Baahubali 2: India's answer to Lord of the Rings that's taking the world, NZ by storm
If you've been to the multiplex recently, you might have glimpsed it — an unfamiliar name alongside the latest from Vin Diesel, Disney or Dreamworks.
The swords-and-armor epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion doesn't exactly have that Hollywood pedigree. But it debuted in the US last weekend as the third top box-office draw, making nearly US$13 million — despite playing in barely 400 cinemas.
It has been the same in New Zealand, with the film finishing No. 2 at the box office in the past week, behind only Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, earning $235, 279 from just 28 screens. It finished ahead of the likes of A Dog's Purpose and much-vaunted horror film Get Out, with its two-week total so far of $723.921, putting it on course to best films like A Streetcat Named Bob and Morgan Freeman-starrer Going in Style at the New Zealand Box Office.
Worldwide, the film earned US$120 million during its first week, making it the highest-grossing Indian box-office release of all time.
So what is Baahubali 2? For one thing, it is unlike any Indian film you've seen.
A rousing piece of fantasy fiction set in an ancient kingdom, its locations are extravagant. The battle sequences are convincingly bloody. The special effects are so ambitious that, for Indian audiences, a bullfighting scene in the original Baahubali released two years ago included the letters "CGI" — computer-generated imagery — at the bottom of the screen.
There are muscled heroes, winsome heroines and plenty of dance numbers — all hallmarks of Bollywood. But Baahubali isn't a product of the mainstream, Hindi-language film industry based in the coastal city of Mumbai.
Instead, it was produced in the southern metropolis of Hyderabad, which has its own massive movie industry in the Telugu language, known, naturally, as Tollywood.
Few vernacular films have transcended their regional origins to become hits across India, a land of 1.3 billion people, with sharp regional language and cultural differences. When the original Baahubali was released nationwide, it was dubbed into Hindi with a cast unknown to most Indians.
Yet the franchise has managed to unite a fragmented Indian moviegoing population at home and abroad.
"It has shown that if you make universal content that appeals to an audience cutting across demographics, language barriers, regions, you can achieve this kind of success," says Akshaye Rathi, a film industry analyst in Mumbai.
Most of India's mega-blockbusters have been sumptuous romantic comedies or one-man dramas featuring household names such as Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, the twin titans of Bollywood. Their films have also performed the best among the large Indian diasporas in the United States and Persian Gulf.
But the Bollywood model of big-name stars and feel-good stories is faltering. Indian producers, like their Hollywood counterparts, worry about declining box-office receipts, the skyrocketing costs of talent and increasing competition from Netflix and Amazon Video, both of which are pushing hard into the Indian market.
Director S.S. Rajamouli's Baahubali franchise has more in common with ensemble epics like 300 or the Lord of the Rings films. Crew members have said that one reason the sequel has succeeded is that much of its reported US$37 million budget — lavish by Indian standards — was pumped into production and special effects, not stars.
The films' visual effects aren't as crisp as the recent Star Wars installments or Marvel superhero adaptations. But they highlight the emerging computer-animation talent at Indian studios, which are producing a growing share of Hollywood's digital effects.
India's information minister, M. Venkaiah Naidu, has called the Baahubali films an example of Indian ingenuity and "a trendsetter in terms of scale and grandeur".
A week after its opening, it continued to play to packed houses in India. Some theatres in southern India had petitioned regulators to allow five or six screenings per day. In Mumbai, weekend showings sold out hours before the opening credits.
Swanand Deshpande, 27, left a theatre in central Mumbai empty-handed around noon last Friday when tickets for an evening screening were snatched up. He said he'd return another day, drawn to the films' special effects.
"I don't think any Bollywood film matches up to the visual effects of Baahubali," he said.
Even Rajamouli, the director, seemed unable to resist his own success. Although he subtitled the sequel The Conclusion, he told Variety magazine last week that he would be open to making a third installment.
- Los Angeles Times