Understanding the new ‘pan-Indian’ film

Besides slick marketing, there is clearly a certain narrative that explains the stupendous success of films such as ‘Baahubali’, ‘KGF’, ‘Pushpa: The Rise’, ‘RRR’, and ‘The Kashmir Files’. A predestined saviour, a powerful oligarch, fake historicity, misogyny and violence have emerged as hallmarks of the new ‘pan-Indian’ film.

Published : May 15, 2022 06:00 IST

A still from ‘KGF:Chapter 1’. The ‘KGF’ franchise traces the ascent of Rocky (played by actor Yash) from poverty and his journey through crime in Bombay, Bangalore and the eponymous Kolar Gold Fields.

A still from ‘KGF:Chapter 1’. The ‘KGF’ franchise traces the ascent of Rocky (played by actor Yash) from poverty and his journey through crime in Bombay, Bangalore and the eponymous Kolar Gold Fields.

In M. Rajshekhar’s ‘Despite the State’, the author meets a man in Bihar who downloads music and films and sells them for ten bucks. He mentions the popular titles—‘Akhil: The Power of Jua’, ‘Heart Attack’, ‘Businessman 2’, ‘Shivam’, ‘Viraat’, and ‘The Return of Raju’. They are all titles from South India. ‘Businessman 2’ is the Hindi dub of ‘Pandaga Chesko’ and ‘The Return of Raju’s original is ‘Soggade Chinni Nayana’. Rajshekhar goes on to write about the popularity of the dubbed version of Telugu and Tamil films since 2011 in Bihar and how they are more relatable to the young men of the region than Hindi and Bhojpuri cinema.

The films are not too dissimilar—family potboilers with large dollops of action and vigilante justice, even aspirational because the films from the south are more rooted to their lands and the mofussil and not confined to stories of the city. The films are violent, testosterone-addled and either outright misogynistic or under-represent women. All of this checks out with the birth of Indian cinema’s favourite catchphrase, the “pan-Indian film”, its success and the common ingredients apart from the southern origins of these films.

This growth, coupled with the change in the political landscape of India in the last decade, explains some of the success. The mood of a nation at a point in time does indeed reflect its pop culture.

Here is a plot: A son, underprivileged and with a single parent, grows up in penury. He is street-smart and as an adult, rises in the world of crime. From running local rackets to controlling a whole region, his growth is tremendous and feared. He takes what is his, rightfully or otherwise. This goes for both wealth and women. Can you guess the film from the plot? ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ , the Telugu film directed by Sukumar starring Allu Arjun, that managed to give ‘83’, the Hindi film based on India’s 1983 cricket World Cup win with Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev, a run for its money? Or ‘KGF: Chapter 1’(2018), the Kannada film starring Yash and directed by Prashant Neel?

Also read: Market and the medium

KGF expands to Kolar Gold Fields but that is the most innocuous detail about the two-part Kannada film. ‘KGF:Chapter 1’, released in 2018, became a massive hit and ‘KGF:Chapter 2’ released mid-April 2022 to an even bigger reception across India and the world. The reverberations could be heard everywhere, from Instagram and Tik Tok stars in Tanzania to Manchester City football club. Yash stars as Rocky bhai (originally Raja Krishnappa Bairya), a gangster-saviour whose morals are as opaque as his jet-black beard. At the time of writing this, ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ had made Rs.1,000 crore at the box office and is on its way to create more records. From Kerala to the cow belt, Indians jive to the chants of Rocky bhai. Tamil actor Vijay’s much awaited ‘Beast’ , directed by Nelson, did not faze ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ . Hindi films like ‘Heropanti 2’ starring Tiger Shroff and Ajay Devgn’s ‘Runway 34’ that released a couple of weeks after ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ were failures at the box office, with the Kannada film and its dubbed version going strong across States. It is the very definition of the new term around the block, as simple as it is nonsensical—every Indian film industry is now looking for one such film with even the fans ready to deem an industry a failure if it cannot produce one.

Karthik Gowda, executive producer at Hombale Films, the banner behind ’KGF’ , sounds a word of caution about the term. “Every film cannot be pan India. I don’t mean to say other films cannot do what ‘KGF’ did, but the term can be considered in two ways—one is the film’s theatrical release and reception. But there are also films of, say, Fahadh Faasil that are widely watched on streaming platforms. They aren’t any less pan India, only interpreted differently.” He is glad that heads have turned towards cinema in Karnataka thanks to ‘KGF’s popularity. “Karnataka was always considered a small market or industry, which it isn’t. I want this highlighted. Every industry has its ups and downs; even Virat Kohli goes through a bad phase. All of it comes down to positioning and marketing of a script as much as its selection and quality. The former is where we are lacking.”

Promotion, marketing and distribution are indeed the major players in creating and sustaining a theatrical film that can work across borders. In July 2020, Karthik Gowda had announced KRG Connects, a digital marketing firm, subsidiary of his KRG Studios, the Karnataka distributors of the KGF films. It was set up with the intention to connect films to a larger audience and with ‘KGF:Chapter 2’ they have more than accomplished the goal. ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ worked to a great extent at the box office and its acclaim further grew in the intervening years when the pandemic struck, and everyone turned towards OTT [over-the-top media service] for entertainment. Its aura extended beyond Karnataka and the filmmakers and stakeholders were quick to notice.

The marketing of ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ was thorough despite pandemic-induced hiccups. The makers released a newsletter titled “KGF Times”—reflecting vintage newspapers because the film is set from the 1970s to 1981—in the run-up to the teaser. The teaser was released with only English dialogues ending with the title in different languages, giving an idea of the release strategy they had in mind. Karthik Gowda’s team had conducted surveys across the country to determine the extent of the craze to measure where it was weak and where it was good. The film became so popular that by the time ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ rolled around, not just cinema-based digital and social media marketers, even the content creators and influencers wanted a piece of the ‘KGF’ pie.

Also read: Celluloid city

The Tamil Nadu piece of the pie went to Dream Warrior Pictures. S.R. Prabhu of Dream Warrior Pictures agrees that ’KGF’ is a peculiar case in Tamil Nadu because it got its momentum after its OTT release. “With a theatrical window, we can gauge from the talk what worked in the film. In cases like this, we’ll never know what exactly worked. Keeping that in mind, we predicted that it would do good. But it is doing great.” Prabhu gives the credit to the producers and the film-makers. He feels that everything fell into place with ‘KGF’—both the film and the creatives and marketing came together for this force of nature.

Talk to anyone and the words you hear are variations of “marketing” and “placing”. Nobody can pinpoint the reason for the “connect” the film had with a wide variety of audiences across regions. What about the ‘KGF’ films themselves as cinema? The ‘KGF’ franchise (yes, it is one; there is a mid-credits scene paving the way for Chapter 3) is about the ascent of Rocky from a poor boy unable to care for his terminally ill mother, the promise she extracts from him to become one of the wealthiest men, and his journey through crime in Bombay, Bangalore and the eponymous Kolar Gold Fields. The film’s gold fields are a capitalist’s wet dream—endless profits, not just cheap but free labour, inhumane conditions, a place that apparently does not exist in the map of India, at least not in any government institution’s office. An oligarchy of crime lords and political nexus controls the fields. Rocky becomes the saviour for the labour force—literal slaves—in ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ .

The mythical quotient of the film—of a boy wanting to keep a promise made to his mother who is at death’s door—can be written on the back of a paper napkin. The elevator pitch is the film. There is nothing wrong with cinema through storyboarding, but ‘KGF’ is one on steroids. There is no breathing space in either film. Action sequence after action sequence reintroduces Rocky bhai to the audience, either killing or walking in slow motion, and exists merely to build up his heroics.

The film’s most interesting part is created through atmosphere; the mythical mines, discovered in 1951, are taken over by a lone man on a 99-year lease who turns it into a makeshift prison for the subaltern labourers who mine nonstop for gold. ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ is constructed on the premise of Rocky as their redeemer. Redeem he does, but for himself. The situation of the labourers improves marginally in ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ under Rocky’s control, but he still calls the shots, he still demands endless hours of work. This is Rocky’s story and his search for limitless wealth, not theirs. It is gold, and belabouring over the labour theory of value can go out the window.

Even if manic editing and assault-on-the-senses film-making confound ‘KGF:Chapter 1’’s appeal, ‘KGF: Chapter 2’ and the films that succeeded at similar levels contain enough clues to give us a window into understanding the craze.

Also read: Caste on celluloid

As Rajshekhar discovered in his book, for more than a decade now, dubbed films from the south—Tamil and Telugu specifically—were a huge hit in the television and pirated copy market across north India. The heroes in these films battled local problems and personal issues that nevertheless mattered at a macro level—poverty, unemployment, labour, oppression and economic inequality widening under unchecked capitalism. Hindi cinema, with its South Mumbai heroes, did not represent them.

This period also coincided with the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His face is now the face of India, no matter that it is still on paper a democratic country that is supposed to uphold federalism. No politician has mastered the one-man liberator narrative better than Modi. There were M.G. Ramachandran and Indira Gandhi, but no one has achieved—I apologise—the pan-Indian or even global craze that Modi has managed. Suddenly, personality cult, a hallmark of south Indian films whose stars often had political stakes, spoke a language that travelled well across the country.

One of the narratives that Modi and his party repeatedly used in the run-up to their first Lok Sabha victory in 2014 was about the dynastic politics of the Nehru-Gandhi family. It was time for the ‘chaiwallah’ (tea seller) to rule. In ‘KGF’, the child Rocky is a humble boot polisher. It is a compelling metaphor: a boy who is literally at the feet of men far wealthier than him grows up to become the richest and dangerous crime lord of India. In ‘KGF: Chapter 1’, even with his image as a gangster of the west coast, he is at best a hired assassin who must kill Garuda, the mine’s heir apparent, and walk away with his cut. Garuda’s junior partners, comprising gangsters and politicians, are upended by Rocky who assumes control of the empire.

Early in ‘KGF: Chapter 2’, he calls for a meeting and minces no words—it is time to end dynastic rule and the mantle has passed to the rags-to-riches Rocky. He uses the word “merit” to absolve himself. He has both the talent and the wherewithal, so he must be it. When Rocky becomes the king of KGF, the situation of the workers and miners improves marginally. He builds houses and infrastructure for them. What was once dust, soil and rocks transforms into a modern industrial town. At the same time, mining continues without stoppage time. When questioned, he says his greed is of utmost importance and making money is his only concern.

Also read: The other side of truth

The welfare populism combined with a showreel of economic mobility exonerates Rocky of all sins. In a way it mirrors the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) strategy in its stronghold States, an important market for these films. Roads, bridges and a little cosmetic economic upliftment secures the vote and veers focus away from inflation, state-sanctioned violence and every socio-economic issue plaguing the country. The social progress of the workers of KGF before or after remains stagnant.

Since most of the action occurs in the late 1970s, it presents the film an opportunity to bring up one more of modern India’s favourite dead horses. In ‘KGF: Chapter 2’, Ramika Sen becomes the Prime Minister in 1981. ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ begins with her signing Rocky’s “death warrant”. Ramika Sen is shown to be the iron lady of India, with newspapers flashing headlines such as “Dictator or Leader?” She is fierce and ruthless and controls her party with enough sycophants to fill the horizon in a wide shot. Nehruvian socialism gradually eroded during the 1970s and Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency. By the early 1980s, there was growing unemployment and resentment. Rocky’s fiefdom is a direct attack on the Licence Raj-lite Ramika Sen. An elected leader with no writing to back her character becomes an easy foil against the might of Rocky. But this emplacement of Rocky’s story suggests a different formula that works for these pan-Indian movies.

Consider the pan-Indian hits in recent times. The ‘Baahubali’ films, the ‘KGF’ films, ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ and ‘RRR’ . For good measure, one can add ‘The Kashmir Files’. The film, a big draw at the box office, kindled religious fervour and solidified the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) Islamophobic policies, Hindu Rashtra and the imagined notion of “Hindu khatre mein hain(the Hindu is in danger)”.

None of these films is set in the current timeline. ‘Baahubali’ is mythological fantasy that scores with structural imagination and the familiar narrative of the “chosen one” amidst palace intrigue. It upholds the varna system and caste supremacy in both explicit and implicit terms.

‘RRR’is historical fiction set in the 1920s when two freedom fighters from present day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana meet in colonial India. Their paths never crossed in real life. ‘RRR’, too, upholds the kshatriya pride that Rajamouli loves to fashion in his films and fetishises Telugu cinema’s tryst with Hindu mythology—one of its heroes, Alluri Sitarama Raju, played by Ram Charan, becomes an avatar of Rama himself. By elevating one freedom fighter to Rama, ‘RRR’ reduces Komaram Bheem’s (played by NTR Junior) appeal. He becomes subservient to the former, a gross injustice to the real-life Bheem who fought for his community and led a communist revolution against the feudal Nizams. Pushpa’, too, is set largely in the 1990s, seemingly a throwback to an era of crime and corruption.

Also read: ‘A clear case of selective portrayal’

‘The Kashmir Files’ might be the most egregious of them all, going by the reactions in cinema theatres and politicians’ messaging. It was made tax-free in many BJP-ruled States. The film on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits has two timelines—one focuses on the event itself and paints every Muslim as a terrorist, and another narrative is set in 2016 in a fictitious Delhi university called ANU where intellectuals and activists are shown as brainwashed and as those who need to be taught the real history of Kashmir and Hindus. The reaction to this propaganda was already palpable from the chants and calls for violence against Muslims during the film’s run at the box office. It is a film that has lines like “Nehru and Vajpayee wanted to be loved. Our current Prime Minister is feared”. Just as the historicity of the country itself is questioned and school syllabuses are altered, the films that rewrite them, too, are read as gospel and run to full houses.

It is no secret that all production companies do their market research. Recently in an interview to Galatta Plus, film-maker Karan Johar tipped his hat to the success of ‘The Kashmir Files’ and called for “recognising” it as a “movement” happening around the country, one that could not be ignored. He spoke as the shrewd producer and businessman that he is, without irony.

There is clearly a formula, currently, that achieves pan-India success. It is not a single star. It is not a single filmmaker. It is not a single language. It has little to do with even technical and cinematic finesse ( ‘RRR’ and ‘Pushpa’ , for all their faults, possess it, while ‘KGF’ and ‘The Kashmir Files’ do not). It is about certain narratives that click in the box office—a predestined saviour, the rise of an oligarch, upholding every tenet of Hinduism and rewriting history. Misogyny gels well with these themes. It is what guarantees a countrywide phenomenon, and film industries, even the few making dissenting and anti-caste films, are geared towards it.

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