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Fantasy is the ineluctable flavour of Indian cinema this season, and its call is distinct and, to its fanatical votaries, delectable. The roaring success of S.S. Rajamouli’s magnum opus, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion—called the ‘Baahubuster of all times’ in trade circles—has just explored a humongous global movie market waiting to be tapped to its optimal potential like no other movie ever did in the past.
Touted as India’s answer to Game of Thrones and Star Wars, the much-awaited sequel to the 2015-hit, Bahubali: The Beginning has been shattering box office records, earning over Rs 1,000 crore worldwide in barely ten days since it was released on April 28. The Telugu-Tamil bilingual starring Prabhas in the eponymous role has rewritten many records, not only in the domestic circuit but also abroad, including in the US and Pakistan.
The movie, dubbed in various languages, including Hindi, collected over $16 million in the first two weeks in the US—no Indian movie had ever challenged Hollywood there in the box-office bout. It stunned trade analysts by emerging the third-highest grosser in the US by collecting $10.1 million in its first weekend itself, next only to The Fate of the Furious and How to be a Latin Lover—the best-ever performance, by far, by an Indian movie.
Even though Baahubali 2 was released in merely 450 theatres in the US, it raced ahead of even the Tom Hanks-Emma Watson starrer, The Circle, forcing western film analysts to look closely at this Indian phenomenon. Even without being a mainstream Bollywood movie with a star cast with a massive fan-following, the film registered the third-largest opening for a foreign-language film in US history after the Chinese blockbusters Hero (2002) and Fearless (2006).
Come to think of it, Baahubali 2 doesn’t even have a fresh plot. The saga of two warring kingdoms has been told ad nauseam in various languages for centuries, but the way the theme was tackled from the cinematic and aesthetic points of view captivated viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Rajamouli’s ingenious story-telling, aided by stunning visuals, the grandeur of the sets, scintillating action sequences and a cerebral use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) have all given Baahubali 2 the proverbial X-factor that recent Bollywood blockbusters are bereft of. And it catapulted the craze for fantasy thrillers to an all-time high, even when Bollywood has always remained sceptical about box office returns of the genre. Karan Johar, whose Dharma Productions has distributed its Hindi version, tweeted to celebrate its success, saying “the biggest milestone has been reached by the biggest blockbuster of Indian cinema—Rs 1,000 crore by Baahubali 2”.
Experts believe that its unprecedented success will bring home-grown superheroes in vogue even in Bollywood, not merely down South—just the way Sholay (1975) had unleashed an avalanche of dacoit dramas, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge (1995) an array of romantic musicals and Dil Chahta Hai (2001) an excess of the millennial love stories. “Baahubali will definitely be a turning point in the history of fantasy thrillers,” says film writer and Bollywood analyst R. Mohan. “It has proved that audiences, cutting across linguistic and regional lines, love this genre more than anything else, provided the movies are made well. There has always been a huge market for such films.”
Mohan believes that fantasy movies usually have a universal theme liked by all age groups and, as the Baahubali series has proved, do equally well at multiplexes and single-screen theatres.
This was amply manifested two years ago when Bahubali: The Beginning stormed the box office by collecting Rs 650 crore worldwide, even though many in Bollywood had considered it to be a flash in the pan. The film had, after all, failed to overtake the worldwide collections of Aamir Khan blockbuster PK (2014), which had netted Rs 792 crore. When Dangal (2016) emerged as a biggest grosser in India with Rs 387 crore, trade pundits thought Khan’s record was going to last long. But less than six months since Dangal’s release, Baahubali’s sequel has slain all Bollywood blockbusters, earning over Rs 250 crore more than any movie starring the Khans, and that too in just two weeks. In its third week now, it shows no signs of slowing down; the dubbed Hindi version alone looks set to cross Rs 400 crore soon.
Film-makers, industry pundits, people from different walks of life—Baahubali 2 has gripped and mesmerised them all. Union minister for Information and Broadcasting Venkaiah Naidu waxed eloquent, comparing it to all-time Hollywood classics. “I have just watched Baahubali 2. It is a great visual treat, giving the experience of the legendary Hollywood films Ben Hur and Ten Commandments,” he gushed in a tweet. His colleague Rajyavardhan Singh Rathod hailed Baahubali team for setting new standards of film making and doing India proud. The Andhra Pradesh cabinet, in fact, congratulated Rajamouli, singling out Baahubali’s great contribution to Telugu cinema.
Elsewhere, veteran film-maker Mahesh Bhatt hailed the multilingual as a game-changer, a kind of movie that “redefines everything one thought and knew about Indian movies”, while superstar Rajnikanth described Rajamouli as “God’s own child”. Rishi Kapoor was so overwhelmed that he posted a tweet at the interval, expressing his wish to purchase a 2BHK house at the picturesque locales where it had been shot. “Seeing Baahubali 2 now. Interval. Chat later about the film. I want to know where has this film been shot? I want a 2 BHK there! Any agent??” he quipped.
This, despite the fact Rajamouli has always had a reputation of being a master story-teller whose vision is complemented by an epic grandeur. It was first noticed when he revived the fantasy genre with his Telugu superhit, Magadheera (2009). Still, it took back-to-back Baahubali blockbusters to underscore the reach and scope of fantasy dramas revolving around larger-than-life heroes. Veteran trade analyst Komal Nahta, however, says it will take time before fantasy thrillers become the preferred choice of Bollywood film-makers. “Any genre does not become the first choice of filmmakers overnight,” he says. “The recent announcement of movies on Mahabharat and Ramayana has nothing to do with the success of Baahubali 2. The planning for those movies was being made for the past one year or so.”
Barely a week before Baahubali 2’s release, Malayalam cinema superstar Mohanlal announced the making of Mahabharat, based on M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s 1984 Malayalam book, Randamoozham, and which is billed as the costliest-ever Asian movie, with an estimated budget of Rs 1,000 crore. The two-part film will be retold from the point of view of Bheema, to be played by Mohanlal.
Trade experts feel that the staggering budget of the movie, said to be five times higher than that of Baahubali 2, should not give jitters to its producers, given the response to some fantasy thrillers, such as Mohanlal’s own Pulimurugan, which went on to earn more than Rs 150 crore at the box office, becoming the biggest-ever grosser in the history of Malayalam cinema.
Mohanlal in Pulimurugan
Mohanlal, as of now, appears to be the toast of fantasy cinema, as he is set to play the lead in another upcoming period film, Odiyan, which might even star Amitabh Bachchan in a leading role if all goes well. He has also accepted another movie, to be directed by Peter Hein, the national award-winning stunt choreographer who has earned a reputation for his work in southern blockbusters such as Enthiran, Magadheera, the Baahubali series and Pulimurugan in recent years.
But, with his pathbreaking success, Rajamouli remains the blue-eyed boy of Indian fantasy cinema. Though he has not yet revealed anything about his next venture, suspense is already mounting as to whether he would take forward the Baahubali franchise or embark upon a fresh project. Speculations are already rife that he is keen on making another fantasy thriller with Prabhas and Ranveer Singh in the lead. There are also talks about a Mahabharat trilogy to be helmed by him, with a dream star cast of Rajnikanth, Mohanlal and Aamir Khan, the reigning superstars of Tamil, Malyalam and Hindi cinema respectively.
Rajamouli’s Mahabharat, however, will have to wait if he wants Aamir to play the role of Lord Krishna. The Dangal star, known to work in one movie at a time, is about to start shooting for Thugs of Hindostan, an ambitious Yash Raj Films (YRF) project featuring Aamir and Bachchan for the first time. The movie, slated for a Diwali release next year, is said to be based on the famous novel, Confession of A Thug, written by Philip Meadows Taylor in 1839.
Interestingly, while fantasy movies have broken records in south India for long, there have been few takers for such ventures in Bollywood. Except for occasional success of movies like Krrish in the past decade, only a few fantasy movies in Hindi have tasted commercial successes. The failure of Abhishek Bachchan-Priyanka Chopra starrer The Legend of Drona (2008), Akshay Kumar’s Action Replayy (2008) and Joker (2012), Salman Khan’s adventure saga Veer (2010) and more recently Hrithik Roshan’s period drama Mohenjo Daro (2016) had joined the long list of Bollywood damp squibs from the genre. “Fantasy films made by mainstream film-makers have hardly done well in Bollywood,” says film distributer Abhishek Chandra. “It was actually fantasy films such as Toofan (1989) and Ajooba (1991), made by big film-makers like Manmohan Desai and Shashi Kapoor, that had precipitated the downfall of Bachchan after his extraordinary run in the industry.”
Experts, however, believe that most Bollywood fantasy movies have bombed primarily because of bad content, not because an indifferent audience. “Look at the collections of the dubbed Hindi version of Baahubali,” points out R. Mohan. He says the filmmakers of yore, such as Homi Wadia and Nanabhai Bhatt, used to make fantasy movies which were derisively called B-grade flicks due to absence of big stars in them. “But with the advent of CGI and all the technological advancements in the digital era, even the biggest Hollywood stars cannot afford to overlook fantasy movies now,” Mohan says. “These days, only the fantasy movies from Hollywood pull off good business in India,” he avers.
Mohan has a point. Disney Studios’ The Jungle Book set a record of sorts by doing a business of Rs 184 crore in India—the highest by a Hollywood film so far. Other fantasy flicks such as Jurassic World (Rs 152 crore), Avatar (Rs 145 crore), Avengers: Age of Ultron (Rs 116 crore), 2012 (Rs 102 crore), Spider-Man 3 (Rs 100 crore) and Life of Pi (Rs 88 crore) have all done better than most Hindi movies released alongside. A latest release, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, has also opened to decent collections, despite the Baahubali 2 magic still casting its spell on audiences.
Baahubali 2 has set the stage for Bollywood to come up with its own fantasy thrillers, and throws down the gauntlet for others to outdo its records. But will that be possible without a film-maker of Rajamouli’s calibre and vision?
Top Hollywood fantasy films at Indian box office