It’s being called India’s “Star Wars,” smashing box-office records worldwide. The wild superhero epic “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion,” which opened at the end of April, has become the highest grossing Indian film in history, and its breakthrough in the U.S. may be just as significant.
With a $10.3 million opening weekend April 28, it was the No. 3 film in America, beating DreamWorks Animation’s “Boss Baby,” Tom Hanks in “The Circle” and other Hollywood fare. It did so even though it opened on only 425 screens around the country, selected for their demographics, averaging $24,364 per screen. The No. 1 film the same weekend, “The Fate of The Furious,” averaged only $4,890 per screen, on 4,077 screens.
The film is a fictional action fantasy featuring a hunky warrior prince who can throw trees and wrestle bulls but still loves his mother. It had the third-largest opening for a foreign-language film in U.S. history (after the Chinese films “Hero” in 2004 and “Jet Li’s Fearless” in 2006). It was the all-time biggest domestic IMAX opening for a foreign-language film, playing in 45 IMAX theaters targeted to areas with large Indian populations, according to IMAX.
“We were stunned. This clearly turned into an event,” said Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX. “When you have full houses on Thursday night, on something that was unbelievably viral in how the information was disseminated to the Indian diaspora, you’re tapping into something.”
The blockbuster premiere reflected shifting demographics across America. Although the Indian-American population represents only 1% of the U.S., it is fast-growing with high disposable income. The Indian-American population grew to nearly 3 million in 2010, up 69% from 2000. In 2014 Indian citizens accounted for 70% of H-1B employment applications in the U.S.
“There’s a passionate fan base and huge demand for these stylized works of cinema,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at box-office tracker comScore. “The fact that a massive theater chain like AMC showcased the film, and broke records, could open the door to an expansion of the release of these Bollywood/Tollywood gems, and bring them a more mainstream audience.”
Like the first “Baahubali” movie, “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” is a fantasy. It runs 2 hours, 47 minutes and is mostly backstory to the first installment. Indian star Prabhas plays the human demigod Amarendra Baahubali, a sort of cross between Hercules and Braveheart. The film features human catapults and a stampede of bulls with flaming horns. There are shirtless, muscular men swinging swords and women in flowing rainbows of saris. The lavish song-and-dance numbers make “La La Land” look like amateur hour. Battle scenes are just as choreographed, aided by frequently unsubtle computer imagery, especially for the many scenes that depict animals. (Indian law prohibits many uses of real animals in films.)
In India, the film is causing a stir because it comes from the underdog Telugu-language film industry, based in Southern India and nicknamed Tollywood, rather than the Hindi-language Bollywood, centered in Mumbai. It’s dubbed in Hindi and Tamil to reach a wide audience across India and is subtitled in the U.S. Great India Films, which has been distributing south Indian films globally for more than a decade, made this its widest American release. As of this past weekend, it’s on track to surpass 10 billion rupees (close to $155 million) at the Indian box office. The film has reached $16 million so far in the U.S.
Soma Kancherla, a partner in Great India Films, the distributor of “Baahubali 2” in North America, says Indian films are finding a growing audience in the U.S. But he thinks a successful import like “Baahubali 2” remains a once-in-a-while event and believes the crossover appeal of Indian films to non-Indian audiences has a ways to go. The most-successful foreign language films in the U.S, like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Amelie,” and “Life is Beautiful,” started as art-house films and slowly expanded to find wider audiences. English director Danny Boyle brought Bollywood sensibility to a non-Indian audience with “Slumdog Millionaire.” But popular Indian films like the “Baahubali” movies, which mix adventure, tragedy, violence, romance, and music, haven’t connected with Western audiences the way those smaller, more independent-feeling films have.