For almost five years, the cast and crew of the two Baahubali films immersed themselves in the fictional kingdom of Mahishmati, filming the good vs evil conflict partly inspired by Hindu mythology.
Leading man Prabhas acted in no other movie in between, living with the long hair and beard sported by the titular character of Baahubali 1: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, during the entire making of the twin movies.
The first thing he did after shooting ended was to get a haircut.
The producers, Arka Mediaworks, spent as much as Rs450 crore on the two parts—helmed by S.S. Rajamouli—each of which was the most expensive movie ever made in India.
Not only were the costs massive for a local production, the time invested in its filming was unthinkable in an era where filmmakers typically wrap up shooting in six months and move on to their next venture.
“We had no choice (but to keep at it for five years),” said Shobu Yarlagadda, one of the partners in Arka Mediaworks. “Once we set the ball rolling, we had to take the project to its rightful conclusion.”
Were the time, effort and money worth it?
The answer came when Baahubali 2 hit the screens on 28 April and in 10 days flat crossed Rs1,000 crore in world box-office earnings across the four languages—Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam—it released in.
The movie had grossed Rs1,060 crore (Rs860 crore in India and Rs200 crore overseas) as of Sunday, 7 May. To put it in perspective, no Indian movie has even come close to earning Rs1,000 crore.
The closest was PK, the 2014 Aamir Khan-starrer about an alien who lands on earth, which earned Rs792 crore.
“The biggest milestone has been reached by the biggest blockbuster of Indian cinema!!!! #1000croreBaahubali @ssrajamouli,” tweeted producer-director Karan Johar, whose Dharma Productions presented the Hindi version.
Trade analyst Komal Nahta estimates the film will end up making at least Rs1,000 crore in India alone within 5-6 weeks, the longest possible theatrical run for an Indian film release today.
In India, the epic adventure emerged as the highest opening day and opening weekend earner with collections of Rs121 crore and Rs385 crore, respectively, across its four versions.
Online ticketing platform BookMyShow sold a million tickets within 24 hours of opening bookings. Multiplex chains such as PVR Ltd were selling tickets for as high as Rs2,400 in their poshest screens.
In the southern Indian city of Chennai, the 44-year-old Vettri Theatre would have ordinarily welcomed the release of Marvel’s much celebrated superhero film Guardians of Galaxy Vol. 2 in India on 5 May. But managing director Rakesh Gowthaman could afford to give the Hollywood movie that stars the likes of Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper just one show in his 1,200-seater.
“You could be inside the theatre or at a formal gathering outside in the city, the only topic of discussion is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion,” Gowthaman said. “Never before have we had the same film being shown on both our screens simultaneously and run house-full at that. No matter how good the film is, the norm is to a see a drop post Wednesday. In this case, there has been no dip till the eighth day of release and booking for the eleventh day (second Monday) is like the fourth day (first Monday). At the moment, it’s a prestige symbol to watch this film.”
The spectacular success is not limited to India.
The film was raking it in the US and setting new records in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. The film had earned Rs105.17 crore in North America by 7 May, trade experts said.
“What the record-breaking run of Baahubali 2 has done is to focus global attention on the fact that an Indian film can make the kind of money a Hollywood blockbuster can and, perhaps, even surpass that,” said film critic Shubhra Gupta. That’s in the context of the fact Rajamouli’s film opened at $10.1 million in North America, trumping the Tom Hanks-starrer, The Circle, that made $9.3 million.
Baahubali (the name literally means one with strong arms), both parts of which are characterized by spectacular war scenes and dazzling special effects, revolves around the conflict between two cousins, the golden-hearted Baahubali and the evil Bhallala Deva, both brought up by the latter’s mother Sivagami, in the kingdom of Mahishmati.
“It’s the kind of grandeur never seen before on screen, coupled with VFX (visual effects), clearly ahead of its time and a story based on elements of fantasy, Indian traditions and values,” said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema, explaining the unprecedented success of the movie. “Today, when people want to make a movie in 6-8 months, imagine giving four-and-a-half years of your life to a project.”
In 2015, the 2-hour-38-minute long Baahubali 1: The Beginning had ended with its titular lead getting killed by close associate Kattappa in a conspiracy Rajamouli promised to unravel two years later.
He does so in Baahubali 2, which has a longer—3 hours and 17 minutes—running time than part 1 and, predictably, ends with good triumphing over evil.
In the interim, the question “Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali” inspired countless memes, jokes and spoofs.
The success of the first part nationally was a shot in the arm and helped the team stay focused in taking the movie to its denouement, Yarlagadda said.
Also read: Wear ‘Baahubali’ on your sleeve
Confidence in the quality of the product they were creating under Rajamouli’s direction pushed the filmmakers.
Plus, it wouldn’t have made sense to pull the plug on it midway.
What’s remarkable about Baahubali 2 is the pan-India reach it attained, smashing box office records even in Hindi, although originally conceived in Telugu and Tamil. The distribution network provided by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions and Anil Thadani’s AA Films, the presenters of the Hindi version, helped.
The second film managed a massive screen count (nearly 4,000 for the Hindi version, compared with the Bollywood benchmark of 4,500 for a big production), thanks partly to the hype created by the first instalment. Johar and Thadani had sought as many as 1,800-2,000 screens for Baahubali 1: The Beginning in 2015.
“Dharma and Karan’s name and endorsement helped us connect with the Hindi audience, especially for the first part,” Yarlagadda said. “Anil Thadani believed in the film and fought with exhibitors to get us a great Hindi release in 2015. I think his distribution experience, combined with Karan’s name, played a big role in the success of the first part in Hindi.”
Secondly, a carefully strategized marketing plan, for which public relations and communications firm Spice was brought on board as early as 2013, was another factor.
“The primary response to how Baahubali became a national film is that it wanted to become one from the first day,” said Prabhat Choudhary of Spice. “That ambition was always there, plus it was supplemented with effort and resources. It didn’t happen by default nor did we stumble upon it.”
The first step, Choudhary said, was to highlight the budget of the movie and the fact that it was the most expensive movie ever made in India, as early as in 2013, and shed its regional connotations.
After the release and success of part one, the filmmakers tried to tap a wider audience, with promotional events taking places in cities as diverse as Chandigarh in the north to Gandhinagar in the west.
The image of lead actor Prabhas carrying a giant Shivalinga (a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva) was put out for the Shivaratri festival that’s celebrated in honour of Shiva. Special ‘Baahubali’ fireworks were released for Diwali.
As it ceaselessly shatters box-office records, Baahubali has come as a wake-up call to star-driven Bollywood, as the Hindi film industry with a pan-India reach is known.
“The audience is impressed by the idea of a premium product,” said film critic Raja Sen. “In our (Hindi) films, we spend so much more money on the actors than we do on production that the actors have become a stand-in for the impressive scale of a product. In this case, it’s not about the actors, it’s about the fact that we know this is a big film...”
Hindi movie fans, Sen added, had never seen anything like Baahubali and its success is testimony to the fact that people are fatigued by star vehicles sans any meaningful content or production values being imposed on them every couple of months.
“Which is why I don’t think anyone is begrudging that Baahubali is breaking Salman, Aamir or Shah Rukh’s records. The fact is that Baahubali has found its own playing field,” Sen said.
Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, known as the Khan triumvirate, are three of India’s most popular movie stars.
Of course, Baahubali, which ends with a popular revolt against the despotic evil cousin who meets a fiery end, has its critics.
Sen, for one, says the climax was unconvincing.
“I feel the major issue with the second film was since 80-90% of it was told in flashback, it left very little space for the people’s revolution at the end. You never really got to see all those people rally around except in one scene at the end and I think that was a little ineffective,” Sen said.
Then, of course, there is the abundance of grandeur itself.
“I’m in awe of Rajamouli’s scale and ambition, but I personally found the first part better; this one was a bit of a sensory overload,” said film critic Anupama Chopra. “There was too much of everything and the answer to the whole ‘Why Kattappa killed Baahubali’ question was a bit anti-climatic; it was not as magical as I thought it would be. By the end of it, I felt a bit exhausted, which I didn’t with the first one. I wasn’t bored, but I felt a bit battered—the background music, heightened emotions, the visuals, all of it was too much for me. I wish I’d left feeling more exhilarated than exhausted.”
All said and done, the scale of Baahubali’s success is so unprecedented for an Indian movie that it isn’t surprising that the world is sitting up and taking notice.
Some Bollywood box office duds they backed have prompted Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney, to pull out and local production houses to go slow on financing films.
“Hollywood studios have come to India, burnt their fingers and retreated. I think this film is going to get them to look at India with new eyes,” Gupta said. “Here is a filmmaker (S.S. Rajamouli) who’s completely on his own, who may have had technical support from people around the globe, but it is his vision and a strongly Indian one at that, which is now going across Indian borders and traditional NRI (non-resident Indian) pockets, catching attention globally and creating the kind of box-office buzz that nothing else has before.”
The box-office figures speak for themselves, but has Baahubali has brought to the table something no other Indian film has ever managed to do?
“At its core, I don’t think it does anything no Indian film has done before. Baahubali once again establishes that our truest mode of expression is the masala mode, which doesn’t just mean having a mix of elements but going deep down into our mythical archetypes and bringing things from there,” said film critic Baradwaj Rangan. “Also, what really makes the difference here is Rajamouli’s vision. We’ve seen older films like this, but not one made in the special effects era which is a little puzzling because you would think this kind of film is the most obvious one to make at this time. When a popular story and mythical archetype is updated with this kind of grandeur, it’s very new. That makes it a must-watch experience on the big screen.”
The second thing to note, Rangan said, is that movies that work with a large audience are traditionally movies that are common between those audiences—in this case, the myths and comic book stories all Indians grew up with.
“When you’re talking of a story that connects with everybody with this never-before kind of spectacle, I think it says that at heart, we’re all the same wide-eyed Indian children,” added Rangan.