As Baahubali 2: The Conclusion crosses Rs 550 crore nationally, filmmakers across the country are gearing up to tell their stories in multiple languages. But will they crack the winning formula?
Kunal Guha (MUMBAI MIRROR; July 9, 2017)

When Kamal Haasan was green lighting the cast for his next, Sabhash Naidu, a trilingual being shot simultaneously in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, he decided that the Hindi version (titled Sabhash Kundu) would have Saurabh Shukla replace veteran comedian Brahmanandam. He felt that, apart from having a familiar face, “in a comedy, jokes can’t be bluntly translated”. “Those who watch Shabash Kundu, will savour the very different flavour of Sabash Naidu, because these are two different films being made together to save cost. If I made them separately, it would cost me Rs 80 crore, and I would find it difficult to convince my buyers. No single version idea can match a double version when it comes to number crunching,” explains Haasan, who is also directing Vishwaroopam 2, a bilingual that will release in Hindi as Vishwaroop 2.

Until recently, for most Hindi film audiences, the relationship with Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu films was restricted to the dubbed versions that aired on the telly. But, with Baahubali’s meteoric success, regional filmmakers are gearing up to capitalise on their newfound equity by transcending linguistic boundaries — by either dubbing or simultaneously filming in multiple languages. That their films can gain national resonance when told in a language familiar to them has led to multi-linguals such as House Next Door starring Siddharth and Andrea (Tamil, Telugu and Hindi), Sudhir Babu’s biopic on Pullela Gopichand (Telugu and Hindi) and Krish’s untitled film, which will star a Bollywood biggie alongside a South Indian superstar. “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion instilled great confidence in filmmakers not just from the Telugu industry, but also others... it became the first truly Indian franchise,” says Rana Daggubati, who earned national acclaim for his performance in the two-part fantasy film.

While the recent spurt of bilinguals can be credited to national box office numbers, the trend isn’t novel. Film historian Theodore Baskaran remembers Chandralekha (1948) as one the first regional films to be remade in Hindi with largely the same crew, following the success of the Tamil version. “Till the reorganisation of states on linguistic basis, Madras was the headquarters of the South Indian film industry. All artists, writers, filmmakers lived in Madras. So it was very easy to remake a film in Malayalam and Telugu, as a majority of artists could speak the language. This is how bilinguals came into being.” Baskaran adds that multi-language films of the time were mostly mythologicals. “Earlier, filmmakers recorded the sound as they were shooting. When they were able to record sound separately, dubbing into multiple languages was possible.”

The Baahubali effect
Aalif Surti, Former CCO at Fox Star Studios India and an independent producer, says that Baahubali worked because “it tapped into the fantasy genre and connected with a certain pride that we have in our tradition”. “There are 20 people who are trying to make the next Baahubali, but in my sense, 19 of them will lose money. A few directors such as S Shankar, (A R) Murugadoss and (S S) Rajamouli can handle pan Indian cinema. I call it pre-verbal cinema — the James Cameron kind — image-driven with very simple storytelling,” says Surti, adding that he’s skeptical about whether Prabhas will get the same acceptance in a regular Hindi film, or can even compete with actors from Bollywood. “It worked because audiences connected with his character. Going ahead, there will be some dent but it will be minimal because the national audience has limited information about actors from Tamil and Telugu films. When Karan Johar launched Alia Bhatt, there was a whole ecosystem of information accessible to all — about her childhood and life. With Vijay, for example, you wouldn’t get that information. If they [actors from the South] have to get into Bollywood, they would have to move to Mumbai and invest time in PR,” adds Surti.

Shibasish Sarkar, COO, Reliance Big Entertainment, whose studio is producing A R Murgadoss’ Spyder, a film, which will either be dubbed or simultaneously shot in Hindi, is bullish about the opportunity at hand. “Films have been dubbed for a long time, but not at this scale. Initially, we would only cater to a specific segment. But Baahubali has taught us that if you create a spectacle on the screen, people will ignore the fact that the cast is known or not and it can be dubbed into the national language and will reach every corner of the country,” says Sarkar, adding that Commando 2 and Naam Shabana were recent films which offered that opportunity as the cast (Vidyut Jamwal, Adah Sharma and Taapsee Pannu) were known in South India. But the renewed box office worth and familiar faces at the helm are not the only triggers. In fact, Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, feels that big-budget spectacles are not the only kind to work across markets. He says, “There are also films which may not be a crossover like Baahubali, but manage to spread the risks by having an economical design.” Case in point, The Ghazi Attack — a multi-lingual starring Kay Kay Menon, Rana Daggubati and Atul Kulkarni — familiar names from Hindi cinema. “Fundamentally, you attempt a smarter input to output design where you’re spreading your costs over a larger market. If your stories can travel, your costs can cover multiple markets.” Andhare says such films can be shot across languages without being a production nightmare. “You already have the set, so you shoot your close-ups in both languages and your long shots and your wide angles can be common.”

Language barriers
That a few movies have done phenomenally well across languages doesn’t mean every film is eligible to be shot in multiple languages, or dubbed. “It is not about riding on the trend but about finding the right story that appeals to the whole country. A visual or an action film has a better chance of appealing to a cross-section of people across India than, say, a love story,” says Ajit Thakur, CEO, Trinity Pictures, a division of Eros International. His studio is backing two Indo-Chinese coproductions directed by Kabir Khan and Siddharth Anand, and two Tamil-Hindi bilinguals — a buddy cop film directed by Krish Jagarlamudi (of Gabbar is Back fame) and an elephant-themed film helmed by Tamil director Prabhu Solomon. “In Krish’s film, we have the same set of actors, but in Solomon’s film, we are changing the actors, it depends on the requirements of the role and the script,” says Thakur, who feels that “opting for a co-production is a strategic decision that warrants various filters at the script level”.

Hassan, who has been a part of several bilinguals (Hey Ram, Abhay), believes that “the more ethnic and honest a film is, the chances of it transcending national and even international borders are higher”. “I would not like Phogat of Dangal to speak in Tamil, or watch Mughal-E-Azam or Pakeezah in Malayalam or Kannada, Gujarati or Marathi,” says Haasan, who finds multi-linguals to be more lucrative than dubbing, as “dubbed films misrepresent culture and make viewers smile and frown at the wrong time”.

Fault in our stars
That Indian cinema unites over hero-worship becomes a barrier in transporting stories from one region to another. “When a Hindi film is star-led, it has never been able to make a dent down south. Equally, stars from South have never managed the same following in Bollywood that they have back home,” says Andhare, who feels that “universal content like a Hindi Medium, Queen and Pyaar Ka Punchnama will go cross culture but films with a regional aesthetic won’t translate well”. “Surya and Vijay have a big market in Tamil and Telugu but their films don’t translate well in Hindi. Even Mohanlal recently delivered 100-crore hit but his films mean nothing in the Hindi industry,” says Surti, who feels that the ecosystem of Bollywood is stardriven and the definition of a hit is also very lenient. “In Mumbai, if a film gets an occupancy of 20 per cent, they say it is a good opening. But in the south, if it goes below 95 per cent, the film is removed from theatres. Satyam in Chennai runs at 98-99 per cent throughout the year.”

The way forward
While it’s premature to predict the degree of cross-pollination that various film industries will see in the future, studio heads are optimistic. “We need to go through the journey. There was no market and suddenly, we had Baahubali. But that doesn’t mean every dubbed film will work as well,” says Sarkar, who feels the resistance against regional dubbed films has reduced and “even exhibitors are more open to regional multilinguals”. Haasan feels that “while Baahubali has been a fortunate phenomenon, imitating it will bore the audience”. “My friend S S Rajamouli knows this and will move away from it and try to innovate a new success. What I foresee and also wish is that Indian audiences will soon accept their country’s diversity. When that happens, they will cross the parochial Rubicon.”