Move aside Marvel, Indian cinematic universes have arrived

Our time has come. The world no longer identifies Indian cinema as the land of 'DDLJ'. Thanks to the internet, especially to those YouTube reaction channels hosted by American film buffs with an affinity for Indian content, the term 'Bollywood' is going out of vogue.

The pandemic also did its bit.

For reasons yet to be decoded, regional industries made a record-shattering comeback to the big screen post-lockdown, particularly the ones in the south. However, the so-called poster industry of Indian cinema has been struggling to make an impact, doling out a string of flops.

Perhaps the Southern film industries and Bollywood approached their months of confinement differently. While the former may have used this time to dream big and get ready for the international recognition which remained elusive due to the towering presence of Hindi cinema, Bollywood clung to a mix of nationalism, crass comedy and botched biopics.

Ofcourse it crashed and burned, with the audience now having access to a much larger umbrella of world movies, thanks to mushrooming OTT platforms.

Barring a few commendable indie projects, Hindi cinema keeps going back to its tried, tested and failed formula.

Political propaganda finding its way through the cracks has not helped Bollywood either.

Indian cinema's scale and scope far exceeded Bollywod's sphere of influence in the past two years, though it's been the case since long.

Cinematic wars a lot closer to home

Sure, it is exciting to watch Marvel and DC fans ripping apart each other on which comic universe would survive an all-out war.

But we may not need them much longer if the present scenario is any indication.

Already, there are sparring matches on social media about how Shibu's actions are justified in Minnal Murali or how Vikram's rogue Black Squad should go on an international mission to bust the cartels of Mexico.

When there's so much happening a lot closer to home, why should we bother about Doctor Strange and his multiverse of madness?

While it could be some time before Indian cinema reaches the budgetary scale of a Marvel or DC movie, the trend is highly encouraging.

We now have producers who are ready to take the kind of risk that would have been out of the question a decade ago.

International collaborations boosted the quality of our visual effects drastically.

If all goes well, Indian cinema may even have its first multiverse in the near future.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

If you're just being introduced to Indian cinema, it won't be hard to catch up with the different universes here.

If Stan Lee had a plethora of superheroes with dark back stories ready for Hollywood to adapt, our heroes are made from scratch for the screen.

While they may not possess inhuman strength or the power to fly -- not looking at you Minnal Murali -- they are more than handy when it comes to handling a Kalashnikov or an M1919 Browning.

Universe vs Sequel

Before we dive into the different cinematic universes, let's get a handle on two things – a sequel is not a universe, but a sequel can be part of a universe. A sequel is usually the continuation of an original story, wherein the same characters from the first part reprise their roles to carry the story into new arenas.

A movie becomes a universe when different stories with different characters all have a common thread tying them together, only to meet at some point.

Universes will have spin-offs, crossovers and even sequels building its premise. Let's take Marvel for example. The entire Avengers universe had at least 22 spin-offs, crossovers and sequels before Endgame.

Spin-offs are more like separate movies for a character from the original thread.

Every Avenger had a spin-off movie to give the audience some backstory about each of them and how they got to where they were.

Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of sequels and universes, let's look at the Indian cinematic universes that are in the making and the various possibilities it holds in terms of storytelling:

Loki Cinematic Universe (Kaithi, Vikram)

Poster of the movie Vikram, Suriya in a still from Vikram, Karthi in a still from Kaithi

Beginning with arguably the most exciting one of the lot. Lokesh Kanagaraj has risen to the top with his craft in a short span of time.

He seems to have cracked the code of treading the thin line between larger-than-life and grounded in reality. Lokesh, apart from Pa Ranjith and Vetrimaaran, is probably the only director in the Tamil industry where a superstar's aura won't interfere with the story.

With Kaithi, starring Karthi, Lokesh announced his arrival to the big league.

After Vikram, he truly has become a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

If Kaithi ended in a cliffhanger over the protagonist Dilli's true identity, Vikram just opened the door to a plethora of spin-offs and sequels that could perhaps build to the most exciting finale in Indian cinema.

If you haven't watched either of these movies, sincere apologies for the spoilers ahead.

Lokesh is a fan of Breaking Bad, Narcos and Nolan's Batman trilogy. Vikram's colour tone, climax scenes and the songs used indicate the same in a 'sort-of-tribute' manner.

Gone are the days when a few kilos of cocaine for a couple of crores would blow up our minds.

In Vikram, we are talking about the raw substance that can be used to produce tonnes of cocaine worth lakhs of crores. It doesn't get bigger than this. Everybody is involved, from corrupt government officials to kid peddlers.

The Black Squad, which functions as the government's sleeper cell, despite being a convenient plot device to get away with a lot of questions, in itself can make for a separate movie.

Though Lokesh covered Special Agent Vikram's journey since the pilot batch of Black Squad was terminated, Amar, the leader of the latest Black Squad batch, played by the brilliant Fahadh Faasil, is another character that calls for a spin-off.

In Vikram, he joins the squad of masked vigilantes, all agents who went rogue after their job cost them the lives of their dear ones.

Interestingly, Lokesh recently tweeted that he does have a backstory for Amar.

Vijay Sethupathi's eccentric Sandhanam is supposedly dead if the movie's end is to be believed. However, it doesn't show him dying. Jaffer Sadiq's character, who is a member of Sandhanam's gang, seems to have survived Vikram's wrath in the climax. The possibility of his survival remains intact.

Sandhanam may have even been rescued before the place was reduced to ashes by a string of RDX bombs. With Vijay Sethupathi being among Lokesh's most flexible actors, it may not be far-fetched to assume this won't be the last we will see of Sandhanam.

And of course, there's Rolex, the character we only get a glimpse of in a powerful cameo in Vikram, but could turn out to be the most savage antagonist in Tamil cinema. Suriya lending his skills for the role makes the thought of all the titans coming together exhilarating.

Lokesh has announced his next with Thalapathy Vijay and a tweet that followed has raised the suspense of Loki Cinematic Universe through the roof.

In the tweet, he asked all fans to wait and watch if Vijay would be part of the universe he was building.

If so, Indian cinema is in for a ride like never before with Lokesh Kanagaraj on the wheels.

The Astraverse of Brahmastra

Ayan Mukherjee's Brahmastra could be Bollywood's big-ticket out of the mediocre rut it is in now.

Brahmastra Part One: Shiva is intended to serve as the first film in a planned trilogy as part of its cinematic universe called Astraverse. Brahmastra will be the closest we have gotten to a Marvel movie so far in terms of VFX.

If Amitabh Bachchan's burly voice in the trailer is anything to go by, Brahmastra is a supernatural weapon capable of destroying the universe.

And it is up to Shiva, a DJ who has a distinct connect with the element of fire, to get hold of the weapon before the dark forces get to it.

Starring Ranbir Kapoor as Shiva, Ayan Mukherjee is coming back with a story after an eight-year hiatus, his last being the much simpler Yeh Jawani Hain Deewani.

Brahmastra also stars Alia Bhatt, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna Akkineni and Mouni Roy.

Nagarjuna's presence in a movie like Brahmastra can be seen as Bollywood's acknowledgement of south Indian actors' pan-Indian appeal.

The elements of the universe have always made for interesting fantasies and Brahmastra's take on the same will be a visual treat, the trailer of which has already caught the attention of the world.

Adding to the excitement, fan theories are all over the place claiming the mysterious figure wielding a trident in the trailer is none other than King Khan.

In a movie of this scale, an SRK cameo wouldn't be a surprise.

Brahmastra Part One: Shiva releases on September 9, 2022.

HIT – A crime thriller universe from Nani

Telugu star Nani recently confirmed that his crime thriller franchise HIT (Homicide Intervention Team) will open up avenues for a universe.

Produced by Nani, he has already planned seven movies under this franchise. If reports are to be believed, all seven movies will have different protagonists, with Nani playing the lead in one of them, and all of them coming together to solve a case of gigantic proportions.

HIT: The First Case released in 2020 and was a profitable venture.

An action-thriller film directed by debutant Sailesh Kolanu and produced by Prashanti Tipirneni, HIT features Vishwak Sen and Ruhani Sharma in the lead roles.

Kolanu has also helmed the Hindi remake of the First Case. In a line, the First Case is about a police officer in the homicide intervention team who must overcome his struggles with his tragic past to investigate a case involving a missing woman.

HIT: The Second Case will release on July 29.

Written and directed by Sailesh Kolanu and produced by Prashanti Tipirneni it stars Adivi Sesh, Meenakshi Chaudhary and Bhanu Chander in lead roles.

Nani wants the franchise to be "concept oriented" rather than "star oriented," and hence moved the setting from Telangana to Andhra Pradesh and chose Sesh as the protagonist in the second installment.

The Telugu industry could be the second to give India a cop universe after Rohit Shetty.

HIT: The First Case is available on Prime.

Malayali's favourite superhero - Minnal Murali

Minnal Murali

This particular universe may not need much explanation for Keralites at least. Basil Joseph's Minnal Murali, despite releasing on Netflix, became one of the most celebrated hits in Malayalam cinema.

The film even bagged the State Awards for sound mixing, costume design, and visual effects, among others.

Basil Joseph showed the world how a superhero movie can be made on a shoestring budget.

Apparently, all it takes is some smart physics. Using old-school techniques and a decent amount of VFX, Basil pulled off a Marvel-like movie.

The antagonist Shibu is one of the most celebrated villains of Malayalam cinema today. With some even daring to compare Guru Somasundaram's character to Nolan's Joker, Shibu garnered instant praise for his convincing portrayal.

The possibilities of Jaison aka Minnal Murali saving many more villages before rescuing the world are aplenty. Jaison and Shibu got their powers after being struck by a lightning bolt. Perhaps, they weren't the only ones to be struck by the lightning in Kurukkanmoola, the fictional village in which the story takes place.

Interestingly, Minnal Murali takes place in the same universe as Desham, where Basil's debut movie Kunjiramayanam was based.

Considering Basil's knack for humour, it would make for hilarious viewing if Dhyan's character in Kunjiramayanam, Laalu, too is struck by the lightning and uses those powers to get back at Kunjiraman.

A face-off between Minnal Murali and Laalu could be a possibility. Any character from Desham getting superpowers will be hilarious. Here's hoping these ideas manifest in Basil Joseph's line of thought.

Minnal Murali is available on Netflix.

Rohit Shetty's cop universe

A still from Sooryavanshi.

What started as a remake of Suriya's Singham has now turned into a larger-than-life cop universe for Rohit Shetty.

In Singham, he had the rough and tough Ajay Devgn playing Bajirao Singham in parts one and two.

Then came the ever-energetic Simmba, starring the real-life live-wire Ranveer Singh. It is while making Simmba that Rohit had the idea to turn the franchise into a cop universe “much like Marvel's Avengers.”

The idea gave birth to Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar and the other two appearing in cameos.

There is nothing subtle about Rohit Shetty's craft. It's chaos in overdrive. Sometimes, it could get too loud for the viewer, but the universe does have fans.

It's only a matter of time before John Abraham, India's favourite nationalist after Akshay Kumar and Kangana Ranaut, is roped into the universe to play another maverick cop.

Rohit Shetty's next, Cirkus, starring Ranveer Singh, is slated for Christmas release.

Now, there are some crossovers fans would love to see for the pure thrill of it. Here are few such fan-theory crossovers of popular flicks/characters:

Georgekutty vs Sethurama Iyer

Mohanlal in a still from Drishyam 2, Mammootty in a still from CBI 5: The Brain

Besides bringing the Big Ms of Mollywood on screen together, the result of this movie could transcend into chaos in real life, with fans of both the legends not being very tolerant of their star losing to the other.

Jeethu Joseph's Drishyam, arguably, is the best suspense thriller to come out of Malayalam cinema. S N Swamy's CBI series is the longest-running franchise in movie history with an ardent fan following. It would be interesting to see if Georgekutty's preparedness would succeed in getting past Sethurama Iyer's keen eyes.

Salman vs Hrithik vs SRK

Salman Khan in a still from Tiger Zinda Hai, Hrithik Roshan in War and Shah Rukh Khan's first look from his upcoming spy thriller Pathan.

Rumours are rife among fans and in the industry that the three spies – Salman's Tiger, Hrithik's Kabir (War) and SRK's Pathaan (yet to release) – will meet each other at some point. Will it be a war of spies, or will they get together against a common enemy? Whatever the possibility, it will be exciting to see the Khans and Hrithik fighting it out on the big screen.

Salman's Tiger 3 is scheduled for release next year. So is Pathaan. Director Siddharth Anand helmed War and is also the man behind Pathaan. Hence, the idea of a universe wouldn't be far-fetched.

Some crossovers that shouldn't have been

Balram vs Tharadas by I V Sasi is to date the worst crossover movie to have come out of Malayalam cinema. Released in 2006, with Katrina Kaif, who was only beginning to make a name in the industry, in the lead with Mammootty in a double role, it was a crossover sequel of the Malayalam movies Athirathram and Inspector Balram.

Mammootty plays both Balram and Tharadas, with Katrina Kaif in the lead.

Made at a cost of Rs 18 crore, which was a big-budget by Mollyood standards at the time, the movie bombed at the box office, with even the fans being extremely put off.

The Housefull franchise is one such series that should have called it quits with the second or third one. The franchise keeps getting worse with each movie. The comedy hardly lands and the characters look out of place always.

The list of franchises that should have put in the towel could go on, but we are keeping to movies that have potential.

Some interesting Malayali crossovers

Malayalam cinema, over the years, has had some interesting crossovers. 

Harisree Ashokan's iconic Ramanan from Punjabi House makes an appearance in Raafi's Role Models (2017). A much older Ramanan reminisces how his boss Gangadharan, played by the late Cochin Haneefa, cared for him despite being hot-headed all the time. A nice little cameo that once again had little impact on the story, but was a welcome one, considering the movie was a difficult watch.

Malayali's Ravanan psychiatrist Dr Sunny made a comeback in Priyadarshan's 2013 movie Geethanjali. A remake of the Korean film Alone, Geethanjali had a tough time at the box office. What irritated the audience more was Dr Sunny using some of the iconic lines from Manichitrathazhu, the best psychological horror film made in Malayalam, to rekindle memories of the original. It was a hard pass for viewers.

Crossovers will always be encouraged, but only if the makers have actual purpose for the character than using them to trap the audience into a mediocre movie.

In short, with a lot more fun collaborations, weird crossovers and mind-blowing origin stories brewing, we wouldn't be amiss in believing these are exciting times for Indian cinema.

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