HIS OWN SUPERHERO
What does it mean to play a role larger than life? Baahubali alias Prabhas tells all
Destiny’s child. Born for greatness. Superhero. Sivudu or Mahendra Baahubali was all of this and more in the epic blockbuster Baahubali: The Beginning. To play the inspiring figure, S.S. Rajamouli needed someone who caught everybody’s attention with his masculinity. In the tall, dark, mustachioed and ruggedly charming Prabhas, the filmmaker found one man to play two iconic characters.
“I always dreamt big as an actor but not this big,” says Prabhas, seated in the outer office of his home on a quiet road in the upmarket neighbourhood of Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad. Dressed in a black shirt with a hoodie, the actor had just returned after arm-wrestling his co-star Rana Daggubati in Chandigarh, one of the many activities planned to promote Baahubali: The Conclusion.
Playing two characters with the same inherent qualities of valour, intensity and honour but distinct personalities “was as much a challenge as it was a privilege”, says the 37-year-old. The Guardian in its review of Baahubali: The Beginning described him as someone who “embodies several legends for the price of one”, comparing the superhero to Moses, Hercules and Tarzan. Back home, parallels have been drawn with the likes of Bheem, Shiva and Ram. But for Prabhas, Baahubali is his own superhuman being.
“They were gods who possessed magical powers,” he says. “Mahendra and Amarendra Baahubali, though, are neither gods nor blessed with divine superpowers or even the gadgetry of Batman or Spiderman. What they have are great minds and strong arms.” He cites how in Part 1 Amarendra’s “sharp thinking and strategising for war is always ten steps ahead of the others”, which is why he gets into the battlefield on a horse with just two spears to confront thousands, escaping unscathed. That, and perhaps a whole lot of luck and suspension of logic, is what makes him a superhero.
Prabhas was 32 when he started work on the films. The next four-and-a-half years were spent working out to build six-pack abs, learning archery and doing yoga. “More important than the physical preparation was the sustained conviction in the project and unwavering dedication. It wasn’t easy to match up to Rajamouli’s perfectionism and passion that clearly borders on madness. I did not want to disappoint him if I couldn’t please him,” he says.
A commitment this long could be a director’s delight but would be deemed a risk by most actors, save Aamir Khan perhaps. “To me,” Prabhas says, “it was clear that a period film of this proportion would take long to make.” And now that it’s over, the withdrawal symptoms, it seems, will last a tad longer. Recalling the last day of the shoot, he says, “I was rather emotional. We had all embarked on a journey, making the director’s vision our own. There was too much uncertainty about whether the film would work since we didn’t have any reference to fall back on. But we knew all of us had to give our 100 per cent. After such a long spell of being involved with Baahubali, it was suddenly over one day. It was deeply overwhelming.”
Growing up, Prabhas didn’t want
to be an actor, despite having a film producer (Suryanarayana Raju) for a father and veteran Telugu actor Krishnam Raju for uncle. Food, not films, filled up his childhood dreams. “I was the laziest person around,” he says. “Suddenly one day I decided to become an actor. Thank God for that whimsical decision, else by now I’d have been a 140 kilo butter chicken-bingeing hotelier.” It was after his graduation that he turned to movies, making his debut with Eeshwar (2002).
For Telugu audiences, Prabhas’s appeal lies in his candour, humility and smile. They have seen him bash up baddies in action films such as Varsham (2004), Chatrapati (2005) and Billa (2009); be an endearing ladies’ man in Mr Perfect (2011) and entertain in Mirchi (2013). A cameo in the Hindi film Action Jackson (2014) directed by Prabhu Deva went unnoticed. A year later, Baahubali took Bollywood by storm, propelling Prabhas into national spotlight.
Off screen, he has been known as quiet and reclusive, much like his contemporary Mahesh Babu. But the nationwide success of Baahubali has seen him open up. A new Prabhas has emerged—one that laughs out loud and shares his pictures with Karan Johar on social media. But even as he has become synonymous with Baahubali and his popularity has soared beyond the south, Prabhas makes it a point to play volleyball with his boy gang of 12 when time permits.
Life after Baahubali
With the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion just a week away, Prabhas seems as composed as Amarendra Baahubali whose story we will see unfold amidst greater grandeur, drama and bloodshed than in Part 1. A role as big as Baahubali may not come his way again, but Prabhas is at peace. “I was just lucky to be a part of this phenomenon of Indian cinema,” he says. “Perhaps no other film can ever match the magic and awe of Baahubali.” Could anything be as creatively satisfying as Baahubali? “One can never tell,” says Prabhas. “I might just be excited about the smallest of characters, perhaps an interesting comedy role, who knows?”