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Journalism of Courage

What is powering South cinema: Decoding the success of Sita Ramam, Karthikeya 2 and Thiruchitrambalam

It’s almost as if the box-office lacuna of the past couple of years has been bridged in the South but this is not the narrative for Hindi films. Perhaps the latest Hindi releases were films made before Covid and the audience’s expectations have certainly leaned towards more interesting and “rooted” stories.

South Indian movies keep cash registers ringing at the box office.

It’s raining movies at the South box-office with many of the films garnering both numbers and acclaim. The same, however, cannot be said for Hindi releases so far and here’s a peek into the whys and wherefores. Beginning from August 12th, which saw the release of Karthi’s Viruman, directed by Muthayyah, till September 30 when Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 1 releases, the influx of films from the regional languages is causing a storm in theatres. And the good news is that some of the big budget, directorial and star-led heavyweight films are vying for our attention and getting them too.

Tamil film Viruman opened big (for a non-pan-Indian film, thus breaking the by-now stagnant trend) in this long list of films lined up in the South movie-marathon. The core which worked with the audience is that of a macho, emotional father and son saga (played by a resentfully effective Prakash Raj and Karthi in his most populist “Madurai” avatar) with a good soundtrack (Yuvan Shankar Raja). The song Kanjapoo Kannalla by Sid Sriram heralded a comeback for the music director too. This “family entertainer” did a big round in all major cities in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka and within a week emerged on top of the TN box-office. The success of this film, which is not a fantasy tale or larger-than-life narrative, brought back a semblance of how a regular story can also work for a collective diverse audience.

That Friday also saw the release of two “experimental” Malayalam films which began as “only Kerala ” releases but because of the stupendous music and trailers, the films saw additional screens across Kerala borders. Ratheesh Balakishnan’s Poduval’s Nna Thaan Case Kodu has a story native to Kerala and a never-before-seen “look and performance” from Kunchacko Boban and this film also had a super-hit remix of the erstwhile Mammootty song Devadhoothan Padi. This new “remixed song” became viral because of Bobban’s staccato moves and “vibing” to the rhythm, which has now become a signature style of dancing. The other Malayalam film, Khalid Rahman’s Thallumaala, is a new-age “action-comedy entertainer” starring Tovino Thomas and Kalyani Priyadarshan, which caught people’s fancy as it was “experimental” in its narrative and had adrenalin-thumping stunt sequences, overall style and original soundtrack. These films are auteur-driven and cannot be classified as pan-Indian or remake-worthy and that is good for regional cinema, where one view that region’s culture (and by culture one does NOT mean age-old nativity but what the story or locale of the film represents) and its people and get into their world.

Kunchacko Boban in Nna Thaan Case Kodu.

If Tamil and Malayalam are rocking then Telugu cinema delivered a double whammy with Sita Ramam and Karthikeya 2. Dulquer Salman leads the queue of pan-Indian stars because he genuinely does films in each language based on him liking a particular story and takes the effort to learn the language and revels in his performance which reaps rich rewards. Ranbir Kapoor or Aamir Khan, on the other hand, can speak the local language in dubbed voices and opine on actors and filmmakers to VJs in South India to cover a certain market segment, but that does not constitute a pan-Indian film.

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Malayalam actors tend to do this language-hopping easily. Kamal Haasan was the only actor before this Prithviraj-Fahadh-Dulquer brigade who played “hero” in all his films in other languages also primarily because he spoke the language of the film he acted in. This gives a hero credibility (unless one is a Yash and the film is KGF) and paves the way for Dulquer to give his first 50cr+ blockbuster Sita Ramam which was bankrolled by powerhouse producers Vyjayanti Movies. Here again, Vishal Chandrashekar’s soundtrack reached far and wide ahead of release and the emotional love story carried the film across screens where people were falling in love again with a star pair. Filmed in an aesthetic manner and with a stellar supporting cast (Prakash Raj proving his mettle across languages as well) Sita Ramam was also promoted across regions as this emotional biggie which was sure to tug your heart strings. Karthikeya 2, the other Telugu film to do well during the Independence Day weekend is a sequel to its fantasy predecessor and was also the sole fantasy action film against the otherwise emotional family dramas.

Speaking of family dramas – one film that was released on August 18 which is all heart, all goodness and rooted in old-fashioned friendship, laughter and feel-good romance is Thiruchitrambalam starring Dhanush, Nithya Menen, Prakash Raj and veteran filmmaker Bharathiraja. The film which saw a solid opening also thanks to Anirudh Ravichander’s music, which became hugely popular for its Ilayaraja-esque appeal, harks the return of the “ordinary man and woman” back to film screens. It’s laudable to see Sun Pictures back a film which is high on real relationships and moments without a single “heroic/false” note. That a Dhanush who’s fresh from a Hollywood release would agree to a simple role like this, where the focus is so much not on his character alone, will perhaps set a healthy trend. The film boasts of an outstanding performance from Prakash Raj (who seems to be in almost all the box-office hits across languages this year) and the pattern with the music of the film playing a key role in bringing footfall to the theatre seems to be sealed with this film.

Ponniyin Selvan is helmed by Mani Ratnam.

What we can see is how cinema need not be a mere spectacle anymore for it to work at the box-office. When a star like Dhanush backs a film which is not “pan-Indian” in any aspect but it is global in its emotional appeal, one knows that there is hope for small films with a big heart and a manner of story-telling which does service to only the hero and no one else.


Laal Singh Chaddha was a film like that. It came without any trappings except that it was a Forrest Gump remake and it did have the ingredients which have made the above South films win. It also had good performances, and a pan-Indian narrative but it couldn’t wield its muscle against external powers at play. Going forward, we have even bigger films surging forth from this side of the Vindhyas as they say. There is Ajay Gnanamuthu’s Cobra starring Vikram with music by AR Rahman, speaking of whom one has to say that this is his busiest year with three film releases. Rahman has Cobra which arrives on August 31, followed by Gautham Menon’s Simbu-starrer Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu on September 15 and this is followed by the biggest of them all, Ponniyin Selvan 1 on September 30.

Mani Ratnam and Gautham Menon have films releasing in the same month with music by Rahman. This is the first time for two cult filmmakers (separated by a generation) to compete for screen time. Also, music is a calling card for both Ratnam and Menon, especially with Rahman giving a tough run to other singers with his rendering of songs in PS1 and VTK. Music is the single best hype for any film. Be it Megam Karukkaadha Penne Penne from Thiruchitrambalam sung by Dhanush (which also marks the return of the Dhanush-Anirudh combo that had #DnA trending online) or Kaalathukkum Nee Venum sung by Simbu in VTK, the music industry has also seen a spike in recent months.

It’s almost as if the box-office lacuna of the past couple of years has been bridged in the South but this is not the narrative for Hindi films. Perhaps the latest Hindi releases were films made before Covid and the audience’s expectations have certainly leaned towards more interesting and “rooted” stories as they’re now more exposed to both a variety in genre and international filmmaking standards. As Anurag Kashyap mentioned in an interview, “It’s not as if all films releasing in the South are doing well and it’s not as if Hindi films are catering to diverse, rooted voices either”. An understanding of why a film does not do well is key in determining what kind of content a producer can back next. Malayalam cinema seems to have hit a balance between hero-centric mass films and its experimental ones – Prithviraj Sukumaran is having a dream run at the box office with films of both genres collecting Rs 50 crore plus across languages. Keeping a story “rooted” doesn’t mean making a village film. It merely means that a film is kept true to its world, its genre and its people. This along with good filmmaking standards will ensure that any type of story will make us happy. After all, we are all storytellers in our own way, aren’t we?

First published on: 27-08-2022 at 08:04 IST
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