Gabbar has returned, and so has the Southern action movie that has held Bollywood studios in thrall for the past few years.

The May 1 release Gabbar is Back, directed by Krish and starring Akshay Kumar, is a remake of AR Murgadoss’s 2002 Tamil hit Ramanaa. The vigilante drama, about a professor who runs a hit squad comprising former and present students that targets and kills corrupt government officials, is the latest remake of a Tamil or Telugu blockbuster. The list has been swelling since 2008’s Ghajini, and includes Wanted, Rowdy Rathore, Singam, Holiday, Policegiri, Kick and Tevar.

Also part of the same crop are titles that are not direct remakes but emulate their spirit, such as Dabanngg, R...Rajkumar and Action Jackson. These films have mildly different storylines but several similarities. All of them feature ultra-macho, supremely fit, magnetic, witty and honest saviours of society who have been put on the planet for the sole purpose of ridding it of evil. These movies seek to evoke the supposedly unpretentious pleasures of those innocent times when men were unreconstructed and women knew their place. Remakes across languages and genres have been a feature of Indian cinema from early in its history, but there are a few reasons why this particular strain of the action drama has spread through Bollywood.

They're tried and tested
Logic dictates that a movie is ready for a remake only if it has worked in its original language. Hindi filmmakers starved of potential winners have found a steady pipeline of ready-made and entertaining plots and treatments from the South, especially the Tamil and Telugu industries. Southern films come to Mumbai after they have been tried out and tested not just in their own territories but also in neighbouring states. Ghajini and Singam were hits in Tamil Nadu as well as in dubbed versions in other Southern languages. Pokiri was remade in Hindi after being a success in Telugu and in its Tamil remake, also called Pokiri. The original version of Rowdy Rathore, Vikramarkudu, was first remade from Telugu into Tamil as Siruthai. However, not all remakes work. The flops include 2013's Policegiri and this year’s release Tevar, a reworking of the Telugu hit Okkadu.

“Remakes from Telugu and Tamil in Hindi connect to larger sections of audiences,” cutting across single screens and multiplexes, said Suniel Wadhwa, co-ordinating producer at Boney Kapoor Productions, which produced Wanted and Tevar, and an independent distributor. “The most important factors are the star cast and the budget,” he added. “We regularly track South films when they are releasing, and we evaluate whether they have the potential for a remake, keeping the sense and sensibility of audiences and their tastes.”

They've got a formula 
The Southern mass action movie has a simple recipe that can be easily served up in other settings. The storyline is comic-book basic: a valiant hero steps in to save the city or the nation from disaster. His actions are off the books, but are justified since his only motive is the greater common good. These movies strive to keep the classes and the masses sated. They have elaborately choreographed and fantastical action sequences (bodies fly, bullets are dodged, bones crunch loudly), a few comedy moments, a romantic interlude, a speech here and there to justify the presence of violence, and an item number.

The adversaries include terrorists, corrupt politicians, the police force, venal businessmen and local thugs, and give or take a few details, all of them have the same tendencies. These nasty men (and occasionally, women) run vast empires of evil that put common people at grave risk. Enter our hero, who single-handedly restores the balance.

“The story has to be simple enough for everybody to understand,” said Hemanth Kumar, a Hyderabad-based film journalist with the Times of India. “The mix is of action and comedy, and the bottom line is to entertain people. You know what to expect as a member of the audience. Even the villain is an entertaining character.”

There’s a reason Indian cinema is content with Hollywood rolling out superhero spectacles. Our lawless locals without capes, masks and latex suits work just fine. It’s like the 1980s action movies, but with better mounted action, greater attention to dialogue, and an improved showcasing of its leading men.

They've got pumped-up heroes
The mass action movie is a virility test for male stars. It showcases an actor’s physical prowess like no other genre, and provides the ultimate test of his invincibility at the box office. Bravado is displayed in billboard size, with the hero depicted as someone who is capable of demolishing his enemies without assistance, advice or interruption. Apart from being physically and mentally indestructible, he is also the epitome of cool, and a magnet for women, men and kids. He is brain plus brawn, and can deliver punchlines as smoothly as punches. He is knight and clown. Since he usually a lawbreaker (for a good cause, of course), he is crooked enough to appeal to viewers who are bored of the goody two-shoes heroes of yore.

No obstacle is too great for this ubermensch, whether it is a gang of heavily weaponised gangsters or a terrorist so dastardly that even Interpol has given up on him. The villain, in fact, is usually a pushover, with lots of bluster but little action, and crumbles easily when confronted with the finest specimen of Indian stud-dom that screenwriters could dream up.

The heroine knows her place in this testosterone feast. She is mostly an open-mouthed cheerleader and occasionally a trigger for the violence. There is absolutely no danger of a female co-star eclipsing the hero’s achievements in the action flick. She supplies the requisite dose of glamour and shows up or speaks only when required. She knows where she belongs, which is not what can be said about the rest of the dramas, biopics, love stories, and comedies that flood the cinemas week after week.

They make anarchy cool
A larger cause is usually offered as the excuse for the often spectacular violence. In order to justify the savage pummelling of fellow humans, some of whom have rods and other metallic objects inserted into them, the unmasked superhero needs to confronted with an issue so massive that it threatens the very foundation of the nation. Salman Khan’s undercover cop from Wanted is described in the movie as an exterminator who is freeing society of termites (terrorists and criminals). In the Hindi remake of Singam, titled Singham, Ajay Devgn is the last honest cop standing. The solutions are as extreme as the problems are endemic. Gabbar is Back promotes death as a ready solution to corrupt government officials: if you can’t prosecute them, you are completely justified in swinging them from the nearest lamp post.

Such movies provide cathartic solutions to widespread corruption in the public and private sectors. They address concerns over a perceived collapse in law and order and a lack of faith in authority figures. This disgruntlement has been simmering in the movies since the 1970s, and the new action hero is an upgraded version of the unemployed and exploited good man forced by circumstances to break the law. The departure from older action flicks is that the new superhero is a movie star playing a screen star. He alternates between a smirk and a twinkle, has a sculpted body that is exhibited in loving detail, and displays an individualistic attitude to justice. The action formula has been boiled down to its bare-bone elements, with none of the niceties or due processes that used to also be part of the territory. The moral compass is in the hands of one man, and like God, in him we must trust.