BAAHUBALI: Screen Anarchy’s Josh Hurtado Joins Ed to Discuss the Epic Indian Film Phenomenon

An Indian Film Expert Helps Ed Sort Out Why He’s In Love

I first heard about Baahubali after its international transcendence. Having rampaged into the US box office and becoming the highest grossing Indian film of all time, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is an objective triumph. And yet still most people in the west will never see or even hear about this ragingly successful cinematic epic. Something about the film’s surprising US box office take, combined with its gloriously bugnuts trailer, and my own rising addiction to action cinema which leads me to uncharted international waters quite frequently, Baahubali became a must-see film. Netflix made that dream a reality recently when it added both parts of this 6 hour long epic to its streaming service. So gobsmacked was I by the unbridled entertainment and satisfying grandeur of this project, I decided I simply had to write about it. But what better way to write about it than to shed light on this shocking success of a film? I reached out to Screen Anarchy’s J Hurtado, that outlet’s leading expert on South Asian cinema, to help shed some light on all things Baahubali for me and anyone else who is as smitten as I am. Thanks for coming, J. First off, can you tell us a little bit about the box office element at play here? Is Baahubali’s massive success a big surprise? Or are us Westerners just not paying close enough attention?

J: Well, the success of Baahubali at the box office was pretty much a forgone conclusion for Indian pundits. The first film, Baahubali: The Beginning, was a massive success both in India and in overseas markets like the US, where it made $6.7 million. Of course that’s much less than the sequel’s eventual $20 million take, but the stage was set for success.

It can’t be underestimated that the Indian producers very carefully calculated the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion across the world in an effort to capitalize on a film that had captured India’s imagination like none had for a long time.

When Baahubali: The Conclusion opened on April 28th, it was bolstered by a kind of parallel Indian cinema economy in the US for South Indian films. In the past, many of the screens in the US that showed Indian films, and South Indian films in particular, were not screens that reported to Rentrak or other box office reporting agencies, so their actual success was mostly very murky. However, over the last three years there has been a concerted effort to place these films in reporting theaters, and their success has encouraged more cinema chains, like AMC, to take a chance on these releases.

Another major contributing factor is the tiered pricing structure common to blockbuster South Indian film releases. The biggest films will often open a day early in the US compared to in India — thanks to the magic of time zones — and these “premiere shows” will typically be priced at a premium, usually between $15-$25 depending on the film. For a big film like Baahubali: The Conclusion a cinema may run as many as 6–10 screenings on that first night and sell them all out.

Baahubali: The Conclusion had the added benefit of being smart enough to release the film to IMAX screens during a lull for major Hollywood releases, two weeks after Fate of the Furious and right before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Pricing for those IMAX premiere show tickets were $45, and all of the shows throughout opening weekend sold out. Superfans, like me, saw the film multiple times opening weekend, further bolstering those numbers.

So I guess the answer to your question is yes on both counts. The massive success was certainly expected, but it’s the magnitude of the numbers that was surprising. Big Indian films, particularly from the North Indian Hindi-language Bollywood industry regularly crack the overall top 10, and frequently finish in the neighborhood of $6–8 million. However, the $20 million mark was certainly a shock to almost everyone.

And yes, it’s true that Westerners have not been paying very close attention to these limited releases for years, even when they are very successful. It reminds me of 2014, a year that saw the release of two very prominent Indian films, the arthouse darling The Lunchbox, and the Bollywood blockbuster PK. While mainstream movie news outlets were reporting that The Lunchbox was the highest grossing foreign-language film of that year with $4.2 million, it was actually PK, which brought in $10 million overall that was the champ, but Lunchbox was a Sony Pictures Classic release and PK was released by Indian studio UTV.

Baahubali: The Conclusion had the smarts to open on a relatively quiet weekend and thereby show up at #3 on the box office charts, which is why we’re having this conversation in the first place.

E: I think one reason so many westerners tend to steer clear of Indian films is that they’re so very distinctly Indian that they may not always translate into a satisfying movie going experience for western audiences. For instance, the much longer running times, the ever-present musical numbers, and contextual humor are all elements that often keep me from committing to broadening my horizons into Indian cinema. Baahubali certainly features at least two of these elements, with a gargantuan run time when considering the two-parter as a single story, and musical numbers aplenty. And yet, Baahubali never feels padded. It’s a hugely entertaining story that builds, ebbs, and flows in such a way that it feels like the Lord Of The Rings of Indian cinema. Even the musical numbers, which left me kind of cold with one of the only other Indian films I’ve watched (Rocky Handsome, India’s remake of The Man From Nowhere) felt in character here, full of charm and a knowing sense of fun and spectacle. You know a lot about the career of writer/director S.S. Rajamouli, do you feel like he intentionally crafted a story that would be more digestible and attractive to wider (read western) audiences? Or is he a filmmaker who has been majorly influenced by western epics himself? There’s a singular vision to these films which can only be accredited to a true creative genius, but do you think that is a result of commercial calculation or director proclivities, or a marriage of both?

J: I don’t think Rajamouli crafted a story specifically to suit a broader audience with Baahubali, I think it’s more an expansion of his increasingly worldly storytelling style. Rajamouli works in the South Indian Telugu regional cinema, commonly referred to as Tollywood, and that industry is notorious for putting out work that is extremely culturally specific. Most of the films that come out of the industry would baffle western audiences with their myriad in-jokes and cultural references. A theater will burst out laughing at the mere image of a certain actor. I’ve seen audiences burst into thunderous applause at the sight of a photograph of their favorite hero on a desk in a scene. The vast majority of these films are designed to elicit that kind of response, and Rajamouli has made films that fit in that vein, but he has also been one of the only mainstream filmmakers in that industry who has been willing to expand the brand.

Rajamouli is now eleven films into a career that has been overwhelmingly successful, but it’s only been since about 2012 that his films have begun to find audiences outside of India and its diaspora. That year’s Eega, about a murdered man who reincarnates into a housefly to seek revenge, is on its surface a very Indian film. Themes of reincarnation and revenge are often used in Telugu cinema, but what’s different about Rajamouli is the way he’s able to take these ideas and take them to their (il)logical extremes, which makes them palatable for outsider audiences.

At its core, Baahubali is a very Indian film as well; the music, the dancing, the themes of revenge and retribution, the talk of caste and destiny all guide the story and the characters’ actions, but not in such a specific way as to alienate the outside viewer. Add to that the ability of Rajamouli to embellish his already grandiose stories with imaginative visuals and you’ve got a recipe for spectacle untethered by test audience manipulation. What you see on the screen is pure, and that’s one of the reasons Rajamouli has been able to begin to break out of what was once a very insular film community in South India.

E: This is a minor element to be sure, but something I was nonetheless fascinated by and wanted to learn more about: The relationship with animals which the film has. In US films we get disclaimers all the way at the end credits that no animals were harmed in the production. In Baahubali, there are long title cards before the movie even begins. And in the first installment, a little “CGI” icon actually pops up onscreen anytime an animal appears to be treated in an even remotely disrespectful or dangerous way. I can only assume that this has to do with a religious reverence for animals which many modern Indians espouse, but can you illuminate us a little bit more on this practice in Indian filmmaking and what the meaning is behind it?

J: To be honest, I giggled a bit when I saw that too, as did my entire cinema audience. That may be a cultural thing, but even the Telugu people with whom I saw the film thought it was a bit ridiculous. Indians are not afraid of posting warnings on the screen. In fact, warnings against the dangers of drinking and smoking are mandated by the Indian censors anytime a character does either on screen, or even when a bottle of booze appears in a shot, but I think the CGI warning was more an attempt to avoid possibly contentious issues out of an overabundance of caution.

E: Let’s go out with a bang and discuss the absolutely incredible action of this epic movie. I’m an action cinema junkie and because Marvel has become our defacto flavor of big screen action cinema these days, I’m forced to explore international cinema and the current golden era of direct to video action films to get any semblance of the kind of black and white heroism I grew up with. It’s clear that India is fully onboard the action cinema train and isn’t stopping. I caught a rousing screening of an Indian film called Commando: A One Man Army a few years back that delighted me to my core. A true star turn from a towering male model turned martial arts sensation Vidyut Jamwal made me believe top tier international action could come out of India. I was less impressed with Rocky Handsome, but the action was strong enough. And I know an Indian Rambo remake is on the way and the apocalypse itself couldn’t keep me away from checking that movie out.

What’s going on with the action in Baahubali is some kind of weirdly singular spectacle. The lead hero and villain are absolutely jacked in such an endearing, Schwarzenegger-like fashion. And while they may not be martial artists in the traditional Asian fashion, the mythological elements of Baahubali allow these men to be godlike in a way that feels totally acceptable to the viewer. So one gets the Marvel-like CGI spectacle, but, perhaps as you mentioned above, you get that without the creeping sense of studio notes and test screenings. You get GCI battles of such visual splendor and imagination, with shots so gloriously unhinged with spotty CGI, you just can’t help but experience the awe of the thing. I genuinely found the massive battles surpassing something like John Woo’s Red Cliff in their execution. Then you get lots of other one-on-one battles and swordplay, all just jam packed with a style all its own. Rajamouli seems to have a mastery of films like the Lord Of The Rings which he’s able to then infuse a uniquely Indian style on top of to generate mythical action that feels special; like you can’t get this anywhere else.

Can you just take us home with your thoughts on the action of Baahubali (including how badass some of the women really are in this), Indian action cinema, what we have to look forward to in the coming years from Indian spectacle cinema? Also: Are there some titles that people who loved Baahubali should consider checking out?

J: Baahubali’s action is definitely a major selling point for this film which, on paper, doesn’t look terribly impressive. This is another aspect of the production that I feel can largely be attributed to Rajamouli’s particular vision for the film. Going back through his oeuvre, it’s easy to pick out crazy action set pieces that are designed to set audiences on fire. Indian audiences, and South Indian audiences in particular, demand a different kind of film from western ones. Suspension of disbelief is not an obstacle to overcome, it is a challenge that they welcome.

In India, movies stars are referred to as heroes, and nowhere is this connotation more strictly adhered to than in Tollywood, where the biggest heroes have turned into incredibly powerful politicians based largely on their big screen personas and success. This is an industry where the biggest stars can be identified by the honorifics bestowed upon them by their fans. Megastar Chiranjeevi, Rebel Star Prabhas, Young Tiger Jr. NTR, Power Star Pawan Kalyan, Rocking Star Manchu Manoj, and on and on. You ask any Telugu person who Megastar is, and they’ll know instantly.

This kind of unabashed star worship has evolved into ever increasing expectations of on screen grandeur and proficiency in fighting, singing, dancing, you name it. In Baahubali Rajamouli tapped Prabhas, the star of a previous success of his, Chatrapathi, to lead the cast, and the idea was always that Prabhas would be a man of demigod status, able to do things a mere human wouldn’t dream. With Rajamouli’s imagination, that translates into gathering an entire stampeding herd of flaming water buffalo, turning a palm tree grove into a human catapult line, climbing a 5,000 foot waterfall through using only the power of love, and on and on.

Rajamouli further endows his female leads, a relatively new evolution for him, with fighting abilities beyond those of any previous Telugu heroines. Avanthika, the warrior princess played by Tamannah in the first film, is a tomboy able to battle alongside the big boys and even lead her tribe to victory. Devasena, played by Anuska Shetty, is given an even bigger role in the film’s sequel. Women as leads in action films isn’t a new concept in India, but it has been a dormant concept for many decades, and certainly almost invisible in large scale productions like this.

Where other directors might see walls blocking them from accomplishing their wildest dreams, Rajamouli sees stairs where he can build on both his own successes and those who’ve come before him, to go over the top. No idea is too outlandish to try, and he’s been incredibly fortunate to have producers willing to go the extra mile for him because, frankly, every single film he’s made has been a huge hit.

In terms of Indian action cinema in general, that’s a huge conversation worth having on its own. India makes nearly 2,000 films every year, and a decent chunk of those fall under the action umbrella because of the way Indian films are constructed in general. I’ll be frank to begin: there is no secret other Baahubali. These films are in a class of their own. Rajamouli’s talent, budget, and team are absolutely unique. However, there are definitely other films worth tracking down that fit the over the top action mold.

One recent film that got a lot of attention in India and abroad was director Shankar’s Enthiran, also known as Robot. In this film a scientist creates a Robot in his own image who unexpectedly falls in love with his creator’s girlfriend and goes to war with the human world for her love. It’s an incredibly over the top CG fest that manages to surprise at every turn. Shankar, from the Tamil language Kollywood industry, is one of Rajamouli’s contemporaries in terms of his commitment to his vision, budget/technology be damned, and it often leads to interesting and insane results. See also: Sivaji, Anniyan, Jeans, Nayak.

A film we showed at last year’s Fantastic Fest that brought the house down was Suresh Krissna’s Aalavandhan. This film stars Tamil superstar Kamal Haasan in dual roles as both an Indian army officer and his twin brother, an insane serial killer locked up in an asylum. When the good Kamal gets engaged and tries to introduce his betrothed to the bad Kamal, all hell breaks loose as the crazy one escapes from jail and goes on a killing spree sprinkled with lots of singing and dancing, a little bit of crazy anime violence, and a few drug induced dream sequences, to save his brother from the scourge of womanhood.

I know I mentioned it above, but there is no greater Indian what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch experience than Eega. This is the film that compelled me to start trying to program movies. The thought that this incredible film, about a murdered man who reincarnates as a fly to both take revenge on his killer and win the heart of the (human) woman he loves, would be available only to the Indian audiences that were going to see it anyway seemed criminal to me, so I busted my ass and found ways to get it seen, and the response was overwhelming. Eega is not only touching, romantic, and completely insane, it’s also chock full of crazy action sequences with a house fly at the center of all the action. See also: Magadheera, Yamadonga

I’ll give one more suggestion in the interest of brevity. A film that I really love that has never gotten the appreciation for the balls-out romantic action masterpiece it is, is Boyapati Sreenu’s Simha. Simha stars 50-something paunchy action star Nandamuri Balakrishna — Balayya to his rabid fan base, a number among whom I count myself — as a 20-something college teacher/security guard. As his mother attempts to arrange his marriage, Balayya falls in love with a student at his college while simultaneously reawakening a long comatose gang boss with an axe to grind. What follows is an incredibly un-PC action masterpiece that not only features some really awkward sidco dancing from a man decades too old to be partying with college kids, but also some of the most violent fights and carsplosions I’ve ever seen on camera. It’s the kind of thing you have to see to believe, and you might not even believe it then.

I could go on and on, each of these films were made after the turn of the 21st century, there are hundreds of films waiting to be discovered if you have a lot of patience and don’t mind stumbling around in the dark for a while. Thanks for giving me the chance to bloviate on my favorite subject!

E: Big thanks, Josh, for sharing your expertise with us. You can check out J’s reviews for Baahubali: The Beginning, and Baahubali: The Conclusion, over at Screen Anarchy. And in the meantime… go watch these singular epics. You may not fall in love with them as deeply as J or I did… but you certainly haven’t seen anything like this before.

And I’m Out.

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