The largest overseas market for Telugu cinema is now Donald Trump country and, like so much else with the American president, that’s a problem.
Trump’s April order placing greater restrictions on the process of obtaining H-1B visas has the potential to rattle the business of Telugu films in the US. A great many of the 350,000 Indian information technology workers in the US are from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. That is in addition to the high numbers of Telugu students who study in the US. In 2014-15, the US consulate in Hyderabad issued 27,000 student visas, the highest number of student visas in the world. America is home to an estimated 250,000 Telugu speakers from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The US is the biggest market for Telugu films after India, contributing 5-10% of the box office collections.
“The cinema industry will not be affected employment-wise but it could affect the sentiment if there are massive lay-offs in the IT industry in America,” said Shobu Yarlagadda, the producer of the Baahubali films. “I don’t think it will hamper our fortunes, but the policy could slow down the rate of growth of the market.”
Already, a report by the National Foundation for American Policy has claimed that the US has granted 37% fewer approvals to the top seven Indian IT firms in 2016. Retrenchment and the shrinking of the Indian IT workforce can potentially affect the returns not only of Telugu films, but also of Tamil and Hindi releases.
According to the annual Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report released by FICCI-Frames and KPMG India, “US contributes 85% of the overseas revenue [of Telugu cinema] and 5%-10% of the overall box-office collections. The large Telugu-speaking population in the US, mainly in the 35-40 age group, has contributed to this share.”
A big-budget Telugu movie is distributed between 300 and 400 screens in the US, the same number as a Hindi release, according to the FICCI-Frames report. SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (2014) earned $8 million in North America and Canada, while the 2017 sequel raked in $20 million, Yarlagadda told Scroll.in. The first film was screened on 250-300 screens, while the sequel got a whopping 1,000 screens.
The American market for Telugu films sometimes outstrips the local box office, and is sizable enough to encourage filmmakers to improve their production standards to meet the benchmarks set by Hollywood. Tagore Madhu, the producer of AR Murugadoss’s upcoming Spyder, is visiting studios in London and Russia to ensure the visual effects in the Mahesh Babu-starrer go down well with what he calls the “International Telugu” audience.
“If it was the question of just the Indian audience, then it would be a different matter,” Madhu said. “But we have to satisfy Telugu and Indian audiences living abroad who are used to watching the works of the best technical talents of the world.” Madhu plans to tap into markets in Dubai, Vietnam, and Indonesia, apart from devising a specific strategy for the US.
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.