Over the past decade, the term “pan-Indian film” has been widely used in reference to movies produced in India with an intended “pan-Indian” audience. Of the top six domestically highest-grossing films in India, five of them are films regarded as “pan-Indian” – demonstrating immense commercial success for the genre (if one can even call it that).
The term “pan-Indian film” came into popular usage after the release of Baahubali, directed by S.S. Rajamouli. The simplest definition of the term is a movie released in many languages (typically Hindi and the four main South Indian languages: Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada). With the lowering costs of dubbing and the increased popularity of OTT (over-the-top) streaming services, pan-Indian films have become more and more popular. South Indian films have gained popularity amongst northern audiences, and the market of pirated and amateur dubbed films has translated into streaming and dubbing during production.
While pan-Indian films have been successful, with the Telugu RRR and Baahubali and Pushpa series, and the Kannada K.G.F. series, it hasn’t been without controversy and critique. Many actors from the Southern industries, including those who have starred in “pan-Indian” films themselves, have cited discomfort with the term’s usage. Actor Siddharth, who began in and mainly works in the Tamil industry, but is one of the few stars to find success in many languages, felt that its usage was limited to non-Hindi, Southern language films. Kamal Haasan, who also hails from Kollywood but has found success in numerous industries, challenges the idea that pan-Indian cinema is a new phenomenon and claims it has always been present. As Siddharth mentioned, the term is used almost exclusively for South Indian cinema, especially Telugu cinema, that has been dubbed into Hindi. While Sujeeth’s Saaho and Radha Krishna Kumar’s flop Radhe Shyam were simultaneously produced in Hindi, they were Telugu casts and productions. No Bollywood films have been referred to as “pan-Indian”, creating a sentiment amongst Southern actors and directors that the term is almost derogatory against South Indian cinema that became successful amongst many Indian audiences.
The 2022 Malayalam film Jana Gana Mana, directed by Dijo Jose Antony and starring Prithviraj Sukumaran with Suraj Venjaramoodu, recently released to positive acclaim from critics and audiences alike. The courtroom drama narrates the mysterious murder of the beloved professor Saba Maryam (Mamta Mohandas), with lawyer Aravind Swaminathan (Prithviraj) investigating the case. The film was likely inspired by T.J. Gnanavel’s recent critically acclaimed legal drama Jai Bhim, starring Suriya. Both films attack India’s brahmanical patriarchy through court cases. A key difference between the two films, however, is the intended appeal. While the content in the two films are quite similar, Jai Bhim was clearly made for Tamil audiences, referencing specific caste and tribal groups, as well as Periyar and other Tamil leaders. Jana Gana Mana is an intentional pan-Indian film, but in a unique way not observed in the spectacles of Rajamouli, Shankar, and Sukumar.
One major difference between Jana Gana Mana and other pan-Indian films is its budget. Jana Gana Mana operated on a budget of ₹20 crore, approximately $2.5 million USD. In contrast, RRR’s budget is ₹550 core, about $75 million USD. The pan-Indian film has defined itself with larger-than-life spectacles, and Jana Gana Mana counters that. The box office collection of Jana Gana Mana was ₹56 crore (~$7 million), a fraction of RRR’s ₹1,200 crore (~$160 million) collection.
Another difference is the political nature of the film. Jana Gana Mana held back no punches, criticizing the state of India and Indian society in a plethora of ways. Other pan-Indian films attempt to be apolitical, even if their narratives cannot fully escape politicization. The political messaging of Jana Gana Mana may give it more meaning, but limits its mass commercial appeal.
The finances aside, Jana Gana Mana’s challenging of the pan-Indian film’s young orthodoxy mainly comes in its production. The film was released in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada – notably omitting Hindi. While the reason for this isn’t clear, it may have to do with different censorship issues affecting different audiences. The heavy and radical political messaging in Jana Gana Mana may have been diluted in a possible Hindi dub. Regardless of the language you watch it in, however, the dialogue and setting are confusing. Some characters speak Malayali, some Tamil, some Telugu, and the film is set in Karnataka. I watched the film in Tamil, and often found myself having to rewind a couple of seconds because I didn’t pay attention to the subtitles, and the dialogue had switched to Telugu or some other language.
After reading some of lead Prithviraj’s comments, in addition to one of his monologues in the film, much of this started to make sense. Prithviraj wished to redefine “pan-Indian” cinema as narratives that viewers anywhere can relate to. Rather than pulling superstars from different industries and creating generic action-filled content that would appeal to nearly any audience on Earth, Jana Gana Mana crafts a narrative that can happen in any city or village in India. Prithviraj’s character, Advocate Aravind Swaminathan, makes a similar point in the film. He points out that we see caste-based atrocities occur all the time in the news, but that’s always somewhere else – be it Kerala, Bihar, Punjab or Odisha. Swaminathan reminds the courtroom and the viewer that rather, these all happened in one place – India.
Jana Gana Mana has its flaws – it is too ambitious at points, tackles too many issues at once, and may feed into savarna saviourism – but is nonetheless a new blueprint for the “pan-Indian” film. Jana Gana Mana shows that you don’t need a fast and flashy commercial film that appeals to all audiences to succeed, rather, highlighting sociopolitical issues that affect us all is just as “pan-Indian”.