Allu Arjun-starrer Duvvada Jagannadham's success in single screen country has a lesson for the film biz
Since 23 June 2017, there have been a spate of articles comparing the box office performances of the Telugu film featuring Allu Arjun, Duvvada Jagannadham, and Salman Khan’s Tubelight. A Forbes contributor virtually set the tone of the coverage by stating that the Telugu film “managed to threaten Tubelight’s box office supremacy.” First, to set the record straight, much of this coverage misses a small but crucial detail: these two films were not competing for the same market (or eyeballs, as it is fashionable to say these days). Duvvada Jagannadham, promoted as DJ, was only released in Telugu so far. Although Allu Arjun has a considerable fan base in Kerala, the Malayalam version of the film is yet to be released. There is likely to be a Hindi version but that that too is in the future. At the same time, with both films’ collections standing at around 100 crores after the first week’s run, comparisons are being made. Several commentators have pointed out that their collections are similar in spite of Tubelight being screened in 4,400 screens in India as against the 1,300 plus screens of DJ. Indeed, there are good reasons why we need to sit up and pay close attention to the magic of Duvvada Jagannadham which made this possible.
Unlike Rajinikanth vehicles of the past decade and the Baahubali films, the build up to DJ’s release was somewhat weak. The film received “bad talk” (Telugu English term for negative publicity) before its release. Denial of permission by the producer for the much anticipated fan previews of DJ was interpreted as an attempt to protect the film from negative word-of-mouth publicity and social media attacks even before it opened to the general public. Nevertheless, the opening was so strong that the producer, ‘Dil’ Raju, claimed that the film trade was “asking the Bollywood filmmakers to learn” from the Telugu industry. Assuming, for argument’s sake that the trade is advising filmmakers to in Mumbai to learn from their counterparts in Hyderabad, what lessons might Dil Raju and DJ offer?
Dil Raju is no one-hit wonder. His began his career as a distributor, back in 1996, and has over the years distributed quite a few top-of-the line productions including Baahubali: The Beginning. He turned producer with the film Dil (2003) and produced some major hits. He also introduced no less than eight new directors to the film industry. Over the past decade, he also emerged as a key player in film exhibition in both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by leasing loss-making single screen theatres. According to unconfirmed reports, he controls 700-odd screens. Even if this figure is exaggerated, there is no doubting his influence over exhibition. Back in 2008, a newspaper report noted that a handful of key players, including Raju, had “acquired lease rights of several hundred theatres in the state and are almost dictating the trade”.
Dil Raju represents a business model which is remarkably similar to one being attempted by large entertainment corporations: vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition. For example, the PVR Group owns PVR Cinemas, which runs multiplexes across the country. The group also owns PVR Pictures, which is into film production and distribution. Unlike PVR, Telugu cinema’s powerhouses are either partnerships or private limited companies.
The lesson Telugu cinema and Raju can offer is not on vertical integration — which almost every public limited entertainment company has on its wish list — but on the value of single screens. In 2010, according to figures released by the Film Federation of India, Andhra Pradesh (pre-bifurcation) was home to 2,809 of 10,167 single screens in the country. There are no official estimates of how many single screen remain today. According to a rough estimate by ICRA published in 2016, 5,000 single screens closed in the past five years and only around 6,000 remain. Half of these theatres are in three south Indian states: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 2016, the same report notes, there were 2,200 multiplex screens in India.
The cinemas of south India therefore have a simple arithmetic advantage: more people watch films on the big screen in the region than in the rest of India. Multiplexes have been the talk of the entertainment industry because their earnings per screen are much higher, due to inflated ticket prices. The downside is that only a small section of the population can afford to pay such high ticket prices on a regular basis. In the past two years, multiplexes have grown increasingly dependent on Hollywood films for their survival.
70 percent of India’s multiplex screens are owned by four chains (PVR, Inox, Carnival Cinemas and Cinepolis). Even as multiplexes and their model of centralised control over exhibition changed the terms of film trade, there were complaints from sections of the Telugu film industry about the cartelisation of single screens. A small number of established distributors began to lease single screens, weighed down by high running costs, by the dozen. Notwithstanding frequent complaints against the new exhibition regime, leasing of theatres with reducing profit margins prevented the complete collapse of single screens, in the Telugu states. Coupled with digitisation of projection, the control of single screens through lease of properties, or other arrangements, has facilitated the saturation of release of films in the initial weeks of their run. Today, even in small towns, neighbourhood cinema halls show the latest releases. It is also not unusual for viewers to be faced with very little choice because all screens — multiplex or single — have the same two or three films.
In short, big productions in Telugu targeting single screen audiences are not at any great disadvantage vis-à-vis their Hindi counterparts. There is of course a difference in scale — Telugu films have a much smaller market than Hindi films. This relative advantage of Hindi language productions has been somewhat offset by dubbing in the recent years, as was demonstrated by the Baahubali films. In the late 1990s, both Telugu and Tamil films, whose domestic market comprises largely single screens, have been supplying inexpensive dubbed films to decaying single screens deep in the Hindi heartland. These theatres could not afford to screen the latest Hindi films. They survived because of Bhojpuri films, and lapped up other inexpensive films.
During this period, it was not just Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna who entertained UP-Bihar but also younger, and relatively less known stars like Gopichand. Among the actors who gained considerable recognition outside the Telugu states is Allu Arjun, the star of DJ. His popularity in Kerala is part of Telugu cinema folklore now. Last month, Allu Arjun set YouTube on fire when the Hindi dubbed version of his 2016 film, Sarainodu, crossed 40 million views within a month of its online release.
Here is the second lesson that Telugu cinema has to offer — and this has as much to do with the genius of its stars and directors as the entrepreneurship of its producers — it is highly formulaic. Every year, the Telugu industry produces scores of predictable films in which stars do what they are good at doing. After all, there is no reason why a kickass superstar should be made to cry on screen, if he can’t do it convincingly. What draws viewers, myself included, to theatres is the mastery with which the familiar formula is executed, and the manner in which the predictable is played around with, to reassure us that we haven’t been served the same old fare. DJ follows a formula that has been around in Telugu cinema from the 1990s, if not even earlier. It also recalls earlier Telugu films including Pokiri in which the hero plays a vigilante. This is the kind of film that a reviewer can dub as “silly”, even while he/she is recommending it. The novelty of the film is that the star is seen in the getup of a Brahmin cook: dressed in dhoti, covered in vibhuti and speaking in a Telugu that is associated with Brahmins in parts of Andhra. Our hero’s real job, as the viewer learns five minutes into the film, is to rid society of crime by killing criminals. At no point in the film are we in any doubt that the Brahmin cook and the killer are but thin, see-through disguises: it is Allu Arjun who is on display throughout the film.