Jai Lava Kusa, Vivegam, Spyder — How South Indian films are owning the international film market

Sreedhar Pillai

Oct,05 2017 10:59 51 IST

2017 has been a landmark year for south Indian films (read: Telugu and Tamil films) as they have made new inroads into overseas markets.

Baahubali 2 is a game changer as it opened the lucrative overseas market, hitherto ruled by Bollywood movies mainly those starring the big Khans. The SS Rajamouli-directed period fantasy blockbuster is said to have made worldwide Rs 1690 cr from its three versions, out of which approximately Rs 320 Cr was from outside India markets, mainly USA.

Still from Baahubali and Vivegam. Images courtesy Youtube screengrab.

According to a FICCI-Frames report, share of overseas theatricals in the Indian movie business grew by 14 percent from Rs 9.5 billion in 2015 to Rs 10.9 billion in 2016. A major contributor to this increase was the successful running of south Indian movies in theatres abroad. Their share went up by around 10 percent over the previous year to reach 62 percent of the overseas theatricals in 2016.

A KPMG report of the Indian film industry from 2016 says it is worth Rs 14,230 crore.

Revenue from ‘overseas theatricals’, as a part of overall film industry proceeds, has risen from Rs 760 crore in 2012 to nearly Rs 1,100 crore in 2016, as per the report and this has mainly happened due to superb performance of South Indian language films in the overseas markets.

Those in the trade, especially in the crucial market of USA, believe Telugu films are today bigger in America than Hindi movies of the Khans, after Baahubali 2’s outstanding performance there. They say Aamir Khan and his Dangal is an exception, while Salman Khan’s Tubelight and SRK’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, which were released this year, were duds in the USA market.

Noted trade analyst Taran Adarsh tweeted a few weeks back: “The resounding success of #Baahubali2 and #Dangal globally reiterates the fact that language is no deterrent if content is strong enough’. And the trend set by Baahubali 2 continues with NTR’s Jai Lava Kusa, Ajith’s Vivegam and now Mahesh Babu’s Spyder doing exceptionally well in the overseas markets.

Increasing profits of Telugu films can be attributed to the large Telugu speaking population in the US in the 25-35 age group. Most of them grew up on Telugu films with a big hero, back home in Andhra.

Junior NTR in Jai Lava Kusa's teaser. Screengrab from YouTube

Junior NTR in Jai Lava Kusa's teaser. Screengrab from YouTube

Recently Jai Lava Kusa collected in USA $1,538,330 in 8 days, while Spyder, which opened bigger and later fell, managed to collect $ 1,500,044. Strangely both these films have not done upto expectations in their home state box-office of Andhra and Telangana markets. Two small Telugu films which have done extraordinary business in USA and local markets in India are Ninnu Kori and Arjun Reddy.

Today, Telugu films in the USA market is on par with Bollywood, as a big Telugu movie gets as many screens as a Hindi movie and releases in 300 to 400 screens.

The big advantage Telugu and Tamil movies have is the craze to see the first day first show — a trend that has transformed into paid premiere nights. Bollywood films do not normally have paid premiers in USA. The premier itself is becoming an event as Spyder almost touched $ 1 Million from its premier shows.

IT-based Telugu audiences in USA love to watch biggies at premiere shows hours before it is screened in Hyderabad or Vijayawada and post reviews on social media. Opening weekend ticket rates for Telugu big hero movies hover between $ 15 to $25, almost double what you pay for a Hollywood or Bollywood film.

A spokesperson of USA-based Atmus Entertainment, leading distributors of South Indian films, says, “South Indian heroes like Mahesh Babu, Pawan Kalyan, NTR, Vijay and Ajith have a huge opening due to the Telugu and Tamil diaspora. But at the end of the day even big star movie should have a good story to perform at the box-office. It looks like the Baahubali 2 record is here to stay for some time”.

Vijay in a song from Mersal. Youtube screengrab.

If 90 percent of the overseas revenue of Telugu films comes from USA, for Tamil films the overseas market is evenly spread across the globe, with Malaysia and Singapore being the largest contributor, followed by the Gulf and Europe. The strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora helps Kollywood in Australia and European countries.

Rajinikanth continues to lord over others in the overseas market followed by Vijay, Suriya and Ajith. Kamal Haasan has a very strong USA market, almost on par with Rajinikanth. The Tamil superstars are getting huge salaries mainly due their overseas market. Last month, the overseas rights for Vijay’s eagerly awaited big budget Mersal, were sold for a rumoured Rs 26 cr.

Malayalam cinema's overseas market is controlled by a gulf based cartel, which does not allow it to expand its footprints. This powerful cartel ends up getting monopoly over the industry as they control majority of the screens in the gulf. Kannada cinema is still making baby steps in the overseas market with very limited releases in USA.

The way the business is expanding, south Indian (read Telugu & Tamil) movies will emerge bigger than Bollywood films in the overseas market by summer of 2018. All eyes are now on how Rajinikanth-Akshay Kumar’s 2.O directed by Shankar, will perform at the USA box-office.