INDIA’s first film extravaganza was conceived in 1944, three years before Independence. But, Mughal-e-Azam took 16 years to make.
By that time, Tamil filmmaker S.S. Vasan had enthralled the audiences with girls dancing on drums in the multilingual Chandralekha (1949).
Mumbai’s (then Bombay) Sohrab Modi had made Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), on the queen who defied the British. It was India’s first movie in Technicolour, albeit processed in Britain.
The cue for history and mythology-inspired epics came from Hollywood that exposed Indians to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959).
Mughal-e-Azam had troubles arriving. Reports said its producer Shapoorji Pallonji (currently in a corporate clash with the Tatas) almost went bankrupt spending Rs15 million. But, on the film’s release in August 1960, worldwide and the largest in those times, he netted Rs 55 million.
Historically, the clash between Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605 AD) and son Salim, later crowned Emperor Jehangir (1605-1627), over the latter’s courtesan-lady love Anarkali, remains debatable. But, not the greatness of this landmark film that set the trend for grand cinematic spectacles.
It took time, though. Funding of films had, for long years, attracted high-interest private investment, some of it from the underworld. Corporate funding has now obviated this. But filmmaking in India (around 1,500 annually) remains a risky business.
The biggest-ever risk was taken with Bahubali: The Beginning in 2015. Now, Bahubali 2: The Conclusion is its worthy sequel in terms of grandeur, investment and profits.
It has famously launched the “thousand crore club” that is, earning Rs10 billion or US$155 million. Even before the release, it had recovered its investment of Rs2.5 billion — enough to cover the cost of making six to eight Bollywood films.
But, Bahubali is not Bollywood — it is ‘Tollywood’ in Hyderabad that makes films in southern Indian Telugu language. Not just the twin films’ director, S.S. Rajamouli, but almost the entire team of actors and crew are Telugus with one foot in ‘Kollywood’, the Tamil cinema hub in Chennai.
They are lesser-known compared with their Mumbai and Chennai counterparts, but now compete for billions of eyeballs in India alone, not to speak of the huge diaspora worldwide.
The Telugus have definitely signalled that extravaganza in Indian cinema has taken deep roots — that well-scripted, well-performed cinema is worth the investment and audience adulation anywhere. It doesn’t matter if the viewer is not familiar with any of the languages in which the film is on offer.
Now, Bollywood is riding on Bahubali, meaning strong arms, of Tollywood. Like he did with the first Bahubali offering, business- savvy Bollywood honcho Karan Johar has produced the Hindi language version and is also distributing it. Big money is rolling in.
At US$200 million so far, BB2 triumphs as the highest Indian film sold worldwide in any language, year or as a franchise. It netted US$10million in the United States over the first weekend alone, prompted Forbes magazine to call it a “Holy crap! moment for the weekend”. By end of last month, BB2 grossed US$18.9 million in the US, £811,478 in Britain and A$2.36 million in Australia.
The Indian diaspora is only partly responsible for this. It is a swelling global market, till recently dominated by the three Khans — Shahrukh, Salman and Aamir.
Bahubali 2 has beaten Mughal-e-Azam 67 years hence. It also leaves behind contemporary blockbusters, including Salman Khan’s Dangal (highest grosser among foreign films in China) and Aamir Khan’s PK.
Widely touted as India’s answer to Game of Thrones, Bahubali 2’s success has prompted South Indian film fans to troll Bollywood, questioning the latter’s claims to represent Indian cinema on the global scene. Critically acclaimed films, they argue, are made in other Indian languages as well.
What is so special about Bahubali that has also hit the Malaysian scene? For one, it seeks to make mythology seem like history. Set in the fictional Mahishamati kingdom, Bahubali has two swashbuckling cousins in a dynastic war over the kingdom.
In touches of epic Mahabharata, like King Dhritarashtra, head of the Kauravas, the chief schemer in Bahubali is a prince denied the throne because of his physical disability.
It has thrilling royal hunts, roaring elephants, strapping heroes and beauteous heroines, complete with the Indian staple of song and dance. Its violence does not repel.
All this is packaged with awesome VFX (visual effects) and other special effects. Credits show they are wholly indigenous. High-value production has turned the drama into a visual spectacle unseen in Indian films.
The Times of India’s critic disarmingly says: “Do not judge Bahubali – just savour it.”
Yet, one must stress that BB2 should have been ruthlessly edited, chopping the climax by about 10 minutes. This extravaganza rides on shoulders of great marketing. Its makers are laughing their way to the bank.
Amidst the applause are sour notes. Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor credits the film’s success to special effects and little else.
Tamil thespian-director Kamal Haasan, too, while calling it “the best thing that could have happened to the film industry financially speaking, adds “a rider” about the movie’s grand CG (computer graphics) aided imagery: “To those who say they can beat Hollywood, I’d say hold your horses. That’s because these are CG horses.”
But, Kamal applauds the success of Bahubali’s thrust on mythological/historical subjects. His daughter, Shruti, is starring in one, Sanghmitra. The age of extravaganza is here.
The writer, Mahendra Ved is NST’s New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine. He can be reached via [email protected]