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The boss, no doubt

Southern superstar Rajinikanth's latest flick Sivaji: The Boss promises to be the biggest blockbuster ever, with projected box office takings of Rs 350 crore in India and abroad. What makes the ageing star a global phenomenon?

By Krishna Gopalan        Print Edition: July 29, 2007

India's superhero: Rajinikanth 
Not the end of the line: Fans in Chennai wait to buy tickets.
It's seven in the evening and I am inside Abirami theatre in Chennai's Puraswalkam area, eager to get up close with the biggest phenomenon of the season in Indian cinema. My perch is about four rows from behind, but it's not a seat-I am on the steps of a staircase that leads up to the balcony. The crowd has barely settled in, but the place is throbbing with excitement. My odd vantage point is explained by the fact that I am on a job and that there are no tickets available for the show. Therefore, I have sweet-talked Abirami's owner Abirami Ramanathan to let me catch the first few minutes of the movie Sivaji for a first-hand feel of the Rajini mania that has been sweeping through Tamil Nadu (not to mention, surprisingly, several other parts of India and the world).

Last of the trailers ends and the screen comes alive with the words "Superstar Rajini". That's enough to send the crowd into raptures; there are young men in the front rows whistling and dancing, and even the more sophisticated back row audience can't help but start clapping. The whistles and cheers only get louder when the star himself makes his appearance on the screen and, Abirami's Ramanathan tells me, that's pretty much how the mood inside the hall remains till the movie ends. And, by the way, most of the people on the seven o'clock show with me that day had seen the movie at least once before.

Rajinikanth, or Shivaji Rao Gaekwad as his parents named him, has been a celluloid phenomenon in Tamil Nadu for a few decades now. In fact, there are several Rajini fan clubs that extend from Tamil Nadu to Japan. But the mass hysteria that Sivaji has generated is unprecedented even by Rajini's own standards and, to an outsider, a bit bizarre. From Mylapore to Melbourne, and Latur to London, movie goers have embraced the 57-year-old star with surprising warmth. There have been those who don't understand a word of Tamil but have queued up to watch the movie. Small wonder, Sivaji, made at a record cost of Rs 80 crore, is expected to generate ticket sales (India and abroad) in excess of Rs 350 crore, of which Rs 100 crore is already in the till. In contrast, the biggest Bollywood blockbuster to date, Ramesh Sippy's 1975 movie Sholay, raked in under Rs 240 crore, adjusting for inflation.

For the producers, Chennai-based AVM Studios, the success of Sivaji has been anything but surprising. "We were planning to have a very big project. This year is important since it is the birth centenary of our founder, A.V. Meiyappan, and also the diamond jubilee of AVM Studios," says AVM Studios' Managing Partner and Co-Producer, M.S. Guhan.

Sivaji by the numbers

Rs 80 crore
What it cost to make Sivaji: The Boss.
Rs 350 crore
What the movie could rake in at the box office.
Rs 200 crore
What movie merchandising could fetch.
1,100
Number of houseful shows in Chennai at the end of Week 2.
155
The number of prints released in the overseas market. No Tamil film in the past has got even close to half this number.
£14,000 (Rs 11.48 lakh)
The average revenue per screen in the UK during the weekend of the release.
56
The number of prints in Kerala, compared to 20 which had been the highest thus far.
$3 million (Rs 12.3 crore)
The price at which AVM has sold the overseas distribution rights for the film.
200,000
The area in square feet that was taken over by AVM for its outdoor advertising campaign. This is for the state of Tamil Nadu, but does not include Chennai.

Marketing mass hysteria

The studio has more than succeeded. Ask anyone involved with Sivaji for their opinion on the film and the answer you are almost certain to get is, "It's not a film, it's an experience." The project was conceived in August 2005 and it was immediately clear that it had to be something big, since it was Rajini's 100th Tamil film. "The film was conceived to be a magnum opus. It became a best-seller even before it started; that is the kind of pull Rajinikanth has," points out AVM Studios' CEO S.C. Babu. The producers ensured that they had the best names in the business, including director Shankar and music composer A.R. Rahman. Other prominent names that were involved were art director Thotta Tharani and cinematographer K.V. Anand.

The superstar animated

Next up: Rajinikanth as Sultan: The Warrior, but animated.

Will an animated version of the southern superstar fly? his daughter Soundarya, a product of Australia's Edith Cowan University, thinks so. Along with Adlabs, she is working on such a film, Sultan: The Warrior, that will be released next year. "The idea to make an animation film with my father struck me early last year," Soundarya told BT. The film, which is already on the floors, will be made on a budget of $4-5 million. Interestingly, Sultan will be dubbed in Japanese and Zulu, besides a host of Indian languages. "My father has a huge fan following in Japan and South Africa, and that's why we are keen on releasing it in these languages," says the Managing Director of Chennai-based Ocher Studios. What is Sultan going to be all about? "It is going to be a mythology-based theme and I cannot say anything more at this stage," says the star's daughter. For Rajini fans, who are used to watching their star in lengthy films, this is certain to be different. It will have a running time of around 90 minutes. Soundarya, a huge fan of her father, says this is the first time a South Asian actor will be animated.

Sivaji's firsts

» First Tamil film to break into the UK Top 10 on the weekend of its release.
» First Tamil film to simultaneously release in Hong Kong, which historically has been a market for Hindi films.
» First Tamil film to get onto iTunes.
» First Tamil film to sell music on a 'cash-and-carry' basis.
» First film to use the 4K high resolution technology for photography throughout the film.

Interestingly, this was AVM's first film that was launched without a release date. "Shankar told us that he would find it difficult to work if there was a release date," quips Guhan. Like any other film, it was important to start production with a basic budget in mind and BT gathers that this was around Rs 40 crore. It is a different story that the money producers eventually spent was twice as much. "Money was never an issue and we never did put a budget to the film," says Guhan.

Celebration time: AVM Studios' Guhan says the year is important as it is their diamond jubilee
For those who have seen the movie, the money spent is more than visible. Dance sequences in Spain, extravagant costumes, a refreshingly young Rajini and high-quality computer graphics are just some of the ingredients that have gone into the making of this blockbuster extravaganza. For instance, a part of the film's music required Rahman to go to the Czech Republic in search of a 40-man orchestra. "We actually used a harp for this and that is not very common," reveals Babu. The music composed eventually became part of the background score. Likewise, a particular fight sequence required an open air theatre that was not easily available. The director simply decided to create it exclusively for the film. "It is a landmark film not just for the AVM banner but also for the Tamil film industry. This is because of its global acceptance," says the head of AVM Studios, M. Saravanan, son of A.V. Meiyappan.

The pre-sale part of the film was important and AVM decided to go about it a little differently. There were various components to this and some of the more crucial links were revenues from distribution, music, downloads and home video. In a city like Chennai, a big market for Rajini films, getting the distribution right was critical. The rights for Chennai were sold to Abirami Mega Mall and GV Films for Rs 6.5 crore. "This was the highest ever paid to distribute a film in Chennai and at least four times more than what is normally paid," says Abirami's Ramanathan, who is also a well-known exhibitor.

The gamble seems to have paid off for Ramanathan. The collection at the end of the first week was Rs 2.2 crore, of which his share was Rs 1.4 crore. "My share from the second week's collections was Rs 1.2 crore. I am looking at a seven-week period to recover my money," says Ramanathan.

Big bucks: The rights for Chennai were sold for Rs 6.5 crore. Abirami's Ramanathan says this is four times more than what is normally paid. 
A non-tamil success

The stories from other centres make for even better reading. H.D. Gangaraju, who coughed up Rs 3.25 crore to distribute the film in Karnataka, expects to make at least three times the amount. "Rajini is a phenomenon and given the massive success of his previous releases, we were confident of the success of Sivaji," he gloats. Overall, the producers released 660 prints in the domestic market-360 in Tamil and the rest in Telugu-and 155 prints abroad, where at least 90 per cent was in Tamil.

A comparison with the Yash Raj Films' new release Jhoom Barabar Jhoom tells the story. While Sivaji was released in just 12 screens in the UK, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was released in 47 screens. That number was not enough to prevent Rajini's movie from breaking into the UK Top 10-at number nine-for the opening weekend, ahead of Fantastic Four and Ocean's Thirteen. The rights for the overseas markets were sold to Ayngaran International, which is said to have acquired it for around $3 million. "Normally, they release five prints in the UK. We will now be releasing two more prints with English subtitles," says Guhan. By comparison, Rajinikanth's previous film, Chandramukhi, was released in the UK with five prints. "Breaking into the UK Top 10 was a bit of a surprise," admits Saravanan. The $25 price per ticket in the US over the opening weekend and the expected success in key markets like Japan could well turn out to be a money-spinner for the film. "What has been most appealing to the audience is the combination of Rajinikanth, Shankar and Rahman," says Ayngaran's Director K. Karunamoorthy.

      
Rain's no dampener: Crowds outside Mumbai's Aurora Cinema.
Female following: College girls at Chennai's Abirami theatre.

Back in the domestic market, there have been several more surprises. For instance, it was released in 45 screens in Hyderabad as against 38 for Andhra megastar Chiranjeevi's last release, Shankar Dada MBBS. The first week collections in Hyderabad and nine adjoining districts was an impressive Rs 6 crore.

Today, Sivaji is playing in centres like Jalandhar and Lucknow. In Kolkata, the film was released in three screens-Inox City Centre, Inox Forum and 89 Cinema. "The average occupancy on weekdays was a healthy 45 per cent and it was houseful on Sunday. This was without any promotion, marketing push or merchandising. This is the first time that 89 Cinema has released a Tamil film," says Prashant Srivastava, VP, 89 Cinema.

Mumbai too was a high performing market and the rains could not do very much to deter Rajini fans. Yet, "if it had not rained, the film would have done better business", reckons Nambirajan, MD, Ganesh Films and owner of Mumbai's Aurora Cinema. He was the distributor for Sivaji in North India, which for Nambirajan includes Mumbai. Initially, he bought 18 prints, but quickly more than doubled the order to 40. "In Maharashtra, we had 99 per cent collections in the first week and we should recover our investments in about 3-4 weeks," says Nambirajan. The story is similar in Delhi, he says.

By all accounts, there is no stopping Sivaji for sometime at least. While so far there has been talk of just ticketing revenue, the monies that will accrue through home video, satellite television rights, music, downloads are yet to be estimated. The satellite rights have been sold to Kalaignar TV, while the deal for ringtones and downloads has been struck with hungama.com and galata.com. For now, it may be difficult to estimate how much all this will add up to. But it's safe to say that it will be the sort of number that most Indian movie producers only dream of.

 

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