Bahubali’s sensational cinematic and box office success opens up the potential for regional cinema to finally gain all-India attention and patronage.
South Indian cinema traditionally for Pan-India viewers has always been associated with solid, rooted, family drama, a setting where tension, misunderstanding and intrigue constantly roadblocks simple pleasures, leading to tears and sorrow. This, however, during the last reel is miraculously and melodramatically resolved, all is well and the legendary smiling family portrait is back in business!
The thumping super hits of yesteryears, such as Sasuraal, Gharana, Hamrahi, faithfully followed this template with the romantic leads prancing over sweet ditties, with innocence and charm. There was also always, in accompaniment, parallel comic tracks and the evil, conniving mother-in-law, aunt, stepmother, relative angle to provide the required tension in the path of the lovers.
However, over time, this model outlived its utility, replaced by the hugely successful Jeetendra films and later, the horrendously vulgar Kader Khan-Shakti Kapoor jugalbandi which, while hitting an all-time low, resonated brilliantly with the howling mobs.
Original films from the south, even those dubbed, hardly ever played in the rest of the country and when they did, they were patronised only by select audience from those regions. This was true not only of Southern films, but all regional films. They just didn’t click with an All-India market. Why? Simply because the story, setting, actors, their looks and body language, music, everything was totally different from anything the Bollywood-junkies consumed. That holds good even today. Art House cinema is different, because it is patronised by an informed and serious constituency for whom language is never a barrier to quality viewing experience. This is a content-driven niche group, acquainted with the best of world cinema and active members of film clubs and societies. Generally speaking, however, apart from an odd Ek Duje Ke Lie, no Southern film finds favor, pan-India.
Now comes S.S. Rajamouli’s Bahubali, released in July, which is generating monster waves in media coverage, audience raves, box-office collections — boggling the mind. Reports are that it is the biggest hit in the history of Indian cinema, racing past PK’s Rs. 340 crores. More significantly, it seems to have achieved the impossible: broken through to pan-India, non-South audiences through its brilliantly dubbed-in-Hindi version, understood easily by Bollywood’s mega audiences.
Bahubali fans quickly point to a list of blazing firsts that makes this Mahabharat-meets-Troy such a break-out product. Cleverly blending history with histrionics, gore with grandeur and energy with entertainment, this massive epic action-war drama had over 10 million excited viewers glued to its promo-trailers that preceded its release.
Other interesting facts. Did you know that the writer of Bahubali and the other smash hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the same? Yup, true. Vijayendra Prasad! Also, the whiz team that powered the spectacular special effects in the OMG Jurassic World is the same for Bahubali. The special effects budget incidentally topped Rs. 85 crores, involving very sophisticated, complex, high-end computer-generated imaging. It is also the most expensive Indian film ever made, exceeding Rs. 250 crores. Shot in Telegu and Tamil and dubbed in Hindi and other languages, the film is the widest dubbed film ever in terms of screen count, hitting 4,000 screens, including over 130 across USA.
Renowned, trained specialists from abroad were roped in to supervise the breathtakingly spectacular war and action scenes never ever seen in any Indian film. Even 17 VFX studios and 600 artists working 24X7 Bahubali could not meet its scheduled release date. It had to be pushed a couple of months further.
The lead actors had to gain over 100 kgs weight and were forced to have 6-8 meals per day to meet the 2000-4000 calories per day diet. The film that took three years to complete, powered by vision and mission, courage, dedication, talent and relentless pursuit of excellence, forcing lead actor Prabhas to even postpone his marriage. The only film to have featured in the BBC documentary on 100 years of Indian Cinema before its release, Bahubali’s name is registered in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the World’s Largest Poster, measuring 51,000 sq.ft. Understandably, Bahubali’s premiere show tickets went between Rs.4,000-10,000! Also, as we speak, Bahubali 2 is being prepared.
All that is great, but will all these Bahubali factoids actually translate into encouraging, emboldening, inspiring, inducing and instilling hope to the Regional-cinema-wallahs that there is light at the end of the endless, dark tunnel? That the first big breakthrough has happened and now, the need is to quickly create content that cuts through the language barrier by excellent (Hindi) dubbing to connect, at a universal level, with a pan-India audience? That a good story, well-told, engagingly presented, big or (remember the same director’s amazing Makkhi?) small, will come through?
A film school grad working in a Bangalore-based Production House, Smeha believes it’s the dramatic sweep, scale, magnitude and spectacle of Bahubali that has zonked movie-audiences everywhere: “I don’t see it as a Regional film at all! The pageantry that colors this action-drama, the spectacular camera-work and special effects that power this opus is something that has never been dreamt of in Indian cinema.”
Bollywood, she believes, can never ever hope to replicate this because they are mostly busy mimicking material from the west or stuck in their own typical romantic/dramatic/emotional model.
“No, I don’t think Bahubali should be seen as a film that has opened the floodgates for regional cinema to cross over. Along with big bucks, you need guts, passion, patience, determination, commitment and of course a very high level of professional brilliance [as a team]. Not an easy combination,” Sneha says.
Mumbai-based Film Critic Mayank Shekhar is not surprised at the film’s success and wonders “what took them so long? The South is capable of getting into real big stuff, with scale and grandeur and special effects which Bollywood can’t.”
Why? “Because most of their studios and production houses are today aligned with Hollywood funding and backing. Why should Hollywood bank-roll spectacularly grand films of epic sweep and mind-numbing technology for a Bollywood product? That template is for their own movies.” Shekhar reckons that Bahubali, however, could well pave the way for other blockbusters from the South targeting the pan-India space.
Film Historian Rauf Ahmed is circumspect in his response. Like Sneha, he doesn’t perceive Bahubali as a South/Regional film, because “it compares favourably with any big Hollywood films – past or present – hands down! Its scale and grandeur and special effects blow you away!”
However, he believes, it is inaccurate to think of this film as a trigger to an all-India audience, because not every regional film can ensure either the monster-funding, sweep of the narrative, the mind-blowing presentation, the enthralling story-telling, the thrilling action scenes … these don’t need language, because the awesomeness of the film paralyse the critical faculties converting every viewer into a wild-eyed child.
While the stupendous success of Bahubali is encouraging and motivating for regional cinema eyeing pan-India audiences, two aspects are critical. One, content or sweep that is truly sensational, humanistic and universal, not dependent on language to dazzle the viewer’s eyes or the audience’s heart. Two, outstanding dubbing, to convey credibility and relatability to the non-regional viewer.
Not every film maker can dream up king-size visions with spectacular grandeur and sweep to hijack the senses (with insane budget to match), but if content and dubbing are of the highest order, chances are that the brilliant work that a lot of regional cinema does, can finally be shared by a much larger audience-base, who are likely to be enriched in a way that Bollywood can never hope to offer. So, Bahubali, could well mark a new beginning for regional cinema.