Spider-Man first spoke Bhojpuri in May 2007. The venues were theatres of Bihar, the voice, Ravi Kishan, a popular local star. Spinning webs and flying from buildings don’t need the crutch of a language, but Makkad-Maanav – Peter Parker’s Bhojpuri avatar in Spider-Man 3 – had made a global franchise local.
Besides Bhojpuri, the film was dubbed in three other Indian languages, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu, becoming a blockbuster. It was the seventh-highest grossing film at the Indian box-office in 2007, eclipsing Titanic’s earnings – the first Hollywood film to do so in a decade. It held that spot for the next two-and-a-half years, before James Cameron’s Avatar came up with better numbers. In the subsequent years, even the successful Hollywood films in India struggled to match up to Avatar’s figures. That changed in April 2015, with the release of Furious 7, which then became the most successful Hollywood release in India, the list of top Hollywood grossers has been frequently revised.
A year later, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book earned Rs 188 crore in India, netting nearly Rs 70 crore more than Furious 7.
Now, that record has been smashed. The Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War has till now earned a stupendous Rs 220 crore, within just a month of its release. Only Padmaavat, with net earnings of Rs 302 crore, has earned more at the Indian box-office this year. Even last week’s release, Deadpool 2, earned an impressive Rs 33 crore in its opening weekend. The success of Hollywood films in India is no longer new or surprising, but it has taken a long time to arrive.
Hollywood has dominated the foreign markets for nearly a century, but it failed to colonise the Indian film industry because it was heterogeneous, scattered in different centres – Calcutta, Bombay, Madras – speaking different languages. But over the last decade, a flurry of franchise films has rekindled that old ambition.
This dominance, though, has come through not just on the back of content – the easy appeal of superhero and science fiction films, the constant explosion of CG images – but also its strategic deployment. “The genres that are doing well in India are superhero, fantasy, and action – genres that require certain kinds of budgets and productions, which Bollywood doesn’t have,” says Shailesh Kapoor, the CEO of Ormax Media, a media consulting firm specialising in film testing, audience understanding, and box-office forecast. “Except for Baahubali there has been no other [Indian] film that has that kind of spectacle, a big screen value.”
The production houses have also realised that the Indian market is diverse, comprising several powerful regional centres. So now, Hollywood films are not just dubbed in Hindi, but also in other Indian languages, such as Tamil and Telugu. “Earlier, not many Hollywood films were dubbed – maybe two to three films a year,” says Kapoor. “Now we’re seeing around 15 to 20 dubbed versions a year.” Over the last two to three years, nearly 40% of Hollywood releases have been dubbed in at least one regional language, according to a KPMG report. This enthusiasm has been backed by box-office success. The dubbed versions of The Jungle Book, for instance, contributed to 58% of its total earnings in the country, The Avengers: Age of Ultron 45%, and Captain America: Civil War 41%.
Hollywood films have, in fact, gone beyond plain, simple dubbing, convincing Bollywood stars to lend their voices to important movie characters. Priyanka Chopra, Nana Patekar, and Irrfan Khan dubbed for The Jungle Book. Varun Dhawan voiced for Captain America in the 2016 Captain America: Civil War. Tiger Shroff dubbed for Peter Parker in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. In the past, major stars such as Akshay Kumar and Shahrukh Khan have dubbed for films such as The Incredibles and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Most recently, Ranveer Singh was the protagonist’s voice in Deadpool 2’s Hindi version.
These films have also become ambitious in terms of market reach, consistently getting bigger releases. The Jungle Book was released in 1,650 screens, The Avengers: Infinity War nearly 2,000, while Jurassic World and Furious 7 got in excess of 2,000 screens – sizeable numbers for a foreign film. (Baaghi 2, the second-highest grossing Hindi film of the year, earned Rs 60 crore less than The Avengers: Infinity War, despite getting 1,500 more screens.) The success of Hollywood films has also coincided with big Bollywood productions floundering at the box-office, such as Fan, Mohenjo Daro, Rangoon, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Tubelight and Jagga Jasoos. In 2017, the box-office collections of Hindi films dropped by 9.1% in comparison with 2016, according to an Ormax Media report, while the Hollywood films saw a sharp increase in earnings – a jump of 113.6%, from Rs 375 crore in 2013 to Rs 801 crore in 2017.
During the same period, some Hollywood films outperformed their Bollywood peers. The difference between the net box-office collections of Furious 7 and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, which released on the same day in April 2015, was nearly Rs 83 crore. Similarly, The Jungle Book released a week before Fan, in April 2016, and eventually earned Rs 100 crore more than the Shakhrukh Khan-starrer. A few months later, in January 2017, Ok Jaanu and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring Deepika Padukone, clashed with almost identical result. The latter underperformed, and yet earned Rs seven crore more than the former. The message was clear: A mediocre Hollywood actioner stood a better chance than a tepid Bollywood drama.
Sections of the Hindi film industry have already taken notice of this trend. “If we don’t hone up a few areas especially script writing, screenplay, marketing, professionalism and technology, we’ll be taken over by Hollywood,” said Khan in May 2017. He was in conversation with Brad Pitt who was in India to promote his Netflix film, War Machine. “There are films like Spider-Man and Fast and Furious which did as well as any other Hindi action film,” continued Khan. “Language is no longer a barrier as the films are getting dubbed, too.”
Almost a year later, Amitabh Bachchan was more upfront about that threat. Speaking at a promotional event for his movie 102 Not Out, Bachchan said, “Someone was telling me that Avengers [Infinity War] is going to take a massive opening in India. For a Hollywood film to do that and then for us to compete with it is a big challenge for the Indian film industry.” The event was held in the last week of April when Avengers: Infinity War hadn’t even begun to smash box-office records. “Everywhere Hollywood has gone, it has destroyed the local industry, whether it’s England, Italy, or Germany – they just come and take over,” said Bachchan. “They have the money and the expertise, the quality and the quantity. We’re fighting against them.”
Hollywood’s market share in India has slowly increased over the last decade, climbing from 3.94% in 2007 to 6.84% in 2011, to around 13% in 2017. As Bollywood continues to struggle in 2018 – the year has only seen two big box-office successes so far – it will increasingly depend on Hollywood for financial stability. Hollywood, in contrast, has plenty to offer: the next films in the Mission Impossible, Spider-Man, and Transformers series about to release this year are likely to be received well by an audience perpetually hungry for franchise, big spectacle events. Hollywood is far away from dominating the Indian market, but its 100-year-old dream doesn’t look as far-fetched as it did even 10 years ago.