Yesterday we saw the trailer of the massive period saga Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy in not one, but six languages. And here's why. While the movie is centred around Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi, who plays the titular role, he's backed by an equally starry support cast from neighbouring film industries. There's Kannada star Kichha Sudeep, Tamil cinema's Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi, Bhojpuri star Ravi Kishan, and Amitabh Bachchan in a special role. The film has an estimated budget of Rs 200 crore and will release in multiple languages across the country on October 2. Sye Raa is the latest example of what's being called the 'pan-India film'. These are films that aren't looking to cater to just one state – they are designed to cut across regional lines and appeal to audiences all over the country.
The potential of a pan-India film was discovered in 2015 with the success of Baahubali and then re-affirmed in 2017 with the historic box office collections of Baahubali: The Conclusion. S.S. Rajamouli's mythological epic showed us that there could be a film fronted by Telugu stars that the entire country wants to watch. At over Rs 500 crores, Baahubali: The Conclusion was 2017's highest earning Hindi film. The film's producer Shobu Yarlagadda says this is a great development. "If we can break these barriers (between regional industries) and become one barrier, then we get more power in terms of budgets, the kind of stories we can tell, or the attention we get. That's when we can start standing up to Hollywood."
Not every film that boasts of great scale, ambition and stars qualifies as a pan-India film. It needs a story that can travel and translate across regions rather than being rooted in a specific culture
In this post-Baahubali world, we can see many films attempt to repeat its gargantuan success. But is there a formula to making the perfect pan-India film? A few recent films have shown that perhaps you can strategically design such a film from ground up by checking certain boxes like choosing a universal story and casting actors from across industries. There are other factors too.
Let's look at the action film Saaho which got a massive release in multiple languages and was a big success despite being panned by critics in every industry. The film had a lot going for it. The face of the film was Prabhas who went from complete anonymity outside the Telugu industry to superstardom post Baahubali. The rest of the cast was curiously made up of Bollywood faces – Shraddha Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Chunky Pandey and Neil Nitin Mukesh, among others.
S S Rajamouli's hotly anticipated RRR too combines the best of Telugu and Hindi star power. The film has Ram Charan, NTR Jr. Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt. There are plenty of other examples. Akshay Kumar being cast as the antagonist in Shankar's Tamil sci-fi tentpole 2.0 gave the film a broader audience. The sequel to Kannada film KGF will have Sanjay Dutt in a major role. Sye Raa director Surender Reddy says that for his film they weren't just looking for big stars from various industries, but stars who had a fan following outside their own markets. "Kannada star Sudeep has done a lot of films in Telugu and I know he suits the character. Vijay Sethupathi has also done films in Telugu. So they know the Telugu audience. Amitabh Bachchan is an all-India star. So I definitely preferred them," he says. Casting the right music director also counts. Sye Raa's music comes from popular Bollywood composer Amit Trivedi. Saaho had tracks by Punjabi artists Guru Randhawa and Badshah and a special song featuring Jacqueline Fernandez.
The next step is finding a solid local partner in each industry that can smartly present the film. Baahubali and 2.0 had Karan Johar's Dharma Productions. Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani also went the same way with Kannada film KGF last year, and now Sye Raa. "Having a local partner who knows how to present and position a film to local audiences is absolutely key. For us, our partnership with Dharma and AA Films really helped because every industry has specific nuances to market and communicate the film to local audiences," says Yarlagadda.
The biggest takeaway from Baahubali was the power of a universal story. Not every film that boasts of great scale, ambition and stars qualifies as a pan-India film. It needs a story that can travel and translate across regions rather than being rooted in a specific culture. "The story has to be universal in nature, that's the most important. For instance, a Telugu comedy will definitely not work in Hindi or Tamil because it's too specific to our local culture. But an action film or a mythological drama like Baahubali which is based on kings and queens, which all of India is used to, will work," says Shailesh Kapoor, Founder of Media Consulting firm Ormax Media.
"They forced English upon all of us so now we all talk and write in English and watch English films and now they have the biggest numbers. Now it's about time we collaborate within the Indian market," says Vijay Deverakonda
Like most successful formulas in films, there's a danger of this one being overused as well. But at a time when Hollywood films are increasingly encroaching on the Indian box office, it's smart for Indian film industries to join forces on event movies. Recently at a Mumbai screening of Telugu film Dear Comrade hosted by Film Companion, actor Vijay Devarakonda explained why. "I think it's about time because I've always been a little pissed with English cinema…They forced English upon all of us so now we all talk and write in English and watch English films and now they have the biggest numbers. Now it's about time we collaborate within the Indian market… Imagine if Ashoka or any of these guys had conquered the English, now we'd be making Avengers and doing the biggest films." Perhaps he's right – in order to fend off the next Avengers, we may need to assemble our own.