India is bracing for what could be a historic weekend at the box office when Baahubali: The Conclusion opens wide this Friday.
Living up to its name, the first installment of Baahubali (which means "the one with strong arms"), is estimated to have reached a muscular $100 million worldwide when it was released in 2015. While India does not report box-office numbers, Baahubali: The Beginning brought in about $77 million in the country, according to estimates, and is considered among the top three grossers of all time.
In North America, the first film had "a monster opening," New York-based BoxOfficeGuru.com editor Gitesh Pandya tells THR. It collected $3.6 million on its first weekend, tying with the debut of 2014 satire PK to mark the biggest U.S. launch ever for an Indian film.
Pandya says that Baahubali 2, which also opens in the U.S. this Friday, "may certainly deliver a larger opening weekend as the brand is stronger this time, plus the new film will be opening on about 40 Imax screens as well in the U.S., helping to make it a bigger event for fans." Baahubali: The Conclusion is only the third Indian film after 2013's Dhoom 3 and 2014's Bang Bang! to also get an Imax release in the U.S.
Directed by S. S. Rajamouli and planned as a two-part epic, the films were made simultaneously at an estimated budget of $40 million, making the project one of the most expensive Indian productions ever. The films are produced by Shobu Yarlagadda's Arka Mediaworks.
Importantly, Baahubali's success put the spotlight on talent from the South Indian industry, which is often overshadowed by Hindi-language Bollywood. In its review, THR described Baahubali as "epic entertainment for those with a taste for swords, sandals and saris."
The sequel continues the story of warring royal cousins in an ancient mythical kingdom and again features South Indian stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Tamannah and Anushka Shetty.
The hype around the sequel in India has been fueled by the first film's cliffhanger ending as the titular character (played by Prabhas), is stabbed in the back by Kattappa (veteran Tamil actor Sathyaraj), a trusted warrior who was meant to protect him. For almost two years, the question "Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?" has generated the kind of heat that Game of Thrones did when fans discussed the fate of Jon Snow at the end of season five.
Whatever records the sequel may break, it is already getting the widest release ever for any homegrown film, according to Indian media reports, opening on an estimated 6,500 screens in the country. While there is no official data for which Indian film has received the widest release, mainstream Bollywood tentpoles can get play on around 4,000-5,000 screens. India's total screen count is estimated at around 8,000 screens.
Like the prequel, Baahubali 2 will also get a multi-lingual rollout in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi, further boosting its potential reach.
In India, observers are sizing up the sequel to the current box-office champion.
India Today magazine projects that both Baahubali films together stand a chance to earn over $227 million (1.5 billion rupees) worldwide, implying that Baahubali 2 can eventually reach about $127 million. If that happens, then the sequel could topple PK's total estimated worldwide haul of about $116 million, considered the highest ever for any Indian film.
"While I can't give a figure, I think Baahubali 2 can be the highest-grossing Indian film of all time," Mumbai-based box office analyst Taran Adarsh tells THR.
As for its marketing, since the first film, the Baahubali franchise has been widely extended to comics, games, merchandise and also a virtual reality experience entitled The Sword of Baahubali, developed with AMD Inc., which has been showcased at various events since last year. The Baahubali VR zone is currently also featured at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. In addition, the VR zone will also be showcased in some cinemas in India with the film's release.
The franchise also has a spinoff animated series, Baahubali: The Lost Legends, which launched last week on Amazon Prime Video worldwide. The series was created by Rajamouli, Arka Mediaworks and character entertainment company Graphic India, which is backed by Peter Chernin's CA Media.
"What we managed to showcase in the film was just the tip of the iceberg," said Rajamouli in launching the series. "From the minute I started working on this story, I knew the world of Baahubali can't be encompassed into a film or two, simply because there's so much more to tell, and animation is another way to do that."