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India Saga ‘Baahubali’ Targets the World With Ramoji Film City

At the edge of the tiny village of Anajpur on the outskirts of Hyderabad in southern India are a pair of imposing gates with high walls on either side stretching as far as the eye can see. Inside is a vast property encompassing forts, palaces, prisons, mosques, temples, airports, gardens and anything else a filmmaker might dream of using as a backdrop for a big-budget extravaganza.

Welcome to Ramoji Film City, which, at 2,000 acres, is one of the largest studio facilities in the world. It’s not difficult to discover what’s currently filming: Dominating the Ramoji skyline these days is an immense bronze statue that bears the likeness of actor Rana Daggubati, who plays the antagonist in “Baahubali,” a historical action-adventure set in medieval India. The project is slated for a two-part release, with the first film due on 4,000 screens around the world, including 200 in the U.S., in late July. Producer Arka Mediaworks has enlisted former Directors’ Fortnight topper Francois Da Silva to rep the movies at the Cannes market.

Hugely popular star Prabhas also toplines the film, budgeted at $40 million — easily the most expensive production from India, outstripping 2010’s “Enthiran,” which reportedly cost $34 million.

These figures might seem small by Hollywood studio standards, but in India, a dollar stretches a long way, and what winds up on the screen, if done right, can rival some the best production values in the business.

Visual effects supervisor V. Srinivas Mohan is no stranger to big-budget spectaculars, having been in charge of “Enthiran” as well other high-profile pics. He says that vfx on Indian movies can achieve 80% of an “Avatar”-like shot for one-quarter the cost. What Mohan and his team are striving for is to deliver the remaining 20% to reach global standards.

“Audiences are used to watching photo-realistic effects in Hollywood films,” Mohan says, “and the challenge was to re-create that on an Indian budget.”

Ramoji itself has chipped in to try to make that happen, providing credits for infrastructure and equipment for “Baahubali,” as well as non-equity financing for roughly half the budget of the film, produced by Shobu Yarlagadda and Prasad Devineni for Arka Mediaworks, largely a TV shingle, but also co-producer of 2011’s “Once Upon a Warrior” with Disney India. Arka put up 10% for the film, with the rest coming from Indian territory pre-sales, thanks to the track record of hit-making director S.S. Rajamouli.

Mohan’s task has been to realize Rajamouli’s vision — one that has included a more than three-mile-high waterfall and epic battles with armies of hundreds of thousands, along with horses, elephants, chariots and giant catapults. “When the director says ‘I need it huge,’ ” Mohan says, “there is no end of that huge.”

Mohan, along with Rajamouli and production designer Sabu Cyril, began pre-production in 2012. Principal photography began in 2013 and continued until the end of 2014 at Ramoji and locations across India and Bulgaria.

Almost 90% of the film requires vfx work, with the live-action shooting augmented and expanded in post. Some 600 artists are executing the f/x at 18 facilities around the world, led by Makuta and Firefly in Hyderabad, Prasad EFX in Hyderabad and Chennai, Tau Films in the U.S. and Malaysia, and Dancing Digital Animation and Macrograph in South Korea.

Rajamouli’s previous blockbusters had strong elements of fantasy and pageantry, but nowhere near the scale of “Baahubali.” But the director calls the battles, bombast and big budget a “superficial layer.” “Beneath it all are human emotions that drive the film,” he says.

“Baahubali” will be released in the Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam languages. The second part is due in spring 2016. Arko plans to distribute the films in Asian markets like Japan, China and South Korea, and also parts of Europe where Indian movies don’t traditionally play. The ancillary strategy includes a spinoff TV series, graphic novels and a clothing line. Arka is also in discussions with tech giant AMD to create a “Baahubali”-themed Oculus Rift experience.

Despite its global ambitions, “Baahubali” remains very much an Indian product. Star Daggubati says the film will give international audiences a taste of Indian folkloric culture in same way “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” exported China’s mythology. “I haven’t seen a film of this scale that is so true to our culture,” he notes. “The weapons are very Indian, and the way we fight is very Indian. It’s portraying our culture to the West.”

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