S.S. Rajamouli’s much-anticipated war epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion opened to a historic first day collection of Rs121 crore. India’s current all time highest grosser, Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, had opened to a first day figure of Rs29.78 crore. Shah Rukh Khan’s last release Raees did a lifetime business of approximately Rs137 crore.
As per initial trends, Baahubali 2 is looking at a weekend collection of Rs300 crore. And while it may still be distant dream, a global box office haul of Rs1,000 crore is not off the table.
The success of Baahubali 2 is not surprising but its scale is most certainly astounding. The comparison with Hindi films may seem a tab bit unfair given the difference in screen count of over 2,000 but the fact that a Telugu film has released in over 6,000 screens is enough to establish its unprecedented triumph.
The 2017 report of Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce (Ficci) dangled danger signs for the film industry as domestic theatrical collection for 2015-16 fell by 1.60% to Rs9,980 crore even as the overall revenue grew by a mere 3% to Rs14,230 crore. The growth in film revenue was the lowest among all media.
The Indian film industry has been in a state of distress for some years. The growth in box office, the primary source of revenue for most players in the film entertainment chain, has largely been based on inflated ticket prices rather than an organic increase in footfalls. The biggest Indian films are still watched by no more than 3-4 crore people in theatres, says trade website Box Office India. That’s a paltry number given the country’s massive 1.3 billion population.
The high ticket prices, partly on account of the entertainment tax (state tax), has resulted in conditioning audiences to stay at home and wait for the event or tentpole movie.
But are Indian filmmakers making enough tentpole films?
The Hollywood calendar is chock-a-block with big-budget spectacles, with diverse genres-from sci-fi to superhero to dystopian ones. Their export to India in the last two years has seen enormous success, be it The Jungle Book or The Fast and The Furious franchise.
Indian filmmakers, on the other hand, from Mumbai to Chennai, are content with hiring big stars and not investing enough in the film-be it the big-draw VFX or the high-concept ideas.
Add to that a complete apathy on the part of the government, with low investment in all parts of the entertainment chain-from resources to regulation-and there is little to sustain the industry. Single screens numbers are falling alarmingly while the growth in multiplex screens hasn’t been near compensatory enough.
Neighbouring China, on the other hand, scaled up in the last decade to become the world’s second largest film market in the world and looks to beat US to reach the top by 2019.
In these trying times for the Indian film industry, Rajamouli has achieved something that’s as unbelievable as it is admirable. In an era when filmmakers are showcasing themes far removed from the Indian experiences and culture, Rajamouli picked the most potent weapon, mythology, and turned it into a war spectacle. His treatment of the subject is in sync with the mass expectations, full with song and dances, action, and most important of all exhibitionist. He’s made a VFX-heavy spectacle that can only be enjoyed on the big screen.
And Rajamouli has achieved all of this without having pan-Indian stars to draw in the crowds.
The big Hindi event movies this year include Salman Khan-starrer Tubelight and Tiger Zinda Hai, Shah Rukh Khan-starrer untitled film by Imtiaz Ali, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massive budgeted Padmavati. Three of these four aren’t spectacle films and won’t close on to the reach or success of Baahubali 2.
The only comparable Indian film in the offing is another south Indian venture, 2.0, director Shankar’s sci-fi sequel to Robot featuring superstars Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar. But that’s expected to hit the screens only in 2018.
The mainstream media, perhaps, needs to give up its obsession with Bollywood and condescension towards non-Hindi films.
James Cameron’s Avatar, the planet’s highest grossing film till date, left minimal impact on pop culture. And Baahubali may be heading in the same direction. It has, however, laid bare the restive potential of the box office as well as the myopia of dependence on stars.
But where does Rajamouli go from here?
The absurd success of brand Baahubali has put him in an enviable position. He now has the biggest of stars and budgets at his disposal and given the tremendous craft he’s shown, despite criticism over political undertones in the film, he should think of taking the Indian cinema forward. Rajamouli has shown interest in making the Mahabharata and he may never find a more opportune time to realize that dream.
As its existential crisis deepens, the Indian film industry needs to take that direction, now more than ever.
(All figures sourced from Bollywood Hungama)