While Tamil stars and films are perhaps not as well known outside of India as their Bollywood counterparts, they nevertheless have a huge fanbase within India (especially the south) and across the diaspora. Also known as Kollywood, the Tamil industry produces hundreds of feature films per year. The latest high-profile title is big-budget adventure/romance thriller I, from Robot helmer Shanmugham Shankar (commonly known as just Shankar). It opened Wednesday to sell-outs at home and abroad in what is the biggest-ever release for a Tamil-language film (see trailer below). In the U.S., it’s going out via distributor Aascar Film in over 200 theaters with versions in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu. No South Indian film has ever opened this wide in the U.S. market before. In India, the opening is on a record 6,500 screens. As with the major Bollywood films we’ve seen over the past year which have broken out worldwide — especially Aamir Khan’s Christmas release PK — Tamil movies also choose key holiday release dates. Wednesday was the beginning of the four-day Pongal festival which celebrates the end of harvest season and is among the best box office weeks of the year in South India.
The film boasts an impressive roster of talent. It stars Chiyaan Vikram — familiarly known as Vikram as many Tamil talent go by just one name — an award-winning actor who has several hits under his belt including 2010’s Raavanan with Aishwarya Rai, and millions of fans worldwide. Helmer Shankar, whose 1996 Indian and 1998 Jeans were the Indian submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar, is also known for his 2010 blockbuster Robot which is the highest-grossing Tamil film ever in both the U.S. and India. That sci-fi pic played on about 140 screens in North America, grossing $3M (a sequel has been rumored with Aamir Khan potentially taking part). I also has six original songs by Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman. He has worked with Shankar before and recently scored Tamil hit, Lingaa, which opened last month to a $1.4M weekend in the U.S.
Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop did the creature makeup, and Stan Winston Studios handled animatronics for I. Notably, much of the film was shot in China, and a wide release is planned there with about 12,000 dates all throughout Asia in March. Further, says Naveen Varadarajan, head of U.S. operations for Aascar, this is the last Tamil film to be shot in 35mm.
In I, Vikram plays three characters: bodybuilder Lingesan, top model Lee, and the Hunchback. All are the same person, but change over time. Diya, a supermodel played by Amy Jackson, falls for Lee, who is really Lingesan after a makeover. The Hunchback also comes into play, but saying more would be to give away key plot points of the non-linear story.
I premiered in Malaysia late Tuesday night and the Indian screenings began at 4 AM local on Wednesday, Varadarajan tells me. The premiere was a “full house” and he expects I to go far. Helmer Shankar is all about “content and grandeur… in terms of visual effects, every frame is spot on.” Check it out for yourself in the trailer below: