I was living in the world of Baahubali for a long time
For someone who has constantly delivered hits in the Telugu film industry, S S Rajamouli seems unassuming about his ‘Midas-touch’ reputation. After creating quite the furore over his wacky concept of a man reincarnated as a fly in his surprise national hit Eega, he has indeed been working on a production that’s more massive than India’s ever seen. Baahubali is by far India’s most expensive movie project, with footage that can give English cinema a good run for its money.
The man behind India’s magnum opus Baahubali, S S Rajamouli, got candid with Pandolin as he spoke about shouldering such a massive project and his folklore inspiration.
When did the process of making this movie begin?
I cannot exactly explain when the film particularly began, but I was living in the world of Baahubali for a long time. About 7 to 8 years back, my father narrated one particular incident and I was instantly hooked on to it. But it was just one incident, there was no story to it. Then four years back he narrated the description of one whole character, who is Kattappa. I was super thrilled. And by that time I was ready to do a period film, so I asked my father to join the two narrations and we developed characters one by one. Usually, my father narrates the plot line, and if I like it, he starts developing it. But for this film, he narrated the characters, not the plot or the story, and we started building a story around it.
How did you zero down on the actors for this movie?
It was the characters that demanded for a certain type of actor to play them. Once the characters were defined, selecting the actors was easy. Baahubali is a giant of a man, the royalty looks up to him, but he should have a very soft heart. If you describe these qualities to any Telugu film viewer, Prabhas’ name comes to mind. Once we had Prabhas, we needed another actor who is as big and as tall as him. Who can look menacing and wider than him, in terms of physical attributions, and can stand and stare him eye-to-eye. The obvious choice for that was Rana (Daggubati).
The movie has a high budget, and with your good track record there is obvious expectation for you to deliver. Was there too much pressure?
It’s the kind of relationship you develop. When you make such a film, the director and producer should have absolute confidence in one another. I have a long standing relationship of five years with my producers. They have seen me growing up from an assistant director to a director. They know my level of commitment and I know their sensibilities and their capabilities. So, it’s not a decision made at random, it was a gradual understanding.
How did Karan Johar come on board?
After Makkhi, when we came here (to Hindi cinema), I realised that even if you have the content, you need a separate kind of presentation to take it forward. You need a proper packaging and a guiding force to take your film to the audience. Although Makkhi didn’t have a great theatrical run, the reception from TV, from what I’ve heard, was phenomenal. I got a small foothold here with Makkhi, so people knew about me. When we started making Baahubali, because of the scale, the emotional content, and its universal appeal, we knew that it had a chance to appeal to the Hindi speaking audience, but we also knew that we need a proper guide, a proper channel. So we had the intention to bring it to the Hindi speaking audience from the very beginning. And we were wondering whom to approach. Rana is a friend of Karan, he met him and showed him some of the work that had been done. So, that collaboration happened very instantly, about one year back.
Through your film career in Andhra, one can notice the repetition of a folk style of story presentation, whether it was reincarnation in Magadheera or the story of Maryada Ramanna. Does that aspect of making stories inspired from Folklore really interest you?
Yes, it does. That’s what it precisely is. I have a penchant for the Indian way of storytelling, the way we listened to stories from our grandmothers, which was very well presented in Amar Chitra Katha, to which I will be forever indebted. I live in that world, those fantasies. And whatever film I make, I have a huge influence from the folklore and mythologies.
You made Magadheera with Ram Charan, a star, and your next Maryada Ramanna, was with the character actor, Sunil. You could have gotten any star you wanted. So, how do you choose your actors?
You take Magadheera for example, I knew I would be exhausted by the time I finished its shooting. I knew I will be pouring all my energy, and all my thoughts that I knew about commercial filmmaking into that movie. And I’ll be spent force by the end of it. I needed a breather, some time to recuperate, and I knew I would not have been able to handle a big star film. So the decision to make Maryada Ramanna after Magadheera was taken at the beginning of Magadheera’s shooting itself. I was already shooting with Sunil and Ram Charan during Magadheera when I told Sunil that I wanted to make my next movie with him.
Eega had some great special effects going for it. Can we expect the same kind of sophistication for this movie as well?
One thing we need to understand is that VFX is a tool to tell your story. Because it’s a relatively new tool, we are not looking at it just as a tool and instead treating it like a star, or a marketing strategy. Of course, people will get enamored by the visuals. But I only take the help of visual effects if it’s warranted. My emotions, my story, should ask for visual effects, than vice versa. You cannot take it for the sake of using it. Even though I’m known for my visual effects, I have seen many more films which have better visual effects. Like Amitabh Bachchan ji starrer Aladin, which came out at the same time as Magadheera. It was much superior. But after the release of the films I realised that people will look at the visual effects only in the initial stage, then they will be engrossed in the story.
There is a Mad Max or an Avengers made on a huge budget but they also have universality that makes recovering their budgets a lot more secure. Does the fact that you’re making movies in a regional language scare you a little when it comes to budget recovery?
We have a kind of gut feeling when the movie is being made itself. It’s not something that can be put in numbers, but there is a strong gut feeling about how well the movie might do. Based on the outcome of our previous movies, the kind of star cast, the kind of content. So we estimate as to how much can the budget be stretched. I don’t go beyond that limit.
Eega was an out and out commercial potboiler, but it still went to Cannes. Do you see a trend where typical Indian commercial cinema with good content can go to film festivals, as Eega toured quite a lot?
I cannot exactly tell that because my knowledge of film festivals is extremely limited. Again, I don’t know what aspect of Eega really appealed to them. Whether it was the commercial aspect of the absolutely abnormal idea of a man reincarnated as a fly to avenge his murder. I know my audience, how they think, and I cater to them.
Your wife helped design the costumes in Magadheera and Baahubali. How helpful was collaborating with your partner?
Very, very helpful. The only thing I’m good at is communicating my story. I can tell the actor what I want exactly. Apart from that, I cannot tell what kind of music, what kind of costumes and what kind of framing I want. My technicians who’ve been with me for long understand that. It’s a blessing that I have my wife who understands what I need for the film.