Indian director Ayan Mukerji can hardly contain his elation on a Zoom call from Mumbai.
“I was super excited,” the rising filmmaking talent says of the epic fantasy Brahmastra Part One: Shiva achieving something that no Indian film has done in memory: opening on top of the Australian box office. “It felt wonderful.”
Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt in Brahmastra Part One: Shiva.Credit:Mind Blowing Films
In two weeks of drawing audiences mostly from the country’s Indian and other South Asian communities, the first instalment of a planned superhero trilogy has outpaced George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing and Hollywood romance Ever After Happy by taking $1.56 million.
“It was our Indian version of a big Marvel movie,” Mukerji says. “It was designed and made to be a pop culture mainstream movie. So it’s not like we’re an indie film that suddenly opened at number one.”
Indie, no. Hindi, yes.
The surprising result for what is billed as the launch of India’s first original cinematic universe follows the success of another movie from that country, the historical drama RRR, in March. After opening second at the box office behind The Batman, it took $3.6 million then became the biggest Indian movie on Netflix.
The last Australian census finding that India had the country’s second-highest overseas-born population after England is being reflected at the box office. Indian films have also started looking outward to the world, with higher budgets, better production values and, yes, even better acting than in traditional Bollywood movies.
Director Ayan Mukerji (right) with the two stars of Brahmastra Part One: Shiva, Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt.Credit:Mind Blowing Films
“We’re at the point as an industry where we want to create big-screen entertainment which becomes popular in the world in the way that Indian food is popular in the world,” Mukerji says.
Brahmastra tells a story about a warm-hearted DJ named Shiva (Ranbir Kapoor) who falls for the quick-witted Isha (Alia Bhatt) then finds he is having disturbing visions. When he realises he has the superpower of controlling fire, he is recruited by Guru (Amitabh Bachchan) to stop a gang of villains reuniting the three pieces of an ancient weapon that can destroy the world.
For audiences used to Marvel and DC superheroes, there is something fresh but also disorientating about seeing an Indian superhero movie that lasts almost three wild hours, including an extravagant song and dance number, riotous colours, Indian mythology and, as in India, an intermission.
Kapoor plays a DJ who is recruited to battle a gang of villains after realising he has superpowers. Credit:Mind Blowing Films
Mukerji recognises these differences are a challenge for western audiences.
“Traditionally, even the most popular Indian entertainment has a certain cultural beat to it, which normally is very different to the cultural beat which the international audience is used to consuming,” he says. “It’s just a different flavour.”
But Mukerji is heartened that streaming means audiences are more open to watching foreign-language fare.
“Marvel is a very high bar to aim towards, especially for a universe created out of India, but definitely we want to expand audiences beyond just Indian audiences,” he says.
Kapoor’s Shiva discovers he has the power to control fire. Credit:Mind Blowing Films
Brahmastra started shooting in 2018 and went on for so long that the two stars fell in love, married and were only months away from having their first child when it opened. Mukerji says the pandemic was only one factor in why the production was so challenging.
“While we are big budget for an Indian film, what we were aspiring to do with visual effects and the kind of cinematic language we had is not done very often in our industry,” he says. “It’s really done much more in the western world and in the Hollywood film factory. So we were reaching for something beyond our grasp.”
Just as Hollywood spreads American culture and values around the world, Mukerji wants his “astraverse” to do the same for India.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I hope that as people watch Brahmastra and what comes in the future, they’ll feel more connected and gain more of an insight into Indian culture.”
The chief executive of distributor Mind Blowing Films, Mitu Bhowmick Lange, is not surprised that Brahmastra opened so strongly. It played in most city, suburban and regional circuits, released with dialogue in Hindi as well as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam in different areas to tap into regional subcultures, with English subtitles.
“It had all the makings of a big film because it had big stars, good music and good storyline,” she says. “And Indian films have been doing very well at the Australian box office.”
While audiences might be ready for the rest of the trilogy, it will be a while. Mukerji is hoping to finish Part II in three years and, Shiva willing, Part III in four years.
Email the writer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.
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