Karan Johar talks to Baradwaj Rangan about how Bahubali became the biggest crossover success of our country. Edited excerpts from an interview:
We’ve had South Indian film working in the North even before Bahubali. Like Appu Raja was a really huge hit when it released and Robot was a decent hit, but none of these movies worked the way Bahubali did. They were all seen as a one off. Why did it take up to 2015 for this explosion to happen?
Because up to that point there was nothing like this. You must understand when emotions are universal, storytelling is universal whether it’s made in the North or South it becomes immaterial. But this may not happen time and again. You know it’s going to happen with the big event films but not the high concept films. The high concept films will work in their own region. Like if you take a Badhaai Ho and dub it into Tamil and Telugu it may not work. And if you take a high concept Tamil or Telugu film and dub it into Hindi it will not work.
But when I saw the rushes of Bahubali I said this is the biggest Motion Picture Made in India. And when they came to us to present it, I said how do I make this engaging to a national audience? And the one thing that I could say is to call it the biggest film made in India. It was true. There was nothing big up to that point in terms of scale, technology and vision. It was out there. So that was the trigger to sell it. So, whether you’re sitting in Delhi or Kanyakumari you’re going to react. Even if you don’t see it on day one, you would have still heard of it. So, I think that’s why the film in 2015 and then in 2017 worked the way they it did because nothing was of that scale up to that point.
Many Hollywood and Bollywood studios found it difficult to establish a presence in South India. Why do you think this is so? I mean was it the lack of interest or they didn’t have the patience?
Look it’s the same thing that happened when the international studios came to the Hindi film industry. They had a certain way of working. The Indian film industry is a very self-sufficient, insular, know-it-all fraternity who’ve never depended on Hollywood money, or external money. We make films with belief and conviction. I remember my father sold his films to territories individually and then later on, it became more structured so it became all India and then it became music, satellite, overseas diaspora and India. And then you did your calculation and made your film.
Initially even when the studios came, they were not able to immediately get into the same structure that we are so used to doing. They also needed a while, whether it was FOX or Sony and you know a lot of them now have understood how to play the game. So, in India you do what the Indians do and that is the phenomena that also operates in the South. And they are another extreme. They are really talented, they have a strong state and domestic market of their own. You don’t care if the film doesn’t release here. They know their thing and they’re not bothered. (Therefore) they’re not going to be able to conform to studio logistics, modalities or contracts. Even when I was told by my studio, “this is an 80-page contract going to Mr. Amitabh Bachchan”, I was like “Dude! It doesn’t work like that. Mr. Bachchan is like a member of my family. He’s like a father figure to me”.
Together the two Bahubali films have done more business than most of your films put together. What are the lessons from this?
Emotional understanding is that conviction is everything, otherwise big scale is the way to go. There were a lot of technicalities and when I was doing Bramhastra and Ayan (Mukherjee), I even had a meeting with the team, just trying to understand because in many ways they set a benchmark of logistics, modalities and conviction and they are the gold standard right now.