Are big Tamil film releases eating into Malayalam cinema's business in Kerala?

While Mohanlal's 'Drama' released in about 158 screens in Kerala, Vijay's 'Sarkar' released in over 400 screens five days later in the state.
Are big Tamil film releases eating into Malayalam cinema's business in Kerala?
Are big Tamil film releases eating into Malayalam cinema's business in Kerala?
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It is not a new problem, a big Tamil film coming to Kerala, knocking off smaller Malayalam movies. Producers and directors have complained about it, murmured their protests, and tried to come out with remedies. But now they seem quite accepting of it, an inevitability they can perhaps even exploit.

Vijay’s Sarkar did not come on a Friday, but on the Tuesday that was celebrated as Deepavali in the south. So the Malayalam releases on the Friday before, had some time – four days to be precise – to decide their fate. The main opponent, if you want to call it that, this time, was Ranjith’s Mohanlal movie, Drama. And in four days, movie lovers had decided that Drama was not all that great.

“Normally, when a big Tamil movie starring Rajinikanth or Vijay come, a Malayalam movie running in parallel is affected, it may have to be shifted out. But this time, the Malayalam movie running in parallel – Drama – had already not been doing well, it did not get the expected response. So it won’t be right to say the film was affected. It is a different story if it had been doing well,” says G Suresh Kumar, secretary of Kerala Film Producers' Association.

Maha Subair, one of the producers of Drama, says the Sarkar release has not affected the screening of their film. “It was released in 158 screens and it’s still running in 158 screens,” he says. But if you compare numbers, Mohanlal’s 158 is against Vijay’s 400 plus screens in Kerala. So, there appears to be a disparity in numbers right from day one of the release.

The next anticipated Malayalam film with Tovino Thomas in the lead, has come out only next Friday, four days after the Sarkar release. By then, the hype of Sarkar would have died down, Suresh Kumar had predicted when TNM spoke to him on Wednesday.

It’s true. Sarkar came with a lot of noise, 400 and something theatres with 1700 shows, on a Tuesday morning. Just before that, fans in Kollam had raised Vijay’s tallest ever cut-out and surprised everyone – it was not coming from the star’s home state of Tamil Nadu but its extremely affectionate neighbour, Kerala.

Director Dr Biju has felt this neighbourly love coming especially more from theatre owners. 

“The kind of movies I make – of the art house kind – do not anyway get theatres. So it doesn’t really make a difference to me if a big Tamil film comes to Kerala. But what is strange is, the same theatres which do not give space to experimental films from Malayalam cinema are ready to take in Tamil films like Pariyeum Perumal or Vada Chennai. But when it is Malayalam and one that’s won the National Award, they are immediately skeptical. No one would come to watch art, they decide,” he says.

Dr Biju feels theatre owners have not noticed that filmmaking has changed, art cinema is no longer what it had once been. But there is a prejudice that they are slow and dragging. There are those too, Biju agrees, but there are experimental new ones that simply don’t get space. A change has come only when multiplexes opened up and allowed them space.

“One reason why Tamil films come here in such a big way is because Kerala takes the same tax money from Malayalam and Tamil cinema. This is not the case in other states. They charge lower tax for the regional language and higher for other languages,” says Dr Biju.

Director B Unnikrishnan, General Secretary of Film Employees Federation of Kerala (FEFKA), says there are two sides to this. On one side, there is the obvious side effect, he says, when a big movie from another language comes and affects the Malayalam films running in parallel. “Some may be removed, the collection would come down for some others and theatres would lose the patience to continue running them. But on the other side, imposing restrictions may backfire. About two years ago, the film chamber had tried to do this, and it didn’t work,” he says.

What has changed is that Malayalam cinema began finding a market outside of Kerala. “Films such as Drishyam, Premam or Bangalore Days fetched fantastic revenues from outside the state. For my film Villain alone, the collection from outside Kerala was Rs 2.5 crores,” Unnikrishnan says.

His point is that it has to be give and take. Let other language pictures come to Kerala, and Malayalam movies will also be welcomed heartily – if they are good.

The director also makes another important point – the mushrooming of screens in Kerala in recent years. In the last one and a half years, he reckons more than a hundred screens have popped up. “In Thiruvananthapuram alone, there is a screen every 700 metres. And there is not so much content to be played in all these screens. Kayamkulam Kochunni had recently been released in 300 plus screens in the state. It should have been a 100-day movie but it’s going away in a few weeks.”

But this does not mean a loss. In the old days, a movie may release in a theatre or two in a district and therefore run longer. More screens just mean people get to see it sooner than later. “When my film Madambi released, in Thiruvananthapuram it was played only in Ajantha Theatre. It ran for 100 days. But in 2017, Villain was released in eight plus screens in Thiruvananthapuram alone, and it did just as well in half the number of days,” Unnikrishnan says.

Similarly, Sarkar too won’t last long. Undoubtedly, it will make a huge profit in the short time it runs – more than Rs 3 crore by Wednesday, while Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, a hugely popular and acclaimed Malayalam movie, made about Rs 5 crore to 6 crore in all the weeks that it ran.

Unnikrishnan also says that bigger films from other languages coming to Kerala have prompted producers to shell out more money and make big budget movies in Malayalam.

However, the number of big budget Tamil films are more than the number of big budget Malayalam films, says director B Ajithkumar. 

“They have more money for publicity at their disposal than an average Malayalam film. So they are able to get theatres, as exhibitors are always inclined towards films that they are sure will attract an initial audience, especially during festival seasons. This pushes out medium budget Malayalam films from theatres. That is the logic of a market where big fish eat small fish.”

But that doesn't mean that good, small Malayalam films have no value, he says. “Cultural variety and multiple voices are much needed aspects if a pluralist and democratic society is to survive and flourish. What Malayalam filmmakers can do is to cultivate a different kind of audience for films that explore the unique cultural possibilities of Malayalam. There are attempts being made in this direction.”

There should also be incentives and promotions from the industry and the government, Ajithkumar feels. “Marathi cinema's resurgence in the recent years shows us what a value based approach from the part of governments and filmmakers can achieve in saving smaller, regional film cultures from the onslaught of film industries that have the advantage of scale.”

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