By Dev Chandrasekhar and Dr Farhad Vijay Arora
It began as a Twitter “debate” between a Bollywood actor-director and a Kannada actor over Hindi’s alleged status as India’s national language, but then bubbled into an all-out transmedia brawl where scorns and emojis flew thick and fast among Bollywooders and the (mainly) Telugu-Kannada-Tamil film fraternity, with the odd politician adding hot spice to the mix.
Any analysis of banality serves little practical purpose, but this public outpouring of emotion and emoticon has brought into sharp focus a reality that Bollywood has been finding difficult to countenance and counter in recent years—that non-Hindi productions are consistently besting their Bollywood counterparts by a long mile.
If the success of the simultaneously produced Telugu-Tamil Baahubalis—the first was released in December 2015 and the sequel in April 2017—was noted with admiration and envy in Bollywood, the blockbuster collections of the Tamil RRR and Kannada KGF: Chapter 2, has forced Bollywood to take note and, hopefully, introspect.
“Hopefully” because the success of the Southern film industry is not an overnight flash-in-the-pan. Anyone who has worked on both sides of the Bollywood-South divide–one of the authors of this article indeed has–would have long anticipated this inevitability.
Bollywood has always had a lot going for it—its cosmopolitan ethos attracts the best of creative talent from all over the country and even overseas; its heritage stretches back several decades; it remains India’s entrepreneurial capital. Yet, for all the advantage Bollywood possesses, it has been trailing and falling behind the South at a foundational level—in content, production and, more importantly, discipline. The widening gap manifests itself in every phase of film-making: pre-production, production, and post-production.
Pre-production is the phase where the planning happens before the cameras roll. A common trait among Southern directors is to plan every shot in advance, and get an idea of the shooting flow. For him, a pre-shoot recce of the location is meant to achieve a purpose; it is not an excuse for leisure. Time, money, and creative effort are invested in story boards for every scene. For big-budget Southern productions, a combination of 2D-3D animated storyboards is fairly common, with a few things elements for last-minute improvisations. Mentally, the cast and crew are prepared well before the shoot, the idea being to minimize stress during shooting and ensure the productive use of the available finances.
Readers can study the publicly available clips in promotional behind-the-scenes footage on YouTube, and compare the shooting techniques. They might observe that the typical Bollywood starrer is rife with unplanned shooting and “spontaneous” on-floor direction, leaving much to be corrected in post-production, where supervision could easily be sub-standard. Apart from the obviously visible patchwork, common consequences are over-budgeting and extended deadlines.
The shared sense of responsibility and respectable conduct in Southern crews might be because their work culture is relatively grounded. Indulgences and debauchery do happen, but generally find expression post work. If a star wants, say, special food, the actor is free to arrange for his own food. Otherwise, apart from affordable extras such as fruit, everybody is offered the same non-fancy food. We don’t hear cases where a director takes the heroine for a special snack nearly 2,500 km away in a chartered flight, in the middle of an on-floor shooting shift, at the cost of the financier. It’s also less common Southern “A” grade directors to abscond and make the financiers a run around for their money. For sure, nepotism perhaps exists more in the south industry than in Bollywood, but it’s not taken for granted–star kids are made to level up and perform.
Even as recently as about 20 years ago, southern films were disparaged for their over-the-top conceptualization, tacky production techniques, and larger-than-life star actors. However, the current lot of southern stars generally aligns itself with substance in content and cutting-edge action through world class VFX production. Novel camera angles, slick editing, lavish productions, unique stories, tight screenplays, and sharp direction have spawned a new generation of followers among non-South audiences.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Bollywood, though. When demand slides, profit accrues as costs get rationalized and quality improves. The need to create mindful entertainment is being increasing felt in many Bollywood quarters. At the same time, the over-commercialization of Bollywood is now finding its way into the South. The same overconfidence and the lack of accountability in Bollywood, where financiers, producers, directors, distributors and exhibitors fight for their individual self-interests, is now being seen in Southern productions and even personalities–the actor who claimed that Bollywood cannot afford him, is one such example.
The bottom-line is that North or South don’t matter to India’s movie watchers, nor does the language the movie has been shot in–as long as it’s skillfully produced and provides quality experience. The real objective of cinema is artistic entertainment. Of a business, it’s profit. Southern cinema achieves plenty of both. Recent Bollywood has had little of either. The successes of KGF 2 and RRR should be celebrated by Bollywood too, not only because those movies are well-made and are raining big bucks, but also because Bollywood has a ready template to re-learn the art and joy of movie creation from its Southern counterparts.
(Dev Chandrasekhar is a brand transformation specialist; Dr Farhad Vijay Arora is an entertainment media strategist. The views expressed are personal opinions of the authors.)