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I hate tears, Pushpa; so do you!

Updated on: 29 December,2021 07:30 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Lights, camera, action, ‘emoshaan’: South/North/West, why must region matter, when language doesn’t?

I hate tears, Pushpa; so do you!

A still from the Telugu film, Pushpa, starring Allu Arjun

Mayank ShekharHaving been to one of politician T Subbarami Reddy’s phoney film awards in Hyderabad once, I was first-hand aware of the excessive stardom heaped on Telugu superheroes, with star after star added to their names—Power Star (Pawan Kalyan), Mega Power Star (Ram Charan), Energetic Star (Ram), Natural Star (Nani), Lovely Rock Star (Aadi)...

This was around 2011, when Allu Arjun (Stylish Star) had come over to visit me in my office. His Hyderabad colleague Rana Daggubati had then made Bollywood debut with Dum Maaro Dum. 

Sussing out the scene in Bombay, the diminutive looking Arjun had casually dropped in to meet press/editor types in the city to say hi. Only that I didn’t know who Arjun was. Neither did the people he walked past to reach me. Could’ve Googled; didn’t get time. 

Unsure if it was this, that Arjun, the hero before my work desk, spent a good while fidgeting at my helpless ignorance—almost gracelessly bragging about his celestial status back home. Such stuff seldom impresses. 

Mildly frustrated still, at one point, he told me about how a male rival of his had halted traffic with crowds gathered outside Deccan Chronicle’s office in Hyderabad once, because the paper didn’t care much for that hero. Before saying our byes first, I hoped he’d do no such thing with the newspaper office in Mahim we were at!

How else to know an actor/artiste, unless you’ve experienced their works, no? Enough water has flowed under the bridge since. In the interim, for instance, the Telugu mythological, SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali (2015, ’17), also starring Daggubati, became India’s biggest blockbuster ever; its Hindi version included. 

Prabhas, the hero, is nationally known hence. As we speak, the hugest cinema hoardings in Bombay belong to Rajmouli’s RRR, with Ajay Devgn, Alia Bhatt looking like underlings, compared to its Telugu leads NTR Rama Rao Jr, Ram Charan.   

I only saw Arjun on the big screen, in and as Pushpa (2021), a decade after we first met under crappy circumstances. Because? Everyone suggested Pushpa, originally in Telugu, was a huge, sleeper, commercial success; Bombay northwards. 

How am I sure? Couldn’t source a ticket for any show of Pushpa at my local theatre on a Monday night. Found one for Tuesday afternoon, settling for a second row from the screen. It’s like audiences can smell a film to line up behind it. 

These were non-Telugu junta, ROFL, in the version dubbed in Hindi. Which is globally preferred to subtitles. Because fewer people like to read; period. And with subtitles, you can’t look a second away from the screen—if you do, you won’t know who said what. Which isn’t how most of us watch stuff, especially at home. You can, on a personal screen, and hence OTT platforms are changing audience preferences—slowly, though. Half of Marvel’s Indian revenues come from local language dubs. 

This is how Spiderman became the post-pandemic Indian blockbuster. As did Pushpa, I’m told. Tom Holland needn’t show up on KBC to promote, nor will Arjun on The Kapil Sharma Show matter. 

Such box-office results, back-to-back, inevitably centre conversations on how the South (Telugu), and West (America) are breaking Bollywood’s back! “They completely left theatrical markets open. Aisa walkover, no incumbent would’ve given a challenger,” as my friend Vishek Chauhan, who runs a theatre in Bihar, puts it. Referring, I suppose, to how Bombay’s film studios (surely barring Yashraj) have turned into vendors/producers for OTTs, which is effectively TV, isn’t it!

Also, Bollywood’s a bit like the Congress in Indian politics—everybody feels they only have a stake in it; incessantly criticising them for not living up to a century-old promise + potential. We forget though: does it really have to be the Congress? How does it matter if people enjoy Hindi event pictures less, and other cinemas, Indian languages included, more/equally? Theatres benefit regardless.

Diagnosis to the problem is simple: the old-world, slightly sexist, shirtless Salman Khan-like blind stardom in Bollywood, meaning audiences trooping in simply to watch a Hindi male actor as macho hero—the screen as extension of that image, appears to be on a decline. Hollywood, for that reason, places its biggest bets on special effect franchises alone. 

Younger Bollywood stars are leads who must/can act (as characters). Merit lies in movies alone. Not very fail-safe for a film industry, yes. Good for the audience. Choices expand. 

Salman, after all, only revived his career with a Hindi remake, Wanted (2009), of a Telugu film, Pokiri (2006). As did Shahid Kapoor with Kabir Singh (2019), which was Arjun Reddy (2017) in Telugu, where the lead Vijay Deverakonda was equally phenomenal. 

I stepped out of Pushpa’s screening to a massive poster of Shahid in the forthcoming Hindi rerun of Jersey (2019), which already had Nani (Natural Star) deliver an award-winning performance. Grow your own audience, no? 

Inside the theatre, with the mad-actioner Pushpa, Telugu hero Arjun was killing it in Bambaiya Hindi (his dubbed voice sounding suspiciously like Shahid’s!). Bombay was loving him, through and through. 

Which reminds me of how I said my final bye to Arjun when we met—I was getting a smoke outside, he was finally being seen off by Telugu-speaking fans, autograph/selfie seekers, outside my office ground-floor. He gently glanced at me: “Now you know what I mean?” No, no, of course; my bad, Stylish Star!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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