Larger than Life

India Today - - INSIDE - With Amar­nath K. Menon and Mona Ra­ma­vat

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

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