Multi-starrer movies have always been a rage in Tollywood. Unlike other industries where multi-starrers have an unpredictable run at the box-office, in Tollywood, from the NTR-ANR combo in the 70s to Rajamouli’s Baahubali, the presence of multiple heroes (and only heroes) have pulled huge crowds to theatres. The satellite rights of yet to release RRR, which has both Ram Charan and Jr NTR playing pivotal roles, have been sold for a whopping Rs 132 crore, even surpassing the figures of Rajinikanth’s 2.0. Barring a few exceptions, star value has always assured Tollywood movies of a decent box-office collection.
So, what propels such fandom for multiple heroes on the silver-screen? What makes Tollywood different from other industries in ensuring success to multi-starrers? Is increasing star adulation making content secondary? TNM talks to a couple of directors, producers and film experts to analyse the trend.
Decoding the multiple-hero formula
In the recent times, a majority of multi-starrers have managed decent returns at the box-office. While Rajamouli created a sensation with his Baahubali franchise, other movies such as Oopiri (Nagarjuna-Karthi combo), Yevadu (with Ram Charan and Allu Arjun), Gopala Gopala (starring Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh) and Seethama Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (with Mahesh Babu and Venkatesh) also went on to be massive hits at the box-office.
Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh in Gopala Gopala
But what one often fails to notice here is that along with multiple heroes, multi-starrers often have multiple female leads, who do not fall under the written definitions of a ‘star’.
“Given the patriarchy, 70% characters in a movie are men and 30 % are women. So, when multiple heroes come on screen, men who are watching the movie do not consider them as objects on screen but rather as autobiographies. They consider themselves to be emulating the heroic qualities they watch on screen, and more so if they have come with a female accomplice. Therefore, multi-starrer movies give much more entertainment to men, more so if the movie has more than two lead male figures,” notes Raghurama Raju, a film studies professor at IIT Tirupati.
But, if the above theory is applied to a movie starring multiple female actors, will it receive a similar response from the audience? No, says Raghurama.
“Vijay Shanthi was a powerful heroine who acted in many female-oriented movies in the past. But if you look at the gender divide among the people who come to a theatre, there are very few women who come alone and aren’t under the shadow of a man. So the Vijay Shanthi movies, after a point of time, reached a saturation level as the men, who are more in number, couldn’t identify with them anymore. Thus came the advent of item numbers in Telugu cinema, where women are still in the movie but aren’t significant to the movie plot,” Raghurama adds.
Allu Arjun and Ram Charan in 'Yevadu'
The percentage of screen allotted to each actor is also important. This dictates the screen presence of heroes in a movie. Multiple women on screen never diminish the importance of the heroes in a script.
“When there are multiple women in a movie, the screen space is divided. In Telugu, there have been movies right from the 70s that have featured multiple women but have never been considered multi-starrers. For example, if there are two female leads in a movie, they are considered to be a single unit. So if the screen space allotted to female characters in the movie is 30%, it gets divided into equal halves. But in the case of men, the figures do not get divided. Because unlike other film industries in India, a male lead would ‘share’ screen space in Tollywood. They assume roles of significance and would only multiply the screen space that is allotted to a single male character in the movie. There are multiple reasons behind it, the main being the scripts that are tailor-made to accommodate multiple heroes in a single frame,” Raghurama adds.
Do all scripts demand multiple heroes?
Film experts observe that more often than not movies are made for multi-starrers rather than what the script necessitates. In Tollywood, we see multiple heroes on screen due to the cordial relation they share and not because the script demands so.
Speaking to TNM, Vamshi Vemi Reddy, a film analyst and a cultural studies professor, says that multi-starrers go on to become moderate hits to blockbusters despite average story content because of its star value.
“Rarely do scripts demand multi-starrer in Telugu industry,” he observes. “The success of the movie always depends on the chemistry between the stars and the director who can bring them on to the screen. Very often directors write the scripts after getting the stars on the board. In the past, movies with NTR and ANR combination have come with great stories and have done well at the box office. Since the Telugu industry is more driven by star value, filmmakers tend to accommodate the stars more than the story. And of course, mainly because whenever stars come together, it makes immense business sense. If their stars get respected screen space, their fans come together to make even an average cinema a hit,” Vamshi opines.
A still from F2 starring Venkatesh and Varun Tej
Does content take a backseat?
Tollywood producers say that multi-starrers, despite the huge salaries paid to the stars, aren’t risky games.
“Those days are gone when movies had a long shelf life in theatres. Movies get huge openings now in multiple screens. So if you have a multi-starrer, be rest assured that irrespective of the content, till Sunday, the movie will get decent traction, recovering a majority of the amount. And if the content is good, profits are guaranteed. And the trend is similar among both urban and rural audience,” says producer Tamareddy Bharadwaj.
So does this mean the content isn’t a benchmark anymore? “Absolutely! Scripts take a back seat when stars appear on the screen. Stars have to be accommodated in proportion to their stardom in multi-starrers,” says Vamshi.
However, Vishnu Induri, one of the producers of the NTR biopic NTR Kathanayakudu, opines that while producers might be able to recover a certain amount, multi-starrers earn money because the content is as important as the star value.
“If the script demands a multi-starrer, the movie would definitely be a hit. Mediocre content might get a decent collection but can never join the league of blockbusters. There is no denying that first weekend collections are hugely star-driven and has an initial pull for the business, but the movie stays along only if the content is worthwhile,” Indu says.
According to film experts, not just content but genres of multi-starrers also dictate the movie’s success. Raghurama Raju says that if one is to analyse the history of multi-starrers in Tollywood, movies have been largely comical, action or romantic dramas.
“For example, the recent release F2, starring Venkatesh and Varun Tej, have made decent collection not just because of the star-pull but also because the makers have tapped on humour, which is not the case with biopics such as NTR-Kathanayakudu, which the makers hoped to make big at the box-office,” he says.
“When you watch Mahanati, you watch the movie considering Savitri to be an artiste. But that isn’t the case with the socio-political drama on NTR. People who had a difference of opinion with NTR as a politician would not go to theatres to watch the movie, or they will go to watch it more carefully. So if a multi-starrer puts forth the variable of a conflict of opinion, it’s a direct indication of the movie’s lack-lustre performance at the movie. Also, it’s difficult to categorise NTR-Kathanayakudu as a multi-starrer because the movie paints a larger than life persona of NTR through Balakrishna, despite the multiple male characters in the film,” Raghurama adds.