Bahubali 2 cinematographer Senthil Kumar reflects on the making of the blockbuster film
In 2013, when KK Senthil Kumar came on board the world of Baahubali as the cinematographer, he rarely met his family for the first eight months because living, breathing and dreaming about SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus. Four years later, now that Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (also spelt as Bahubali 2) has turned out to be a phenomenal success at the box-office, Senthil confesses that he’s yet to come to terms with the success. “I can sense that people have fallen short of words to describe their experience of watching our film. I suppose we have accomplished our mission,” he smiles, as we sat down for a conversation just days after the film’s release.
A significant portion of Bahubali 2, especially the court drama in the second half, was shot way back in 2014 during the making of Baahubali: The Beginning. Post the release of first part in 2015, the team went back to complete shooting the entire Kunthala kingdom portion, apart from the climax. Kunthala kingdom, which was the citadel of Devasena, lies in a hilly region and so, Senthil opted for a cooler tone to bring in a contrast compared to the warmer tone he used to shoot Mahishmathi kingdom. The two kingdoms are poles apart and it’s evident in their architecture and the lifestyle of the rulers and their people. “Mahishmathi is all about grandeur, huge pillars and gigantic statues, but Kunthala is a small, peaceful country. They love art which is why every pillar is carved so intricately. So when Devasena enters Mahishmathi, she’s intimidated by the scale of it. That shot showcasing an elephant statue at the entrance of Mahishmathi makes Devsaena’s ship look so tiny. Every shot was well thought of, which is why people remember aren’t able to forget anything.”
The entire first half of the film is filled with some iconic shots — be it Amarendra Baahubali teaching Devasena how to shoot three arrows or showing hundreds of bulls whose horns are on fire. “I should give Rajamouli credit for coming up with all those ideas. When he asks me something, I try my best to deliver them. I can't pick what my favourite scene from the film is. One of the challenges was to capture both emotion as well as grandeur. Sometimes, I would think how a certain shot would fit into the narrative, but when I saw it during edit, it would blow my mind. This film also broke a lot of norms about how the screenplay for an Indian film can be. It just keeps getting intense as it progresses and it was an eye-opener for me about how a screenplay can be presented,” Senthil says.
The sight of bulls with flaming horns was one of the defining moments of the film and, by his own admission, a lot of thought went into making it look real. In an earlier sequence, Amarendra Baahubali sees a bunch of farmers racing the bulls in the fields, which comes across as a hat-tip to Jallikattu or Kambala (Buffalo race) that’s prevalent in Coorg region. Incidentally, the bulls depicted in this scene were imported from Gujarat and people who ran behind them were called from Karnataka, because running behind a bull requires a lot of skill. A lot of training went into preparing for that scene. While this was the case about setting up the bulls with flaming horns scene, shooting it was a different challenge in itself.
“I’m not a big fan of day-for-night shots. Since the entire sequence is supposed to unfold at night, it’s really difficult to light up the whole area, and Rajamouli gave me complete freedom to decide when to shoot because we had a lot of limitations. Some of the shots were shot during the day, some inside the studio, and few at night. Later, while colour grading the whole sequence, I had to take care of a lot of parameters to get the night effect right and yet have enough light so that you can see the expressions of the artistes,” Senthil says, adding, “The closest reference we had was Mad Max: Fury Road, which had few such day-for-night shots. We studied a lot about how John Seale, cinematographer of that film, achieved that effect and tried to use such techniques in our film. I guess it worked, but it’s a laborious process.”
Such day-for-night shots were also extensively used in the iconic sequence where Kattappa kills Baahubali. “There are a lot of limitations while shooting day-for-night shots. We aren’t supposed to shoot the sky or shoot only in a particular time of the day; however, it’s not possible to follow all such rules. We broke quite a few of them, and we managed to make it look right in post-production. The whole sequence where Kattappa kills Baahubali is one such example,” Senthil says.
The breathless action in the film, coupled with impeccable storytelling, had a profound impact on the viewers. Not surprisingly, the interval sequence, which depicts Bhallaladeva’s coronation has been singled out as one of the best ‘interval bangs’ in Indian cinema. Apparently, even during the shoot, the whole unit was convinced that it would stun the audience.
“We knew that we got the scale right, but what makes that particular sequence so great is how the actors performed. Right from Ramya Krishnan to Rana’s reaction to the reaction which Baahubali’s speech gets, everything was spot on. We did a lot of research about how different armies in the world perform their parade and the Chinese army, in particular, was a big reference point for us. Choreographer Shankar played a key role in designing the entire sequence,” Senthil recalls.
Every aspect of Bahubali 2 was meant to be immerse and epic, and it couldn’t be more true in the case of the film’s climax. All the action was pre-visualised at CNCPT, a Los-Angeles based studio, and Hyderabad-based Makuta VFX, the principal studio of the film, worked on the sequence for several months altogether. Soon after the film released, there were few voices that the action looked a tad unrealistic. Ask Senthil what his views are, he quips saying, “Nothing in Bahubali 2 is meant to be real. We wanted to excite and thrill the audience. There’s a lot of drama happening even in the midst of an intense action sequence. That’s what made it so interesting and challenging for me.”
One of the challenges while filming the climax was to find a way to ensure that Rajamouli’s vision to showcase Amarendra Baahubali’s face in the clouds is clearly seen, amidst thunder and lightning. However, in the initial portions of the battle, the skies are clear and it’s quite sunny. “We worked on that sequence a lot during post-production. The transition is so smooth that you don’t even realise how it happened, but if you carefully observe, clouds appear gradually. All this was done during colour grading. For some key scenes, we had a huge 60X60 feet skimmer to get a soft-light feel to give an impression that it was getting quite cloudy. And in the end, there’s lightning and thunder,” Senthil says.
The shoot wasn’t without its share of tense moments. Senthil recalls how scores of actors and technicians escaped from a scary accident during the shoot; however, in the hindsight, he says it looked quite comical. “The skimmer was attached to a huge iron frame, which was suspended in mid-air using 3-4 cranes, and all of a sudden, a wire snapped and the whole frame fell on the ground. Everyone ran for their life. Thankfully, no one was injured. It was really scary then, but now that I think about it, it feels comical,” Senthil laughs.
Bahubali 2 is a visual treat and the way the song Hamsa Nava, featuring Prabhas and Anushka, is shot puts things in perspective what sort of thought process went into the making of the film. “Ideas are in Rajamouli’s genes,” Senthil says, adding, “The best part about working with him is that he listens to you and has the patience to consider every idea to make a better film.” Ask him if he’s game for Bahubali 3 and pat comes the reply, “Only if Rajamouli wants to direct it.”
The success of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is expected to set off a trend of making more period dramas and fantasy films in Indian cinema, but before he makes up his mind about his next project, Senthil has other things to worry about. “I promised my family that I’ll spend a lot of time with them post the film’s release. My kids have been waiting for this moment for a long time. This is the only thing which is on my mind right now,” he signs off.