Indian movies attract millions around the world — and that number looks set to grow

Parth Vohra, special to CNBC.com
Key Points
  • Revenue earned by Indian movies overseas nearly tripled in 2017, with box office collections outside of India growing to $367 million.
  • Aamir Khan starred in "Dangal," which became the top grossing Indian movie abroad and the highest grossing non-Hollywood foreign movie in China.
  • China has emerged as a highly profitable market for Indian movies in recent years.
Director Advait Chandan (from left), actress Zaira Wasim and singer Meghna Mishra attend the 'Secret Superstar' press conference in Wuhan, China on January 15, 2018.
Visual China Group | Getty Images

Vasu Pawar was happy to drive about 70 miles to watch her favorite 2017 Indian movie — even if it was the second time she was seeing it.

The first time she watched "Baahubali 2: The Conclusion" — an Indian blockbuster that raked in over $14 million overseas — she fell in love with it. The movie brought back memories of Mumbai from which she emigrated to the U.S. in 1976.

A week later, Pawar saw it again. This time, she brought her American friends, some of whom had never watched Indian films before. "They were overwhelmed with the culture, structural architecture of the monuments," Pawar said.

Indian films featuring megastars with a global appeal, coupled with the backing of affluent production houses, garnered millions of ticket sales around the globe last year.

The Indian film industry grew 27 percent in 2017 on the back of box office growth in both domestic and international markets, according to a report by EY and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI).

In 2017, box office collections for Indian films overseas took $367 million — up almost three times from $125 million the year before, the report said.

Earnings this year are expected to do just as well and may rise to $411 million in 2020 — up by 12 percent from 2017, according to the report.

Higher overseas box office collections for domestic-made movies boosts Indian tourism, creates new jobs and adds value to the Indian economy through taxes, said Abhishek, who only goes by one name, and is a partner and consultant at Deloitte India.

Indian movies may find success overseas from the backing of well-known celebrities and big production houses — factors that attract international viewers, he said.

Those factors are helping some Indian films earn showings at more mainstream theaters in countries like the U.S.

"I am proud that Indian movies are being shown in various American theaters, unlike the old times where some Indian would buy an old Indian cinema house and we were stuck with that," said Pawar, who spent about $150 on nearly a dozen Indian films last year. "I also see a lot of Americans in the audience who come to see Indian movies."

Bollywood dominates

Hindi-language movies, popularly known as Bollywood films, earned more in international markets in 2017 compared to their counterparts in other languages such as Tamil, Telugu or Punjabi, Abhishek said.

"Hindi movies do well because they have a larger appeal," Abhishek said. "(The) problem with regional movies is that their budgets at times can be limited."

While some Tamil and Telugu movies did well in international markets in 2017, and Tamil superstars like Rajinikanth have a huge following in different parts of the world, other films proved unpopular with audiences, said Abhishek.

Excluding the earnings from "Baahubali 2" last year, the total overseas box office collections of Tamil and Telugu movies would have declined from 2016, he said. "Baahubali 2" originally released in Tamil and Telugu and was dubbed in several languages including English, Hindi and Malayalam.

Tamil action-thriller "Mersal" and Telugu action-drama "Jai Lava Kusa" were two other non-Hindi movies that reaped high box office collections in 2017, according to the EY-FICCI report.

Still, four of the top five grossing Indian movies in 2017 were Bollywood, according to Box Office India. "Baahubali 2" is the only non-Bollywood film in the list.

The China effect

In 2017, Bollywood film "Secret Superstar" reaped nearly $120 million in China, according to a report from Deloitte India and the Motion Picture Distributors Association (India).

Although China is not a conventional market for Indian movies, it has seen growing interest in Indian films over the last decade.

The Indian community in China has only about 15,000 people compared to 2.5 million in the U.S. and 1.5 million in the U.K., according to the Deloitte-MPDA report. But that hasn't affected the success of Indian movies in China.

Last year, "Dangal," featuring superstar Aamir Khan, became the highest grossing non-Hollywood foreign movie of all time in China, according to the Deloitte-MPDA report. "Dangal" released worldwide in December 2016 and in China in May 2017.

The movie was set in northern India, and stars Khan as an aging father with a paunch — an unfamiliar sight for a Bollywood superstar. It was dubbed and subtitled for a Chinese audience.

Earlier this year, "Secret Superstar," featuring teen actress Zaira Wasim as the lead and Khan in a supporting role, also won over Chinese audiences. The movie grossed over nine times more in China than it did in India, according to the Deloitte-MPDA report, in part because it opened to a staggering 11,000 screens there compared to only 1,800 at home.

"Dangal" also recorded higher box office receipts in China than in India.

Regal, one of the largest movie theater chains in the U.S., screened an average of 200 Indian movies annually in the past four years, said Rob Westerling, head film buyer for the company.

"In 2017, 'Baahubali 2' was the most successful Bollywood movie to date for Regal, playing on our screens for a total of 12 weeks," Westerling told CNBC in an email. "With strong demand like this from such a passionate movie-going audience, Bollywood films will continue to be an important part of our business."