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How One Indian Film May Foretell a Bigger Shift in the Global Movie Industry

'Baahubali 2' just beat Tom Hanks and 'The Circle' at the U.S. box office.

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Two new movies. One stars Tom Hanks and Emma Watson and opens on 3,163 screens. The other is free of American stars (and Americans in general) and opens on 425. Naturally, the movie that comes out on top at the U.S. box office is…wait, what?

Did anyone anticipate the success of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion?

“No!” says a laughing Paul Dergarabedian, the Senior Media Analyst from comScore. He and pretty much everyone in Hollywood was stunned when Baahubali 2 earned $10.3 million, while Hanks and Watson stumbled to a $9 million opening weekend with The Circle.

Obviously, foreign films can be extremely successful in the United States: 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned $128 million here. But Taiwan-born director Ang Lee already had a hit in the United States with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, plus star Chow Yun-fat had become a cult favorite in the U.S. for his Hong Kong work and made some American films like 1998’s The Replacement Killers. Throw in the film’s universal acclaim—IMDb lists 100 awards, including four Oscars—and the gross revenue makes sense.

It’s safe to say that most Americans had never heard of Baahubali 2 until they noticed it among the weekend box office winners, trailing only Fate of the Furious and How to Be a Latin Lover.

At this point, you be asking yourself, “What is Baahubali anyway?” It’s difficult to summarize, as the original runs over 150 minutes and Baahubali 2 tops three hours. (Making its haul all the more impressive: that extended runtime limits the number of screenings.) Set in an ancient kingdom, it shows what happens when a prince who was hidden as a baby to avoid death grows up. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the second part follows the prince Shivudu “as he comes to terms with his legacy and the responsibility placed on him by this knowledge. Shivudu’s quest aims to find the answer to the question that’s been plaguing fans of the franchise for years: why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?”

Eh, just watch the trailer.

 

As you can tell, a big part of Baahubali 2‘s appeal is that it is the kind of cinema that offers serious spectacle. It’s also done well with critics: a four-star rave in The Guardian declared, “The second part of India’s most expensive film ever is a jaw-dropping blockbuster that combines nimble action with genuine heart.”

Even so, how did a film by S.S. Rajamouli top Tom Hanks? “This isn’t the first time an Indian movie has done well—typically, there will be films that appear on the bottom of the top 10,” says Dergarabedian.

Take 2014’s P.K., a comedy about an alien stranded on Earth. It earned $10.6 million in the U.S. and $123 million total. Cracking a hundred million is particularly impressive because, as Gitesh Pandya from Box Office Guru notes, movie tickets in India are “much less, often in the $3 range.” (P.K.‘s American domestic figure isn’t too shabby either: It’s more than two of Woody Allen’s last three films did stateside.)

Here’s another measure of the power of Indian cinema. When Forbes ranked the highest-paid actors for 2016, they found that four of the top 20 and two of the top 10 were Indian: Amitabh Bachchan ($20 million—you may recognize him from his Great Gatsby role and Slumdog Millionaire shoutout), Salman Khan ($28 million), Akshay Kumar ($31.5 million), and Shah Rukh Khan ($33 million).

Oh, and none of them appeared in Baahubali.

Even though many in the U.S. were unaware of its rise, Indian cinema was poised for a big showing here. Dergarabedian feels it was the “perfect time” to open Baahubali 2; Fate of the Furious had lost much of its initial box office momentum and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had yet to arrive. He’s unsure whether its success will make Hollywood more eager to cast Indian actors: “That’s always the question. I can’t say I’ve seen one movie really change how Hollywood behaves, but clearly there’s a big Indian-American audience.”

Incidentally, you may have noticed this article has avoided the term “Bollywood.” That’s because Baahubali isn’t a Bollywood film: it’s a Tollywood film. (In short: while Bollywood is based around Mumbai, Tollywood films are Telugu-language from southern India.)

What other Indian films should we anticipate in the U.S.? Gitesh Pandya says the next big title is Tubelight, which opens the end of June. Get a taste of it below.

 

If it shows up in the top 5, you saw it coming.