon enough they were hooked—and haven’t looked back since. So by the time the KGF sequel hit the box office, all of India—including the North—was agog with anticipation.
The analysis: Yes, it is true that the pandemic made Indians more open to movies in other languages—be it Tamil or Korean. But it disproportionately affected Bollywood because it had come to rely entirely on the multiplex audience. Mumbai’s core business model had shifted to catering to the urban, upmarket audience:
What followed was the multiplex boom with a plethora of glossy urbane flicks patronised by westernised audiences with higher purchasing power. The high-ticket pricing allowed Bollywood’s movie business to profit from theatre (multiplex) earnings in metros with an audience that was willing to shell out more money for the ambience, snacks, etc., thus reducing their dependence on a hinterland audience.
This is also why smaller budget Hindi films became more interesting. But, but, but: the pandemic showed the same multiplex crowd—who now had subs to Netflix, Amazon Prime etc—that they didn’t need to get off the couch. That spelled great trouble for the likes of KJo or even Ayushmann Khurrana—but not so much Rajnikanth.
As for South India: The industry has always been all about the single screens. Their films have remained faithful to this audience. And why not? Just look at these numbers:
India has around 3.15 million (31.52 lakh) seats in around 8,700 screens across the country. Of this, four southern states have around 4,150 screens with a seating capacity of 1.8 million (18.16 lakh). That means states such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala have a share of nearly 47.78% in terms of screens, and 57.61% in terms of seating capacity.
This ‘whistle podu’ crowd loves going to the cinema for the big screen experience. And they are gonna be there for the big masala productions—executed with great style. When the pandemic ended, they were totally down with going to the movies—unlike the multiplex types.
No plagiarism please! For decades, Bollywood has relied on appropriating ideas from other industries—be it Hollywood or Tollywood. Action stars like Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar have built their careers on highly successful South Indian remakes:
Between 2000 and 2019, one in every three successful Bollywood films has been a remake, shows a Mint analysis. Ghajini (2008), the first Indian film ever to enter the Rs 100-crore club, was a remake of its Tamil namesake. Bodyguard (2011), Ready (2011), Singham (2011), Rowdy Rathore (2012), Son of Sardaar (2012) and Kick (2014) also mimicked the South India remake formula to enter the prestigious club.
But thanks to dubbing—again, popularised by streaming platforms—viewers in the Hindi heartland can watch the original. Take for instance, the abysmal failure of Shahid Kapoor’s ‘Jersey’:
Just as ‘Jersey’ was hitting the theatres, the Hindi-dubbed version of the Telugu original, which had the same name, was released on YouTube. It was more of a re-release. The film had already been on YouTube for some time, and Goldmines — the production company that had the rights to the dubbed version — cashed in on the marketing, and the Hindi version, whose box-office collections sustained a crippling hit.
As one industry watcher asks: “If you can see the original film dubbed so well in your preferred language, why would you want to watch a remake of that same thing in Bollywood?” Hollywood too has wisened up and started releasing its big action flicks in multiple languages—why not cash in rather than sell the rights to Bollywood.
Data points to note: The dubbing effect is the strongest on streaming platforms. About 50% of the audience for movies in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada come from outside their respective home states—and international viewers already account for over 20% of their total audience. FYI: West and north Indian states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi NCR accounted for 75% of viewership for dubbed South Indian films. Also: the share of regional language consumption on OTT platforms will cross 50% of total time spent by 2025.
Argument #2: Bollywood be too elite
The argument: The basic point is that South India had remained faithful to its single screen small town audience. Hence, the wild success of KGF, RRR etc. OTOH, Bollywood has lost its ‘Bharat’ moorings—and is being punished for it. Here’s how an industry analyst explains it:
It’s a very small example, let’s see a movie like Taapsee Pannu’s ‘Thappad’. It’s a perfect example of a multiplex film or an A-centre film. People coming to watch this in the cities would understand the sophisticated family life that we are looking at. But will the B and C centres connect to that film? I am not saying that every film should cater to the B and C centres, but it looks like slowly all films have started moving towards catering to just the A centres.
This is also the subtext of experts who complain Bollywood heroes no longer have “attitude”—that draws in the mass audience. And those who dismiss the likes of KGF as pandering to old-fashioned machismo. ‘Mass’ in this context stands for misogyny:
In the larger story of Hindi cinema’s struggle to win back audiences, a subplot is playing out. The slice-of-life cinema headlined by female actors is being edged out of the theatrical space. On the big screen, boys appear to be having all the fun, with action films like KGF: Chapter 2, RRR and Pushpa: The Rise- Part One making brawny spectacle the most successful formula.
But, but, but: This is a bit like comparing apples to oranges—big ticket blockbusters to smaller budget movies. Bollywood’s real problem has been that its blockbuster formula has been failing—until SRK came along. Look at the fate of poor Akshay Kumar—who has delivered five flops in a row. He’s tried everything from comedy to historical dramas and action adventure—all of them targeted at a mass audience. The latest one ‘Selfee’ failed despite the success of ‘Pathaan’—which suggests the problem isn’t with the audience, multiplex or otherwise. Akki isn’t losing out because he—or his audience—is too woke.
The analysis: That said, it is indeed true that Bollywood has a multiplex-driven biz model. And big hits like ‘Gadar 2’ showed that single screens can deliver success—contrary to popular Bollywood wisdom. But the multiplex focus is, in fact, a handicap for the distribution of South Indian films—and prevents them from achieving pan-India status.
The North India-dominated Multiplex Association of India (MAI) insists on an eight-week gap between a movie’s release and when it hits streaming. They need that lead time to make up their costs. But South Indian movies land on OTT platforms after four weeks. This is why the highly anticipated ‘Leo’—starring Vijay—didn’t get any screens at PVR-INOX or Cinepolis. The makers of ‘Leo’ had already sold the rights to Netflix. The same was true for Rajnikanth’s widely successful ‘Jailer’.
The bigger reason: for the South’s dominance is that it has a powerful and self-sufficient ecosystem. It doesn’t need the North. Again, see: ‘Jailer’ which made a staggering Rs 4.68 billion (468 crore)—while earning Rs 80 million (8 crore) in the rest of India over nine days after its release. This is why:
All the recent analysis of the South Indian film industry giving Bollywood a run for its money ignores a vital statistic—the South Bloc comprising Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam film industries has always been a prolific and profitable ecosystem unto itself. Supported by a vast network of single screens, enthusiastic viewers and popular film stars, South Indian cinema has always been a rather robust entity despite the craze around Bollywood films. It is for this reason that South Indian cinema has not merely survived, but actually thrived.
In little over a week, ‘Jailer’ made Rs 1.47 billion (147 crore) in Tamil Nadu, Rs 590 million (59 crore) in Andhra and Telangana, Rs 400 million (40 crore) in Kerala, Rs 520 million (52 crore) in Karnataka—and a whopping Rs 1.62 billion (162 crores) overseas.
Count the seats: Let’s loop back to those multiplexes. As we noted, South India accounts for 48% of a total of 8,700 screens across India. Of the rest, Maharashtra (1,000) and Gujarat (730) have the lion’s share. That’s because the South is dominated by single screens. But here’s the kicker: single screens also have more seats:
A large movie hall with around 800 seats is what comes to mind when you think of the single-screen theatres of the 1980s and 1990s. The movie exhibition scenario has changed in the last 25 years after India got its first multiplex in Delhi in 1997. Now, small is beautiful. According to a KPMG-FICCI report, multiplexes typically have lower capacity per screen when compared to a single screen theatre. Multiplexes have seating capacity of around 300, while the capacity of single screens even go up to 1,600.
Most of the theatres—with more than 1,000 seats are in South India—with the exception of Bengal. That’s a huge numerical advantage when delivering mega-hits.
The bottomline: Bollywood isn’t going to get its groove back by imitating ‘KGF’ or ‘RRR’. Rather, the success of ‘Jawan’ in the South suggests it may be able to woo a pan-Indian audience by being very much itself—with just the right splash of South Indian spice:)
Hindu Business Line has a great collection of data charts that sum up the South’s single screen advantage. For a balanced look at why the South is thriving, read Priyanka Sinha Jha in The Print. Outlook does a very good job of collating the views of industry experts. Mint is good at explaining why dubbed Hindi movies rarely do well in the South—this was before ‘Jawaan’ came along. Also in Mint: a comprehensive piece that lays out Bollywood’s lack of originality. Film Companion looks at how the multiplexes in the North are squelching distribution of South Indian movies. Also read: Our Big Story on how Netflix paid the price for misreading the Indian market.