The Indian fantasy epic that's breaking box-office records is unlike any Bollywood film you've seen

If you’ve been to the movies recently, you might have glimpsed it — an unfamiliar name alongside the latest from Tom Hanks, Vin Diesel, Disney’s Belle and her Beast.

The swords-and-armor epic “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” doesn’t exactly have that Hollywood pedigree. But it debuted in the U.S. as the third top box-office draw, making nearly $13 million — outdoing Hanks’ “The Circle” — despite playing in barely 400 theaters.

Worldwide, the film earned $120 million during its first week, making it the highest-grossing Indian box-office release of all time. It remained in the U.S. box office’s Top 10 over the weekend, hanging on at No. 7 and earning nearly $3.25 million, bringing its estimated two-week tally in the U.S. and Canada to more than $16 million.

So what is “Baahubali 2”? For one thing, it is unlike any Indian film you’ve seen.

A rousing piece of fantasy fiction set in an ancient kingdom, its locations are extravagant. The battle sequences are convincingly bloody. The special effects are so ambitious that, for Indian audiences, a bullfighting scene in the original “Baahubali” released two years ago, included the letters “C.G.I.” — computer-generated imagery — at the bottom of the screen.

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There are muscled heroes, winsome heroines and plenty of dance numbers — all hallmarks of Bollywood. But “Baahubali” isn’t a product of the mainstream, Hindi-language film industry based in the coastal city of Mumbai. Instead, it was produced in the southern metropolis of Hyderabad, which has its own massive movie industry in the Telugu language, known, naturally, as Tollywood.

Few vernacular films have transcended their regional origins to become hits across India, a land of 1.3 billion people, with sharp regional language and cultural differences. When the original “Baahubali” was released nationwide, it was dubbed into Hindi with a cast unknown to most Indians.

Yet the franchise has managed to unite a fragmented Indian moviegoing population at home and abroad.

“It has shown that if you make universal content that appeals to an audience cutting across demographics, language barriers, regions, you can achieve this kind of success,” said Akshaye Rathi, a film industry analyst in Mumbai.

In the U.S., where Telugu films might draw hard-core fans among the southern Indian diaspora for one or two days, “Baahubali” has continued to draw viewers to both the original and Hindi versions, many paying top dollar for Imax screenings.

“That shows the ‘Baahubali’ brand has crossed over to many Indians who are not from the south,” said Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.

“And compared to typical Bollywood films, this one is such a visual spectacle that it has to be seen on the big screen, which plays into it.”

Most of India’s mega-blockbusters have been sumptuous romantic comedies or one-man dramas featuring household names such as Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, the twin titans of Bollywood. Their films have also performed the best among the large Indian diasporas in the United States and Persian Gulf.

But the Bollywood model of big-name stars and feel-good stories is faltering. Indian producers, like their Hollywood counterparts, worry about declining box-office receipts, the skyrocketing costs of talent and increasing competition from Netflix and Amazon Video, both of which are pushing hard into the Indian market.

Director S.S. Rajamouli’s “Baahubali” franchise has more in common with ensemble epics like “300” or the “Lord of the Rings” films. Crew members have said that one reason the sequel has succeeded is that much of its reported $37-million budget — lavish by Indian standards — was pumped into production and special effects, not stars.

Industry analysts say the film has also shown the size of the Indian market. Most of “Baahubali 2’s” revenue in its first week came from southern India, where the films tend to be louder and gorier — but whose audience is often overlooked by mainstream Hindi-language directors.

“I do hope our film’s success will allow other filmmakers to think bigger and go beyond regional boundaries,” producer Shobu Yarlagadda wrote in an email.

The films’ visual effects aren’t as crisp as the recent “Star Wars” installments or Marvel superhero adaptations. But they highlight the emerging computer-animation talent at Indian studios, which are producing a growing share of Hollywood’s digital effects.

India’s information minister, M. Venkaiah Naidu, called the “Baahubali” films an example of Indian ingenuity and “a trendsetter in terms of scale and grandeur.”

A week after its opening, it continued to play to packed houses in India. Some theaters in southern India had petitioned regulators to allow five or six screenings per day. In Mumbai, weekend showings sold out hours before the opening credits.

Swanand Deshpande, 27, left a theater in central Mumbai empty-handed around noon Friday when tickets for an evening screening were snatched up. He said he’d return another day, drawn to the films’ special effects.

“I don't think any Bollywood film matches up to the visual effects of ‘Baahubali,’” he said.

Even Rajamouli, the director, seemed unable to resist his own success. Although he subtitled the sequel “The Conclusion,” he told Variety last week that he would be open to making a third installment.

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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