Mahesh Babu is one of the most popular Telugu stars in the US, cementing his fame through such massive hits as Athadu (2005), Pokkiri (2006), Sainikudu (2006), Dookudu (2011), and Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (2013).

Dookudu was the first movie to cross the one million dollar mark in the US and was screened in 89 screens, which was the highest number of screens allotted to a Telugu film at the time,” said Ram Achanta, one of the film’s producers. “Mahesh Babu has a huge following, especially with children and families. More than serious action movies, Pokkiri and Dookudu are entertainers first.” In 2013, the number went up to 101 screens for Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu .

Telugu cinema started sinking deep roots in the US in the early 2000s, riding on the back of an increasing number of Telugu-speaking engineers who were relocating to the US to work in software companies such as Infosys and Wipro. As people moved, they took along their love for the cinema on which they grew up. But compared to Hindi films, Telugu cinema’s American run had a relatively slow start.

“When you compare it with Tamil cinema or Bollywood, Telugu cinema’s overseas market grew phenomenally only recently,” said Rajkumar Akella, the head of the Anti-Video Piracy Cell, Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce. “It took a long time for us to realise the potency of the overseas market. In the early 2000s, it was a struggle to convince producers to send prints abroad even two days before a film’s domestic release. The Tamil industry would send prints 15 days in advance. Then it was even more of a struggle to convince theatre owners in America to give us theatres.”

The diaspora was forced to watch pirated prints or rely on internet parlours, Akella added. The screen count for Telugu films were also too low to merit shows at friendly locations and in convenient time slots.

“A Telugu film would be screened in run-down theatres run by desi communities,” Akella said. “Things changed when we realised that we should work towards building a proper distribution circuit.” This included online ticketing and a focus on marketing and promotion campaigns that targeted the diaspora.

“When we realised the business value of the diaspora market, we began putting up huge vinyl hoardings in big cities there,” Akella said. “In 2006, for the first time in Telugu, Sainikudu was premiered in five cities. We flew the entire cast and crew to USA and toured in New Jersey, San Jose, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Dallas.”

Among the biggest hits are the family dramas Bommarillu (2006) and Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (2013), the reincarnation revenge drama Magadheera (2009), and the rom-com Pelli Choopulu (2016).

“Family entertainers and comedies are highly valuable to the diaspora audience,” said Bommarillu producer Dil Raju. Films released in the US earn more money than some domestic territories, he pointed out. “The overseas market rakes in more money than what Vizag, Krishna, Guntur, Nellore, and Karnataka belts bring in individually.”

The Telugu movie made in Hyderabad and aimed at a global market replaced the crossover films of the 1980s, which featured non-resident Indian and foreign talent. America Abbayi (1987) was shot entirely in the US, while Padamati Sandhya Ragam (1987) featured Thomas Jane, an American actor. In the 1990s came Shankar’s Jeans (dubbed from Tamil), which was shot in the US, and the Pawan Kalyan starrer Tholi Prema (1999), featuring an America-returned character played by Keerthi Reddy. In Yuvaraju, (2000) Mahesh Babu portrayed an NRI.

In the 2000s, Telugu filmmakers began repackaging established stars and presenting them in slick comedy-laced action films to audiences who were both familiar with age-old storytelling formulas as well as weary of them. Actors such as Pawan Kalyan, Nani, Junior NTR, Allu Arjun, Ram Charan, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, and Prabhas reconnected with old fans and made new ones through such films as Eega (2012), Gabbar Singh (2012), Atharinki Daredi (2013), Srimanthudu (2015), Janatha Garage (2016), and Khaidi No 150 (2017).

Films with improved production values, well-knit screenplays, A-list cast members, and family themes perform better than productions aimed at less demanding audiences. Telugu producers even scout NRI forums for ideas. “What matters to the NRI audience is a serious concern for producers in Tollywood,” Akella said. “The overseas market will soon overtake Nizam itself in terms of appeal and potential. It is important for us to think about how to engage with the diaspora. Going through websites that cater to the diaspora is key.”

Not all films work with Telugu moviegoers in the US. “The Baahubali films have proved that only well-made films can get the attention of the audience sitting abroad,” Yarlagadda said. Baahubali and its 2017 sequel have not just grown the audience for dubbed Telugu films in India. “Prior to the Baahubali films, a Telugu film was considered successful in the US and Canada markets if it crossed the $2 million mark,” Yarlagadda said. “Between 2014 and 2017, in just three years, the benchmark is now pushed to $20 million.”

The future is bright for Telugu cinema in America—if Donald Trump permits it.

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