The Newtonian law of gravitation dictates that apples fall from the tree to the ground, but in my world people go upwards instead of downwards, declares Rocky, the anti-hero of Prashanth Neel’s K.G.F: Chapter 2. The self-mythologising gold smuggler was speaking about himself, but he could equally have been a Hindi film industry analyst in Mumbai, watching Rockyesque counter-gravitational forces at work.
In 2022, Bollywood seemed to be Follywood. Movies that would have been shoo-ins only months before collapsed. A-listers punched below their weight. Dubbed films from the South swept the Hindi box office, inspiring trade gurus to announce the dawn of the “pan-Indian film”. Web series and movies released directly on streaming platforms found ready audiences.
The Hindi film industry resembled the men who had the misfortune of crossing Rocky’s path – bruised, bloodied, and missing a limb or a few teeth.
The first K.F.G (2018) was a sleeper hit despite starring an actor (Kannada star Yash) previously unknown to Hindi audiences and released with minimal fanfare. The fate of the sequel mirrored Rocky’s dizzying rise, with the Hindi version of the Kannada production taking in an estimated Rs 427 crore.
This astonishing haul left its competitors far behind. The closest that any other film came to K.G.F: Chapter 2 was the dubbed RRR (around Rs 260 crore), followed by The Kashmir Files (roughly Rs 250 crore) and Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva (approximately Rs 230 crore).
Box office punditry had long overtaken any substantial conversation about the quality of the films themselves. In 2022, Ram Gopal Varma’s sage observation in his memoir Guns and Thighs: The Story of My Life fell on deaf ears: “The fact that a film has good collections does not necessarily mean people liked it more than films that collected less. It only means that more people saw it.”
Trolls given to mindlessly bashing Hindi movies found themselves aligned with industry insiders who despaired over the disappearance of certainties. Such dependable ticket sellers as Ranveer Singh (Jayeshbhai Jordaar: Rs 14 crore) and Kangana Ranaut (Dhaakad: Rs three crore) came a cropper. The question of whether actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Taapsee Pannu are better off in the streaming space inevitably followed the poor performance of their theatrical releases.
The debate over sky-high salaries gained new vigour. The Bollywood dream factory’s assembly line approach, which had held it in good stead until the coronavirus pandemic, became untenable overnight, causing hand-wringing as well as schadenfreude.
People willingly queued up for nearly every “South ki picture” and regarded formulaic Bollywood fare with unusual suspicion. An early challenger was Telugu director Sukumar’s surprise hit from late 2021 – the Hindi dub of Pushpa: The Rise, about a low-ranking smuggler who becomes a crime lord. Elements from Pushpa are still floating around in popular culture – lines uttered by its devil-may-care hero, his throat-slitting gesture to his rivals, the popular song Oo Antava – suggesting that the Telugu movie has a stickiness that its Hindi rivals have struggled to replicate.
The Pushpa effect surely helped films like the star-crossed period romance Sita Ramam, which raked in Rs 8 crore despite the Hindi version being released a whole month after the Telugu film played with subtitles across India.
Kartikeya 2, dubbed from the Telugu, was released in Hindi with zero advance warning during the lucrative Independence Day week. The film earned roughly Rs 30 crore. Kartikeya 2’s Hindi cousins Raksha Bandhan and Laal Singh Chaddha, which were released on a wider scale, made a tepid Rs 45 crore and Rs 60 crore.
Not everything from the South worked. Not every Hindi film felt flat on its face. If Bhediya, starring Varun Dhawan, underperformed at an estimated Rs 60 crore, Jugjugg Jeeyo, in which Dhawan shared the screen with Anil Kapoor, Kiara Advani and Neetu Kapoor, made a more respectable Rs 85 crore.
Yet, the sound of panic buttons being hit could be heard in the Mumbai air alongside the drone of drilling machines engaged in endless road repairs. Bollywood visibly ran for cover in 2022, partly because of unpredictable post-pandemic consumer behaviour and partly because of its adherence to some of the Biblical deadly sins.
If vainglory and sloth led to smug movies that made little effort to deliver the goods, greed and gluttony resulted in bloated productions that struggled to recover needlessly high landing costs. Envy – about everything else that had worked for reasons that have still not been properly understood – was surely the prevailing feeling across the family-held studios and corporate companies that constitute Bollywood.
Who could have predicted the success of Rishab Shetty’s Kantara, which roared into view in Hindi a whole fortnight after being released in Kannada with subtitles? Shetty’s film had a theme that would have been scoffed at in Mumbai’s writing rooms – a rustic hero who defeats his adversaries by invoking folkloric beliefs in an ancient deity. Yet, Kantara yet packed cinema halls precisely because of this theme.
The golden run of dubbed films has been attributed to behavioural changes sparked by the pandemic. Strafed by inflation, frozen salaries, the threat of layoffs and wider anxieties over the precarious state of the Indian economy, audiences demanded from filmmakers the same blood-and-sweat rigour that they were being forced to show at their workplaces.
Compared to their Hindi counterparts, Southern filmmakers appeared to be toiling harder at respecting the money and time being bestowed on them. Whatever the quality of the dubbed films, there is no denying the commitment involved in presenting the formulaic elements that constitute entertainment.
Whether it was in the staging of scenes or the choreography of song sequences, Southern directors exuded an unselfconscious passion and joy often missing in films that originated in Mumbai. By contrast, Hindi filmmakers appeared lazy, anodyne and removed from the altered realities of post-pandemic India.
Bollywood, which specialises in segmented films aimed at audience sub-groups, found itself under-equipped to roll out the one-size-fits-all, simplistic and unpretentious XXL-sized entertainer. Adept at gossamer fantasies, Bollywood was forced on the rebound in a year that laid greater emphasis on earthiness.
If Depression-era audiences in America in the 1930s gravitated towards escapist musicals, Hindi viewers in the present seem to want cathartic narratives that have identifiable roots in Indian social traditions.
Dubbed films were steered by virile working-class men who worshipped their mothers, were contemptuous of entrenched elitism, and created their own rules as they went along. These movies reflected the times in which a purported tea seller could become a prime minister – the outsider who became the ultimate insider.
There were glitches in this matrix. At a time of sustained censorship, where harmless memes can result in a jail term or democratic dissent is crushed through draconian laws, the antics of movie anarchists taking a Kalashnikov into Parliament (K.G.F: Chapter 2) or slaying upper-caste feudals (Kantara) surely struck a rebellious note, however unintended.
If anything linked the Southern raiders and Bollywood hits, it was familiarity. Nearly every one of 2022’s big earners came from a place that we had been to before, had loved, and wanted to revisit.
Every one of the Southern dubbed films parleyed the newfound willingness of Hindi filmgoers to ignore the mismatch between the dialogue and the lip movements of actors. RRR, dubbed into Hindi from Telugu, went a step further. The film by Baahubali creator SS Rajamouli built on pre-existing audience awareness of the Telugu director’s skill at creating visual effects-heavy, comic book-style gobsmackers.
Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, a partisan account of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, built on Agnihotri’s previous screeds Buddha in a Traffic Jam and The Tashkent Files as well as spoke to a growing Right-wing viewership that demands an alternate telling of recorded history.
Both Drishyam 2, a remake-sequel to the popular remake from 2015, and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, the follow-up to the 2007 hit, returned audiences to well-trod territory. (The numbers backed up the decision to rinse and repeat: an estimated Rs 185 crore for Bhool Bhulaiya 2, and Rs 210 crore and counting for Drishyam 2).
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, which clocked an impressive Rs 124-odd crore despite being a solo heroine-led film, differed in its subject matter from his previous ventures. Yet, Gangubai Kathiawadi was identifiably a blast from the Bhansaliverse, which is stacked with larger-than-life characters, visually sumptuous window dressing, and old-fashioned storytelling modes.
Perhaps the only outlier on this list was Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva, which was unlike anything Mukerji has made before. The fantasy drama, in which the journey of Ranbir Kapoor’s superhero features impressive visual effects, traced its legacy to Hollywood’s Marvel films, rather than Indian productions.
With the pandemic still not fully behind us, and the economy continuing to be unsettled for the next few years, it’s anybody guess what Bollywood’s next moves will be like. Among the safer predictions is that movie stars will slash their rates. Production budgets could get mature rather than magical.
Unthinking remakes could lose their appeal, given their availability on streaming sites. Stay-at-home entertainment has become the elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored.
Why spend on a ticket when you can watch a film in your pyjamas a few weeks after its release? Only increased windows between theatrical release dates and streaming premieres will remedy this harsh truth.
Bollywood is going to the mattresses with some of its fighters otherwise occupied. Several of Hindi cinema’s leading filmmakers are busy with direct-to-web series. Some of them are, in fact, better suited to long-form storytelling than the challenges of exploring limited story arcs.
Producers wary of unstable box office returns are sending their films directly to streaming platforms. Unwilling – or unable – to fight, they are opting to flee, handing over the arena to more dubbed films, remakes and the few brave souls who continue to value the big-screen experience.
The result of Laal Singh Chaddha was stark enough to send its actor-producer Aamir Khan to announce a sabbatical. Meanwhile, Akshay Kumar, who headlined Raksha Bandhan and a few other medium performers, will appear in several films in 2023 in the belief that Hindi cinema’s woes – and his own slump – are temporary.
Kumar’s optimism might well win the day. But the field is more crowded than before. The balance of power has irrevocably shifted. The snobbery towards dubbed films has disappeared, to be replaced by a reverse snobbery.
Yash is a household name, as is Allu Arjun. Rashmika Mandanna (who co-starred in Pushpa: The Rise) is seeking a Bollywood career, as is Samantha, who performed Pushpa’s Oo Antava song. Directors we hadn’t heard of this side of the Vindhyas are travelling to Mumbai to work with Hindi movie stars.
If 2021 was the Age of Akshay, 2022 was ruled by Rocky’s non-rules. As Rocky declared in K.G.F: Chapter 2, speaking for himself and the larger reality of present-day Bollywood: “Greed is good. Greed is progress.”