What’s behind the success of the Hindi version of the Telugu movie Pushpa: The Rise? Sukumar’s crime drama was a slow starter in Telugu but an unexpected hit in Hindi. It has so far earned an estimated Rs 84.44 crore at the box office.

The Pushpa dub has connected with Hindi audiences in a way that even Kabir Khan’s cricket-themed 83 couldn’t. The December 17 release, the first in a two-part film, is now out on Amazon Prime Video.

The hero of the film, Allu Arjun, who at 39 is already a veteran of Telugu cinema, is being hailed as the latest crossover star. Prompted by this success, his 2020 movie Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is being dubbed and hastily prepared for a January 26 release in Hindi markets. This despite the fact that an official remake, titled Shehzada and starring Kartik Aaryan, is underway.

There are several theories about Pushpa’s commercial triumph. The most persistent explanation is that the Telugu production has the elements that Hindi cinema has been missing of late – stylishly filmed big-screen entertainment, thrilling action scenes, and an ultramacho hero who, despite jigging with a bar dancer, is faithful to his beloved.

Pushpa’s titular hero is certainly an unreconstructed male riposte to Hindi cinema’s frequently metrosexual and plasticky leading men. My name might mean flower but I am fire, Pushpa growls during his battles with various gangsters and a police officer.

Pushpa: The Rise (2021).

In the success of Pushpa and the Hindi dub of the Kannada crime drama KGF: Chapter 1 in 2018, there appears to be a nostalgia for Hindi films as they were perceived to be: a grand 70-mm package, simplistically plotted and morally uncomplicated, with heroes, heroines, villains and vamps who stick to their moulds rather than breaking out of them.

Is Pushpa’s success a passing fancy? A hunger for exotic fruit at a time when local produce isn’t as readily available? The fallout of at least three years of sustained propaganda against the Hindi film industry by Hindutva forces, which has led to what some observers describe as an “anti-Bollywood wave”? Or a significant shift in audience tastes that will further the cause of the pan-Indian movie?

The perils of film trade punditry were summarised by American humorist Will Rogers in an essay as early as 1928: “It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.”

Whether or not Pushpa’s rise will have lasting effects, what is certain is that the film has benefitted from years of assiduous groundwork. For decades, filmmakers from India’s various movie industries have been mixing and matching ideas and talent in their eternal quest for the box-office hit.

Devdas (1936), PC Barua’s Hindi remake of his Bengali film from 1935.

Since the 1930s, movies in Telugu, Tamil and Bengali have been remade in Hindi. At the same time, Hindi hits were retooled in other languages. With a few changes in the setting and a fresh cast and music, a movie could appear as good as new.

The traffic between Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad has been the busiest and produced one of the earliest crossover stars. Vyjayanthimala’s Tamil films in the 1940s and 1950s were remade in Telugu and later in Hindi. She spoke her own lines in the Hindi versions, rather than relying on a dubbing artist. Several Tamil and Telugu actresses followed her to the Hindi film world, from Waheeda Rehman and Padmini to Sridevi and Jaya Prada.

Vyjayanthimala in Bahar (1951), the Hindi remake of the Tamil-language Vazhkai (1949).

The journey is typically easier for actresses. They play a relatively diminished role in the Hindi film universe. Their energies are focused on looking beautiful and executing song-and-dance sequences, leading to an enduring showbiz legend that Southern actresses have Bharatanatyam in their blood.

The burden of shouldering a film’s narrative journey is nearly always borne by men who must look and sound the part. As a result, heroes from other language cinemas have found it more challenging to surmount the average Hindi filmgoer’s preference for clean-cut men with generic North Indian features and names.

The exceptions include Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in the 1980s. Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), K Balachander’s moneyspinning remake of his Telugu film Maro Charitra, briefly made Haasan a star in Mumbai.

Despite a few hits in the Hindi film world, Haasan remained a “Madrasi” – the pejorative term for just about anybody from the southern states. In Rajinikanth’s Hindi films, he was often a comic element with an undefinable accent and wondrous mannerisms.

Rajinikanth in Geraftaar (1985). Courtesy S Ramanathan.

The preference for women over men has been challenged by recent films. SS Rajamouli’s two-part blockbuster Baahubali (2015 and 2017), which was led by the Telugu actor Prabhas, the success of the Hindi dubbed version of the Kannada crime drama KFG, starring Yash, and Pushpa: The Rise indicate that an untested hero is no obstacle when a film is seen as compelling entertainment. If anything, the foreignness of the leads is part of the overall experience.

The true test of the Hindi filmgoer’s acceptance of non-normative heroes will be seen in the coming months with such films as Rajamouli’s RRR, led by Telugu stars Jr NTR and Ram Charan, and Puri Jagannadh’s Liger, made in both Telugu and Hindi and starring Vijay Devarakonda.

RRR and Liger have hedged their bets by casting Hindi talent – Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn in RRR and Ananya Panday in Liger. Not every film can be a Baahubali, which had only two actors familiar to Hindi audiences (Ramya Krishnan and Rana Daggubati). RRR and Liger also have universal themes – patriotism in the first, sports in the second.

RRR (2022).

The exercise can be pointless even when producers play it safe. Writer Ashokamitran, who worked in the publicity department of SS Vasan’s legendary Gemini Studios in Chennai, wrote about one such experiment in his memoir Fourteen Years with Boss.

“For the first time a Gemini film sported a real film star whom people in the north would readily recognise with a sigh or a gasp,” Ashokamitran writes with characteristic drollery about the Madhubala-starrer Bahut Din Huwe in 1954. (It didn’t work – the movie flopped.)

Two of the simplest ways to make South meet the Rest of India is dubbing or remaking a Southern hit in Hindi. When they work – Kabir Singh, the 2019 monster hit remake of Arjun Reddy, for example – they have been held up as further proof of Bollywood’s declining ability to come up with winnable material.

Dubbed movies have playing the role of introducing seasoned talent to new audiences. The success of Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Bombay in Hindi in the early 1990s are instances of how dubbing can break through barriers despite unknown faces and the visible mismatch between lip movements and dialogue.

Would Roja had worked if it didn’t have a nationalistic theme, didn’t explore Kashmiri militancy and didn’t have a score by AR Rahman? Similarly, if Bombay took Ratnam out of his comfort zone of Tamil Nadu, the movie’s setting was surely one of the reasons it clicked beyond the state.

Bombay’s exploration of the city’s worst communal riots following the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindutva mobs in 1992 – a national-level event – gave the movie a wider appeal. So did the casting of Hindi actress Manisha Koirala and yet another winning score by AR Rahman.

Manisha Koirala and Arvind Swami in Bombay (1995). Courtesy Aalayam Productions.

Dubbed films have also had a fruitful afterlife on television and YouTube. In the absence of quantifiable research, we have only anecdotal evidence and fan comments on YouTube videos to remind us that audiences can be more adventurous than filmmakers and trade pundits.

None of these efforts guarantee success for the remake or, that matter, the production simultaneously made in more than one language. Spurred on by Roja and Bombay, Mani Ratnam ambitiously filmed Aayuthu Ezuthu (2004) in Hindi as Yuva and Raavanan (2010) as Raavan. Despite casting Hindi actors, the remakes didn’t land with the same smoothness as Ratnam’s previous dubbed productions.

The joys of the culture-specific production, which defies the standardising compulsions of the all-India movie, can be preserved only through subtitling. But subtitling across the country’s many languages is even harder to pull off than dubbing.

The cult status accorded to such dubbed films as the Chiranjeevi-starrer Indra – The Tiger notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that a film made for a specific language culture will survive the journey to Hindi. There are several obstacles – the loss of cultural references, the quality of the Hindi dialogue and the dubbing, the lack of awareness about directors and actors who are stars in their own right. But when intent matches content, a blockbuster seems inevitable.

Indra – The Tiger (2002), the Hindi version of Indra.

With so many remakes, dubbed films and subtitled films on streaming platforms and YouTube, it sometimes appears that the Hindi film industry is the one running low on ideas and imagination. The Bollywood obituary, which has been written over the years and is revised whenever there is a new controversy, ignores the fact that the traffic is two-way. If Hindi producers keep a close eye on Southern productions, Hindi films too are remade in southern languages.

Filmmakers yearn for a pan-Indian film to improve their earnings and increase their cultural footprint. Until that happens, they can best rely on the dubbed movie, which often provides a deceptively fresh look at dated material.

Apart from its filmmaking pizazz, little is actually new about Pushpa: The Rise and that’s possibly why it has worked. We’ve seen it before and we can’t remember where, but we go along because sometimes, familiarity breeds comfort.

Also read:

‘Pushpa – The Rise’ review: Lots of style and a bit of substance

Lost in remaking? A Bhimsingh’s films found new fans in Hindi but are better viewed in Tamil

Rajinikanth in Hindi cinema: We awaited his wanton assault on our senses and were not disappointed