What does it mean to play a role larger than life? Baahubali alias Prab­has tells all

India Today - - COVER STORY / CINEMA - Mona Ra­ma­vat

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.

Be­com­ing Baahubali

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?”

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