In India, the broad action comedy "Chennai Express” is known as a "masala” movie – like the mixture of spices, there's a little something for everyone.
Today in the box office world, it's a called a hit. "Chennai Express” not only broke records with its $24.5 million opening in India over the weekend, but posted one of the best debuts ever for a Bollywood film in the U.K. ($1.6 milion) and the highest ever in the United States.
It took in more than $2.2 million from just 196 theaters in the U.S. over the three days, giving it an $11,352 per-screen average – better than either "Elysium” or "We're the Millers.”
"It was a bit of a surprise for us, too,” Lokesh Dhar, executive director of Disney-owned UTV, which co-produced and is distributing, told TheWrap. "We knew it would do well, just not this well.”
"Chennai” is directed by Rohit Shetty and stars Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, all of whom are very well-known names to Indian movie fans. Lead actor Khan, who Dhar says is "about as big as it gets” in India, co-produced.
The film is about a middle-aged man who gets on the wrong train and embarks on a series of life changing misadventures with the daughter of a village don. Like many Bollywood movies, it features romance, laughs, a bit of violence, dancing and moralizing, often played out in wildly colorful scenes.
The plan is to expand "Chennai Express” into a few more theaters this weekend, and then see where it goes, according to Dhar. Its prospects in the U.S. are somewhat limited, since the dialog is in Hindi and Tamil, and subtitled for Americans and foreign countries.
"We targeted Southeast Asian audiences almost exclusively,” Dhar said, "but that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladesh, so it's not a small group.”
All of the theaters showing "Chennai” were in major markets, where the vast majority of the U.S. Southeast Asian population resides. The UTV promo push involved social media campaigns targeting those communities and more traditional efforts. For example, UTV took over several Indian food trucks in Northern California – and even customized the menu with movie references – to help get the word out.
The qualities that made it such a hit with those audiences are part of the reason traditional art house crowds weren't the target demo, Dhar explained.
"Filmmaking in India is very different and this is a really broad comedy,” he said, "the sort that normally wouldn't be of much interest at the Landmark Theaters.”
It's received fairly good reviews from several U.S. outlets, including the New York Times.
"Most of them have given it the benefit of the doubt, because emotions are the key and this is a fun movie, made purely for entertainment, and that"s why it's a success,” Dhar said.
While the language barrier makes a major crossover with mainstream audiences here a long shot, Dhar was cautiously optimistic.
"We aren't ruling anything out,” he said.