Larger than Life
The story of the making of Baahubali, a neo-mythological film of unprecedented scale and ambition
He dreamt, he dared and he delivered. What is emblematic of Baahubali holds good for its creator. Five years ago, the mild-mannered S.S. Rajamouli convinced his friend, producer Shobu Yarlagadda, co-founder and CEO of Arka Mediaworks, to take up an audacious period project, with Prabhas, an accomplished actor in Telugu cinema, as its central character. After a few weeks of meticulous planning, including a deliberate decision to make it a two-part enterprise, Rajamouli assembled an army of actors, technicians and craftsmen to make India’s most expensive film.
Because Mahishmati wasn’t built in a day
Art director Sabu Cyril and a force of 2,000 carpenters, painters and prop makers built the empire of Mahishmati at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad in 2013. Not only did they build two palaces and statues but also mechanical animals, including bulls, horses and elephants. Prabhas talks about a ‘Mahishmati Bible of sorts’ that offered vivid details about the kingdom such as the likes and dislikes of its people, their sleeping regimen and staple diet. Thousands of extras were roped in for the battle sequences, which were pre-visualised with the help of John Griffith, who has worked on films like Planet of the Apes and the X-Men series. A chunk of the visual effects work was carried out at Hyderabad’s Makuta VFX studios. When it finally hits screens on April 28, Arka Mediaworks would have spent Rs 450 crore—Rs 300 crore more than the earlier estimated budget for the two films.
The result is a predominantly Made in India project with the narrative core rooted in Indian myths, but with an international look and universal appeal. Come April 28, and Yarlagadda, Devineni Prasad, who ran the administrative apparatus, Rajamouli and his crew will complete the historical chapter they started. Two questions then crop up: could Baahubali: The Conclusion improve on the Rs 600 crore collections of the National Award-winning Part 1? More pertinently, ‘Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?’
For the past two years, Rajamouli has managed not to have any #BaahubaliLeaks from Hyderabad. “If it were a lazy oneline answer, people would have figured it out,” says Rajamouli. “It’s a big part of the forthcoming film.” He has his father, K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, who wrote the film’s story, to thank for one of the best endings to lure viewers. “While a big budget helps create atmospherics and newer techniques in filmmaking, what holds it together ultimately is the content and the ability to sustain audience interest,” says Prasad.
Anxiety over mounting costs
“People thought we were fools,” says Yarlagadda. “They wrote us off even before the release of the [first] film.” Prior to Baahubali, Arka Mediaworks had produced just three films, including Rajamouli’s Maryada Ramanna (2010), which was remade in Hindi as Son of Sardar. Many took the film’s spiralling budget as a sign it was a doomed venture.
But being cautious wasn’t an option. “I knew the rising cost was not driven by someone’s fancy but was someone’s remuneration,” says Yarlagadda. The trust Rajamouli and the company built over a decade ensured that Baahubali saw the light of day. It also helped that Rajamouli was a box-office champion with Telugu superhits such as Magadheera (2009) and Eega (2012). Says Yarlagadda, “I don’t know if I could back any other filmmaker to such a degree.” On his part, Rajamouli says, “The producer and director have to be on the same page. If it doesn’t happen at the beginning of the film, it shows in the final product.”
The birth of a pan-India film
Early in 2013, Mumbai-based publicist Prabhat Choudhary of Spice PR was flown down to Hyderabad to meet Rajamouli. The aim: take Baahubali beyond south India with the help of an agency with a footprint in north and west India. Choudhary recalls Rajamouli’s presentation included describing the waterfall sequence in Part 1. “I was blown away,” says Choudhary.
Just by announcing it as the most expensive film, Choudhary says, Baahubali went from being a southern film to a national one. On July 10, 2015, Baahubali: The Beginning set a new record, with the highest first-day collection for a film dubbed in Hindi: Rs 5.15 crore.
The buzz for Part 2 transcends that of Part 1. After promotions in Chandigarh, the cast travels to Ahmedabad, where at Hotel Rajwadu they feast on a thali named Baahubali; to Varanasi, and
finally Delhi. “A pan-India film was a myth before Baahubali,” says Choudhary. “The road had been paved.”
An example for Bollywood
Such an elaborate exercise in filmmaking supported for five years with concomitant branding, coming as it does from ‘southern or regional cinema’, may well be a model for Bollywood in which superstars are given precedence. Siddharth Roy Kapur, former managing director of Disney India, which produced Dangal, the highest-grossing Indian film so far, says that Baahubali is an “eye-opener and lesson to the Hindi film fraternity which relies on a superstar-driven culture for the big blockbuster”. What makes Baahubali even more impressive is that it achieved its feat with actors like Prabhas and Rana Daggubati, who are not known widely among Hindi audiences, unlike the legendary Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan.
“The theme of the film is the real star,” says Kapur. “You need to salute the leap of faith of the producers who invested the money, time and energy. It has paid off in spades,” he adds, citing Rs 111 crore, the box-office collections for the dubbed Hindi version.
The blend of fantasy and mythology is a little explored genre in Bollywood—for travelling back in time and building a whole new world isn’t just an expensive proposition but a daunting one as well. Even as Hindi cinema had its share of fantasy epics early on, such as Aan (1952), Dharam Veer (1977) and Ajooba (1991), the colossal failures of Drona (2008), Veer (2010) and, more recently, Mohenjo Daro (2016) don’t inspire much confidence. “It is not that we are limited by imagination,” says Kapur. The concern, he adds, has been if the technology and the budgets will deliver. “It is simplistic to put the blame on studios alone,” he says. “It takes guts to make a film without a big star.”
Yarlagadda, though, isn’t certain if the studio model permits the development of a film like Baahubali. While Hollywood is developing action franchises which don’t necessarily rely on superstars to get them rolling, Bollywood is still far away from adopting a similar model. “The studio system has a framework,” says Yarlagadda. “Its rigidity leaves little scope for human judgement. There are certain limitations and rules you have to work with.”
The desi fantasy epic
Baahubali is being seen as a game-changer in Indian cinema for a variety of reasons. It’s a film where the filmmaker is a more prominent figure than the actors. Rajamouli isn’t merely a filmmaker presenting a narrative, he is the visionary transporting viewers into a mythical realm much like Hollywood filmmakers Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. From Sivudu demonstrating his flair as a luger in Part 1 to skateboarding as seen in the trailer of Part 2, it’s the wild imagination, the ingenuity of the action and the spectacle that lures the viewers. Rajamouli’s visual references may be western, but as an ardent fan of Amar Chitra Katha comics he taps into ancient epics to make a film that is a feast for the eyes and touches the heart too. “I know that if you have a universal theme and a good story told well, it will work everywhere,” he says. “I strongly believe the stories we have, the epics of India, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, all the history, have a very rich culture and history that we’ve been ignoring for so long. We have been trying to ape western films. I don’t have anything against it, but when we have such a treasure trove with us, it only makes sense to exploit it.”
In the two Baahubalis—Amarendra and Mahendra—Rajamouli and his father have created desi superheroes whose physical prowess may remind you of Hollywood comicbook stars but whose personality attributes are reminiscent of characters from Indian mythology. Bijjaladeva with his scheming ways is a spin on Shakuni mama; Bhallaladeva could be Duryodhana, the brother who feels wronged and wants the empire at all costs; Mahendra is the dutiful son much like Lord Rama and Amarendra an able warrior like Bheem; Kattappa the faithful aide like Hanuman.
Author Amish Tripathi, an ardent fan of Part 1, says that like most writers of epic stories, Rajamouli too is influenced by Indian mythologies—the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas. “What drew everyone to the film apart from scale,” he says, “is that these are our stories, our palaces and our temples. There is a strange mix of awe and connection unlike while watching Hollywood films where there is just awe. You look at Baahu-
bali and it’s like Yeh apna hai [he is our own]!”
It’s not just the characters but the film’s philosophy too. “It talks about dharma, and by that I don’t mean religion but the right way to live, and karma in that we do what we have to,” says Tripathi. This is best reflected in Kattappa, one of Baahubali’s most revered characters, whose one action has devastating consequences for Mahishmati. “Pure good and evil in our tradition don’t exist,” says Tripathi. “Even the ‘enemy’ has a story, and you can learn something from him.” It explains Baahubali: The Conclusion’s tagline, ‘A battle between two rights and no wrong’, urging you to pick your side: Team Baahubali or Team Bhallalaldeva.
Making history with mythology
No matter who you root for, entertainment is guaranteed. It is what made Karan Johar and Anil Thadani pick up the Hindi distribution rights. “I knew he was making this big motion picture... budget-wise, scalewise, opulence-wise, story-wise,” writes Johar in his memoir The Unsuitable Boy on how he came to be associated with the film. “And I believe very strongly that in terms of quality, technique and storytelling, it’s not down south but it’s up south. Rajamouli is a master storyteller.”
With the reincarnation action drama (Magadheera) and effect-heavy revenge tale featuring a fly (Eega), Rajamouli had already made his presence felt beyond South. But he still quite hadn’t joined the league of filmmakers such as Mani Ratnam, Shankar, Ram Gopal Varma and Priyadarshan whose body of work has resonated with viewers across India. With Baahubali, Rajamouli, a protégé of legendary Telugu filmmaker K. Raghavendra Rao, has not just joined the club but cemented his reputation as the new showman of India. He has put Telugu cinema aka Tollywood, often overshadowed by the technically accomplished Kollywood, on the map. “Baahubali epitomises extraordinary restructuring after 75 years of India cinema,” says Rao, director of 108 films who is credited as presenter for the Baahubali films. “It has opened vistas for
making a film of epic proportions in all Indian languages.” Adds actor Daggubati Venkatesh, “Rajamouli deserves applause for his grand vision and for taking an Indian film to such a remarkable level internationally. After the legendary Mayabazar (1957), Baahubali undoubtedly has taken Telugu cinema to a whole new high.”
The movies have broken the language barrier of regional cinema and disrupted the star-studded culture of Bollywood. The grand opulence, high-octane drama and incredible action on display is all it takes to bring audiences back to the cinemas. “Each frame here makes you want to watch it on the big screen,” says Vajir Singh, editor of Box Office India. Despite the second film coming after a nearly two-year break, the filmmakers have kept the Baahubali universe alive by taking the story into multiple formats, such as a book trilogy by Anand Neelakantan, comic books by Graphic India, an animated series on Amazon Prime Video, a TV series, mobile games, apparel, merchandise and more.
With 6,500 screens releasing Baahubali: The Conclusion, expectations are sky high. “I’d be happy if a film breaks existing records as it shows the film industry is growing,” says Kapur. “For long, we have spoken about the Rs 1,000 crore worldwide grosser. It’d be great if it could reach that mark.” Whether it does or not it won’t diminish its impact on Indian cinema. It’s already a success in spirit.
LIVING THE ROLES: RANA DAGGUBATI AS BHALLALADEVA, SATHYARAJ AS KATTAPPA AND ANUSHKA SHETTY AND PRABHAS AS DEVASENA AND AMARENDRA BAAHUBALI