The biggest Indian film of this year is not a Bollywood film. Rajamouli’s Baahubali fever created an euphoria generally reserved for Marvel and DC films. Not surprisingly, Baahubali 2 has made producers and distributors ecstatic, solidifying Rajamouli as a bankable film-maker to look forward to.
The Hindi movie industry — and audience — has always treated southern cinema with ill-placed humour and disdain. The south Indian industries are treated as launch pads for actors who are too green (or not well-connected enough) for Bollywood, and their films are generalized as OTT productions, raunch fests and gravity-defying, giggle-inducing action flicks. It is a tad hypocritical that Bollywood still enjoys the Rohit Shetty brand of cinema but is critical of south Indian masala flicks.
In the last decade, south Indian film industries have created a healthy atmosphere of experimentation, creative thinking, innovative technology and most importantly, risk taking. From big budget productions to mammoth canvases, generous use of CGI and exploration of genres that have been ignored till date in Indian cinema, south Indian cinema is going through an exciting period. Also, thankfully, independent cinema is also thriving with exciting projects being produced regularly, creating a fertile space for mainstream and indie artists to excel together.
In a year that has been quite abysmal for Bollywood’s big flicks, SS Rajamouli’s Telugu fantasy epic, Baahubali 2, was definitely the most awaited film of the year. While Baahubali 1 trended across the country primarily because of social media and word of mouth (Dharma Productions picking up distribution rights also helped take the film to places it would otherwise not have travelled to), the whole country was looking forward to part 2 — like they wait for the next Batman movie. The generally prejudiced northie was happily queuing up to catch dubbed versions of the film on the first day, the “cool” urban young was screaming “why did Katappa kill Baahubali?” on every viral video made by channels pre-release, families were planning to go for the film like movie outings during national festivals and news channels were eagerly covering the film for trusted TRP peaking. Baahubali merchandise became a rage with kids, an animated series was also launched and people went back to the theatres, multiple times, to watch this explosion of sorcery, dance and warfare.
One man made all of this possible. From his debut itself, Rajamouli made films that were off the trodden path. After kicking it off with a successful coming of age film, Student No. 1 with Junior NTR, he made the socially-conscious Simhadri and Sye, a sports film about rugby unions. After a few action potboilers, he made his first fantasyaction-comedy, Yamadonga in 2007 and followed it up with his second fantasy-action opus, Magadheera two years later. Magadheera’s scale and production value wowed audiences and soon dubbed versions were being aired on TV and remakes were made in various languages. Rajamouli’s next film was quite a surprise – Eega, in 2012, had a housefly as its protagonist. A reincarnation-revenge saga of the soppiest kind, Eega won even the most cynical of critics with its never-seen-before quality of CGI, crackling dialogues and taut editing. The film was made in both Telugu and Tamil and was Rajamouli’s biggest success till then.
And then, Baahubali happened.
Everybody knows what the film was about. Made on a whopping budget of 180 crore that was deemed as scarily ambitious and risky, the film raked in 600 crore worldwide and became the highest-grossing film in India that year. It picked up several accolades, became the first Indian film to be nominated for the Saturn Awards and was dubbed into 7 international languages, including Italian, German and Japanese. And then, the whole country waited for the second part of the film for two years. This kind of mania and patience had till then been reserved only for the season debuts of GOT and Sherlock.
Baahubali 2’s numbers are even more staggering. Made on a budget of 250 crore, the magnum opus grossed 1000 crore in just ten days of its release. I will let that figure sink in for a while. Today, it stands as the highest grossing film in India — a record that Bollywood will find very difficult to break — and the second highest-grossing Indian film worldwide after Dangal. Although, one must interestingly note that Baahubali 2’s domestic gross collections stand at 1416 crore while Dangal’s is 587 crore (Dangal’s worldwide success was caused by the film’s China release, bringing in over 1300 crore from the Chinese market).
Why am I obsessing over numbers? Because when films like Baahubali flex their profitability muscle, investors find faith in Indian storytelling, technology and production values. That leads to more money being pumped into the advancement of movie technology, which will help us inch towards global recognition and a better quality of cinema. Rajamouli dared to dream, visualise and execute a genre of cinema that required pushing many boundaries. With improvement in movie making, we might be moving away from the need to cast superstars to fill theatre seats. Who exactly cares about Prabhas-Rana-Anushka? Even Dangal became a success because of its sparkling storytelling and directorial brilliance, rather than Aamir Khan.
In a year that has seen 86 Bollywood releases till October, 56 of which have been both box office and critical flops, films like Baahubali keep the industry alive. It also gives hope to directors, writers and producers to dream big. For example, India will get its first sci-fi space film this year (Tik Tik Tik – Shakti Soundar Rajan – Tamil). Rajamouli has paved the way for bigger, better and stronger film-making.