Dozens of animators work into the night in the city of Hyderabad, fuelled by caffeine and huddled over computer screens in a darkened studio to put the finishing touches on Baahubali: The Conclusion, considered to be the biggest and the most ambitious film. The makers of Baahubali 2 hope its top-notch visual effects will wean the audience yet-again from Hollywood blockbusters, enticing them with the magical kingdoms, rampaging armies and towering palaces of a homegrown fantasy epic, conceptualised by director S S Rajamouli, who returns to helm the second part of the magnum opus. "If art was easy, everybody would do it," said Pete Draper, co-founder of Makuta VFX, which is stitching the film's live-action scenes together with computer-generated imagery.
"Every single shot has its own challenges. Working hours right now are crazy. We are finishing daily at 4 am," he added.
Agencies that closely track the box office, say Baahubali 2 is the most highly awaited film of the decade. But the competition for Spider-Man and other movie franchises from overseas isn't coming from Bollywood or the Southern film industry.
When it opened in cinemas in 2015, dubbed versions of Baahubali: The Beginning, made in the Telugu and also released in Tamil and Hindi, resonated with audiences nationwide.
It used computer-generated imagery to depict ancient kingdoms and bloody wars in a quintessentially battle of good versus evil.
Filmmaker Rajamouli aims to do even better when the next instalment is released on April 28.
Inspired by Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments when growing up, Rajamouli wanted to create a tent-pole franchise that delivered a memorable movie experience.
But younger audiences were looking to Hollywood franchises such as The Fast And The Furious, and the superheroes of the Marvel and DC Comics universe.
"They have heavy budgets, they have huge star casts and huge studios backing them," Rajamouli, 43, said in an interview in Hyderabad, his home city. "But if we make 10 percent of it in an Indian context, with our stories, our heroes and heroines, we can easily compete," he added.
Visual effects head Mr Draper was at the sprawling movie set every day of filming to make sure location shots and actors' movements synchronised with CGI-enhanced rendering on screen.
By day, the half-built palace, an arena, the torso of a statue and a stone temple flanked by blue screens don't look sufficiently formidable, so the team of nearly 80 animators has been given the task of fleshing out the heft and detail. To keep down production costs on a budget of $ 67 million, work on the CGI-heavy movie was distributed among 35 studios across continents.
"We didn't have any studio backing us. Raising capital was a challenge," said Prasad Devineni, one of the producers. If all goes well, a record-breaking run for Baahubali 2 could be a wake-up call for Bollywood, where cinema attendance has halved from a decade ago.
In 2016, Indian box-office collections fell to 99 billion rupees ($1.5 billion), down from 101 billion a year earlier. Bollywood, reliant on a tried-and-tested formula of romances and masala thrillers, has failed to develop its own big-ticket franchises, piggy-backing instead on Baahubali, with filmmaker Karan Johar marketing the Hindi version of the film. With a spin-off TV series, an animated offering for Amazon videostreaming, a comic book and a possible third film in the works, Baahubali could bring back the audience to the theatres.
"It has shown us the way - how to market, build euphoria around it," said Rajkumar Akella, India managing director at global box-office tracker comScore.
The makers always envisaged the film as a franchise, with many narratives branching off its storyline, to hook the maximum number of viewers later. "Our audiences might be watching English films, or Hollywood films, and getting used to them, but the blood doesn't change, the DNA doesn't change," said Rajamouli.
(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Clarence Fernandez)