A staggering 1,907 films in 41 languages were certified in India in the 2015-16 timeframe. The Hindi-language industry led the way with 340 films, followed by Tamil with 291, Telugu (275), Kannada (204), Marathi (181) and Malayalam (168). The Indian film industry grew overall by 3% in the financial year 2016-17, but domestic theatrical declined from $1.6 billion in the previous year to $1.5 billion, according to the annual KPMG industry report. This is due to the continuing underperformance of Bollywood, which contributed just $575 million. The growth is largely powered by the regional industries led by Telugu- and Tamil-language productions, followed by the Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi and Gujarati languages.A telling indicator of the strength of regional cinema is April 28 release “Baahubali: The Conclusion,” the sequel to 2015’s “Baahubali: The Beginning” that collected $100 million worldwide. The Telugu-language film was also released in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi versions and grossed a mighty $81 million in its opening weekend, including $10.1 million in North America where it bowed in third place at the box office.
Regional films are also making waves on the international festival circuit. Vetrimaaran’s Tamil- and Telugu-language “Visaranai” (Interrogation) won the Amnesty Intl. award at the 2015 Venice Film Festival and was India’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.
“What regional cinema does really well is to tell stories rooted in its culture and is aimed at a specific audience,” says the mono-monikered Vetrimaaran. “In my opinion, this rootedness helps regional cinema travel globally. Hindi cinema, in trying to cater to multicultural audiences across India, loses that and sometimes becomes confused and generic.”
“Though it is a well-established classification of Indian cinema, regional cinema and Hindi cinema are not rivals in storytelling,” says Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, director of Malayalam-language “Sexy Durga,” which won the Hivos Tiger award at the 2017 Rotterdam film festival. “I feel that Hindi is only a medium of urban conversation. It is just a blanket to cover the hundreds of organic languages in India. In that sense Hindi has a limitation as a language. That is why it is natural that filmmakers choose a more biological language when they come across a subject which is more core to life.”
The Malayalam industry enjoyed a record 2016 with the top 10 films recording 25% growth from 2015. The industry’s “Pulimurugan” (2016) is the highest-grossing Malayalam is film of all time, collecting $23.6 million.
“It is a significant time when regional language films are finding viewers that extend beyond their traditional audience of those who understand the language,” says Anjali Menon, director of 2014 Malayalam hit “Bangalore Days.” “Today they have crossed borders and are reaching out to an important segment — domestic Indian audiences who are viewing these films with English subtitles.
“The multiplexes and online distribution platforms are bringing in audiences of different sensibilities and the ability to read subtitles is helping audiences tide over smaller cultural distinctions, thereby widening our existing markets. Many regional-language films are also being dubbed into multiple languages — after all, if James Bond can speak Telugu, surely our home-grown Indian characters can, too,” Menon adds.
“Bangalore Days” was remade in Tamil as “Bangalore Naatkal,” and Telugu- and Hindi-language remake rights have been sold as well. Proving Menon’s point is 2016 Marathi film “Sairat,” which became the industry’s highest grosser of all time with $17 million. Marathi films normally release on some 250 screens in the native state of Maharashtra, but “Sairat” received an all-India 500-screen release. Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi remake rights have been sold, with the Kannada version, “Manasu Mallige,” released in March.
“Sairat,” with no A-list stars, reflects a growing trend across the regional industries. Audiences are flocking to content-driven stories in addition to star vehicles. While most of these industries have a well-entrenched star system, low-budget films with no stars are rapidly tasting box-office success: 2016 Kannada film “U-Turn” and 2017’s Malayalam “Angamaly Diaries,” which introduced 86 newcomers, are recent examples.
While the Bengali film business is stagnating, the industry’s largest producer, Shree Venkatesh Films, is going strong.
“Bengali films today have been able to strike a balance between entertainment and aesthetics which is bringing results at the box office, eventually,” says Ravi Sharma, SVF president, films.
Recent SVF hits include “Byomkesh Pawrbo,” “Cinemawala” and “Zulfiqar.”
Regional cinema is also increasingly visible in international content markets. For example, sales and festival strategy outfit Basil Content Media is representing a plethora of regional languages at the Cannes market, including the Marathi “Half Ticket” and “Raakshas,” the Kannada “The Chronicles of Hari” and “Raju,” and the Tamil “My Son Is Gay,” besides the Hindi titles “Maroon,” “Agam” and “Bhasmasur.”
As Menon says, “At the end of the day everyone is on the lookout for the right story.”