Breaking barriers with ‘Baahubali’

The success of ‘Baahubali’ worldwide and ‘Dangal’ in China indicates the untapped business potential of Indian movies on foreign shores


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The tremendous success, both at home and abroad, of S.S. Rajamouli’s latest Baahubali offering marks a seminal moment for the Indian film industry. Just about every day since its release three weeks ago, the larger-than-life war fantasy movie has smashed a record or two—most notably, the Rs1,000 crore mark—and is now well on its way to the Rs1,500 crore mark. It was expected that the film would draw viewers in large numbers to movie theatres, given the stellar box-office performance of its 2015 prequel. But this level of success is unprecedented—and the big bucks is just one part of the story.

Two other trends deserve attention: First, the reshaping of the Indian cinema dynamic wherein only Hindi films produced in Mumbai have been perceived to be pan-national, while all other films produced in different parts of the country are considered “regional”. The Baahubali franchise has challenged that dynamic in a way few other “regional” films have.

Produced in Telugu and Tamil and dubbed in Malayalam and Hindi (and German, French, Japanese and English), both the Baahubali films were taken beyond their traditional markets and released to a country-wide audience. This was a big step, especially for the first film, for it brought unfamiliar actors from the Telugu film industry on to the national stage and made them household names across the country. Even Kabali, the 2016 Tamil gangster drama that was screened widely outside south India and is possibly the only comparable film in this context, had the distinctive advantage of being a Rajinikanth starrer.

The second Baahubali film builds on the successes of the first, consolidates the trend and proves beyond doubt that it is entirely possible for a film not produced in Hindi and not featuring Bollywood stars to have a nationwide viewership. This is an important message for film-makers across the country who will hopefully be inspired and encouraged to bring their art and craft outside their regional centres and cater to a much larger audience.

The second trend that has emerged with Baahubali’s phenomenal performance is the untapped potential of Indian movies in foreign markets. Here, the Baahubali franchise is in good company; the wrestling drama Dangal not only followed it into the Rs1,000 crore club but was able to do so on the back of impressive performances in China and Taiwan. Indeed, in China, the Aamir Khan-starrer even beat Hollywood’s Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 to make it to the top spot in box-office sales for the week ending 14 May. In fact, Dangal has made more money in China than its entire Rs387.38 crore ($58.2 million) lifetime collection in India.

What makes this development even more fascinating is that China is generally not considered to be part of the “traditional” foreign market for Indian films, which includes the US, United Arab Emirates, UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, some north African countries like Morocco and Egypt, some pockets in Western Europe, and India’s immediate neighbours. Note that most of these traditional markets are either home to Indian diaspora or share some sort of cultural affinity with India. China doesn’t really fit into either category. And yet, Dangal’s success there proves what some industry analysts have been saying for a long time—that the large Chinese market holds a lot of promise for Indian films, if only filmmakers are willing to take the risk and venture out. This is exactly what Khan did. Already a familiar face in China, where his previous film 3 Idiots was hugely popular, he conducted an extensive publicity tour for Dangal and made his presence felt on Chinese social media as well.

To be sure, Bollywood has a long history, going back to the 1930s, of screening its films abroad. In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor-starrers Awara and Shree 420 took Moscow by storm. Later, Haathi Mere Saathi, featuring Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja, created history in Singapore and Malaysia, while the Mithun Chakraborty-starrer Disco Dancer registered the highest turnout for any film in the Soviet Union in 1984. In Egypt, Amitabh Bachchan is still a much loved icon, evidenced by the rousing reception he received in Cairo in March this year.

More recently, Indian producers have also been seeking out new markets in hitherto unexplored territories. For example, Ki & Ka was released in Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast, Bajrangi Bhaijaan was screened in Poland, and Mary Kom in several Central Asian countries. Yet, in most cases, they have struggled to break into the mainstream. This is where Baahubali and Dangal have succeeded, prompting comparisons with Hollywood productions that are as much part of the mainstream as the movies produced locally. Indeed, Hollywood makes a significant amount of its revenue overseas, and it will be interesting to see if Indian film-makers can do the same.

Baahubali and Dangal have shown that it is possible but the question is: Are they just one-off successes or will they emerge as trendsetters in the long run?

What does the success of Baahubali and Dangal overseas mean for the Indian film industry? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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