Baahubali, India's most expensive film to date, is shining a spotlight on the South Indian film industry — which has long been overshadowed by Bollywood, its more flamboyant northern counterpart.
Though most think of Bollywood as the face of Indian cinema, the release of Baahubali, a $40 million US historical action-adventure set in medieval India, could change that.
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The Indian film industry produces titles in 39 languages and dialects. Each film centre has its own star system and distribution network. But most people outside of India have no idea about this diversity of films and audiences.
It is similar to the situation in Canada according to Toronto-based Mohit Rajhans, a longtime observer of Indian cinema.
"We, outside of Quebec, for the most part are ignorant to the quality and quantity of films that rule the French[-Canadian] box office, and that doesn't hurt their bottom line in the least."
Baahubali, which translates as "The One With Strong Arms," follows two warring brothers battling for control of an ancient Indian kingdom.
While South Indian filmmakers aren't exactly going to war against their northern rivals, they're hopeful nonetheless that their film capital Hyderabad will become as famous as Mumbai, the heart of Bollywood.
Seeking bigger audience
Baahubali was shot simultaneously in the Tamil and Telagu languages. However, producers are aggressively pursuing other language markets in India and will also release the movie in Hindi and Malayalam — making it a rare pan-Indian release. They've also enlisted powerful Bollywood producer Karan Johar to handle the Hindi version, guaranteeing Baahubali will get much more than a simple regional release.
That Baahubali, a South Indian venture, is the largest Indian film production ever is significant, says Dilani Rabindran, a Toronto-based columnist and correspondent for Behindwoods.com, a website devoted to Tamil cinema.
"Up until now, that title has always been held by Hindi-language films starring major, internationally recognizable stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan," she said.
The producers of Baahubali are even looking beyond India: They're going after a global audience, aggressively pursuing it with a slick marketing campaign.
Once filming began, the campaign started with making-of features posted online and the release of dramatic posters featuring the main characters — designed to ensure the film had a steady presence in the entertainment news cycle. The Baahubali team also garnered international attention when it broke a Guinness World Record for creating the world's largest film poster. Finally, once the film's trailers appeared on YouTube, they picked up more than two million views within 24 hours.
Setting new standard
Baahubali is breaking the mould with this grandiose approach.
"The increasing international recognition of South Indian films is also a sign of globalization within the country, as India adopts more Western marketing ideas and becomes increasingly creative with their promotional ventures," said Rabindran.
There could also be a trickle-down effect. "The success of this film could encourage many other Indian production teams to look for more creative marketing ideas that can make their way to international cinephiles and not Indian ones alone," she added.
It's not just ambition that's driving this high-octane strategy, but also necessity: Baahubali has to perform well globally to recoup its massive (for Indian film industry standards) production costs.
Will the film's heavily publicized special effects live up to the expectations of North American audiences, given their diet of Hollywood fare? That's something Rajhans will be watching.
Though he doesn't think the effects will be ground-breaking by North American standards, "the masses who enjoy Indian films on the big screen will consider this film as the new set standard for which other films in this genre will be measured against."