The Jungle Book earned almost Rs 184 crore (gross: Rs 243 crore) at the Indian box office while it was in theatres. Furious 7 crossed the Rs 150-crore mark at the box office while Avatar earned Rs 145 crore during its stay in India. This year, the new Fast and Furious film, The Fate of the Furious, is on it way to making more than Rs 100 crore.
Elsewhere in the world, big-budget Hollywood blockbusters have captured the global consciousness. Local film industries have not been able to put up with Hollywood cinema be it in terms of scale, budget or vision. Four of the top highest-grossing films ever in China are from Hollywood. Franchises like Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, the DC and the Marvel movies are now iconic brands as one would think of McDonalds or Starbucks as part and parcel of life.
Hollywood, however, has not been able to successfully spreads its tentacles into and through India largely because of our star-system. India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, is so drunk on stars that pure storytelling could never topple the supremacy of stars.
The Khans in Bollywood. Rajini, Kamal Haasan, Ajith, Vikram and Vijay in Tamil cinema. Mammootty and Mohanlal in Malayalam films. Allu Arjun, Mahesh Babu, Prabhas in Telugu cinema. The Bhojpuri film industry has its own set of homegrown stars; Dinesh Lal Yadav, Ravi Kishan and Manoj Tiwari. Bengali cinema has its own...
It is a tough task to break through the kind of command these stars hold over the Indian imagination by using classic cinematic virtues like good storytelling. In India, mainstream commercial cinema is totally governed by the patriarchal star-system which makes it difficult for independent cinema, women stars or foreign cinema to cut through the clutter and claim their stake.
But the times they are a changin'.
The recent success of Hollywood blockbusters in India and the failure of some prominent star-powered but unimaginative, homegrown ventures in India presents a good example. The yesteryear stars are getting old. A new generation of stars are not well-equipped to charm the entire country like their predecessors did.
At the same time, the Indian audience is getting exposed to better, more technically sound and rich content from the West. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and torrents have opened up India, its audience and its filmmakers to the idea that yes, better cinema and television is out there and that we need to keep up. As such, filmmakers have realised that to counter the Western wave, they need to produce their indigenous, spectacle-driven, larger-than-life visual extravaganzas.
In Bollywood, Rakesh Roshan attempted that with the Krrish films. Shah Rukh Khan tried it with Ra.One. Smaller attempts were made in other Indian film industries. These films achieved varying degrees of success. However, none could counter the scope, the strength and the technical finesse of Hollywood fare. Either it was a case of Indian filmmakers being lazy or complacent. Or worse, maybe, we just weren't good enough.
Then came Baahubali
Both the Baahubali films, Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, were made over four years. It is till date the most expensive film made in India. Director SS Rajamouli, producer Shobu Yarlagadda and their team dared to imagine big and for once, produce an homegrown epic that could stand toe to toe with Hollywood's best à la Lord of the Rings.
Any film is a commercial risk if it does not have tried-and-tested elements needed to ensure that the film breaks even. Rajamouli, with the success and the pan-Indian acceptance of his earlier films such as Eega and Magadheera, had understood that marrying good but simplistic content with high-end visuals is a commercially viable proposition in Indian cinema.
To this effect, he conjured up a 1,000-foot-tall waterfall, the beautiful and detailed kingdom of Mahishmati, an elaborate, emotional story that was epic in both visual scope and its themes (revenge, reincarnation, mother's sacrifice). The visual effects were overseen and executed purely by Indians with some work outsorced to foreign companies. A purely Indian product, Baahubali: The Beginning, released in India two years ago and the rest, as they say, is history.
Baahubali cut across barriers of language, region, film industries, etc and became a pan-Indian phenomenon. Any Indian could not beat his chest and say with pride that yes, we have an answer to LOTR, and guess what, it's pretty cool.
Baahubali's success showed Bollywood that with a vision in place, a film could earn big bucks all across India and the world even if there are no stars with a nationwide following; Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty and Tamannaah were, at the end of the day, just South film stars.
If Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which releases on April 28, becomes a hit as big as or even bigger than Baahubali: The Beginning, it will be a watershed moment in the history of Indian cinema. It will inspire filmmakers to take up bigger, better challenges and make films as grand in scale and execution as James Cameron's, Steven Spielberg's and anything Transformers.
Is it a rule that only Hollywood franchises can take over the world? Where is India's Pan's Labyrinth? Where is India's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Where is India's Gojira?
SS Rajamouli with his Baahubali films has shown that there is a way. It requires great heart, vision, skill and determination.
Here's hoping that Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is not the conclusion of the movement that Rajamouli himself is unaware of having started.