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Rani Mukerji on India’s Turbulent Theatrical Business: ‘South Indian Filmmakers Are Listening to Audiences’

Bollywood A-list star Rani Mukerji was in refreshingly candid form at Mumbai’s FICCI Frames media industry conference, proffering frank opinions on the Indian theatrical business.

The usual Hindi-language domination of the all-India box office was reversed for a period in 2021-22, when films from the south of India, including “RRR,” “Kantara,” “Ponniyin Selvan” and “Vikram” dominated, and the northern counterparts from’ Bollywood’ struggled to become hits. Since then, the north-south competition has evolved again.

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In 2023, there were only three south Indian films in the box office top 10, “Salaar,” “Jailer” and “Leo,” at numbers four, six and seven, respectively. However, Hindi-language films made by south Indian filmmakers – “Jawan” in pole position and “Animal” in third – performed exceedingly well.

“They listen to what the audiences want,” Mukerji said. “When cinema is evolving and everybody’s trying to cater to a diverse audience, sometimes you lose touch with the popular or the massive want of an audience to see simple storytelling, as opposed to storytelling, which is more diverse or more evolved and more for a certain section of audiences. Maybe they are still very simple at heart and they are probably connecting with the simple storytelling that the audiences want from the filmmakers and that’s what they’re recognizing and they’re doing.”

‘I have worked with a lot of south Indian filmmakers in my career and I’ve learned a lot from them. The most fascinating part about the south industries, what I see is that there’s a lot of unity. They stand together, they support each other. I see so many of these events where directors are going for each other’s music opening or film announcements and standing together,” Mukerji said. “And of course, it happens in our [Hindi] industry as well. The beautiful part is, when you talk to them, they say that they have learned from us. And when they talk to us, we say we learn from them, and it’s always give and take. What’s beautiful here is that Indian cinema is learning and looking inwards. In the middle, they should say that our cinema is inspired from the West, or people are copying the West. Today, it’s so nice that people are getting inspired by their own because we have to make films that have to cater to our audience. And we have to listen to the voice of our audience.”

The voice of the audience was listened to in Mukerji’s 2023 theatrical hit “Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway,” from Zee Studios and Emmay Entertainment, directed by Ashima Chibber. The film released at a time when the so-called “content films,” a term often used in India to describe films with a strong storyline as opposed to star-driven big budget spectacles, were going straight to streaming. Mukerji said that it was in her contract that the film would receive a theatrical release and her decision paid off.

Mukerji is married to producer Aditya Chopra and together they are the principals at leading Indian studio Yash Raj Films. The actor revealed that there were several films commissioned before the pandemic that were ready to release and rather than follow the then industry practice of selling them to streamers for big bucks, Chopra decided to wait it out and release them theatrically.

“All of those films flopped, because post-pandemic, the whole way audiences were watching content changed overnight because of OTT [streaming]. And all these films of his that failed at the box office and it took a complete hit commercially – it was like, complete depression. People were sad in our company. And the whole conviction that Adi stood with that the movies will release theatrically, we thought that there would be some divine intervention and that he would be rewarded for his conviction of releasing films theatrically and everything didn’t work for us. And then came ‘Pathaan’.”

Yash Raj Films’ “Pathaan,” starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, was the first big Indian hit of 2024 and finished the year as the second highest grosser. The top film, “Jawan,” also starring Khan, was distributed internationally by Yash Raj as well as No. 8 title ‘Dunki,” another Khan starrer.

Mukerji was in conversation with veteran journalist Rajeev Masand.

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