SS Rajamouli on Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, being an atheist and his love for cinema
Every great story ever told in Indian folklore and mythology has some form of divine intervention which leads to epic results.
In SS Rajamouli's case, this happened even before he was born. "My parents are ardent devotees of Lord Shiva. They used to visit one Jyotirlinga every Shivaratri. My mom used to tell us that I was born after she had a dream when she went to Srisailam. In her dream a sage, dressed in dazzling white robes, handed over a baby to her. That's why I was named Srisaila Sri Rajamouli," he once said.
In the past 16 years, ever since he began making films, it would seem that some mysterious force in the universe has been guiding his choices. After all, he's one of the very few filmmakers in the country who has delivered a box-office hit every single time.
Till recently, SS Rajamouli, the name, was just a noun. But today, it sounds like an adjective, especially when you hear the likes of Karan Johar comparing him to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg.
With less than a day to go before the film releases, we caught up with him to talk more about the world of Baahubali and what inspires him to keep pushing the bar.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview :
A lot of secrets about Baahubali 2 have been a closely guarded secret and the whole hype surrounding 'Why Kattaappa Killed Baahubali' has gripped the nation. Did you anticipate that one single shot would become the talk of the town?
No one thought it would create such a buzz. Not even me. When we wanted to conclude the first part, we didn't want a tame ending. When Shivagami declares that Amarendra Baahubali is going to be the King and Bhallaldeva as the Senadhipathi, it felt like an appropriate ending, but we had to show Kattappa and Shivudu as well in the end because Kattappa was narrating the flashback. We wanted to give a twist, but didn't expect that single frame would explode like an atom bomb (laughs).
But then, the secret will be out within minutes of the film's premiere….
Yes. But I strongly believe that suspense doesn't drive a film. It's all about the drama.
I've a gut feeling that I have given a very satisfying answer to why Kattappa killed Baahubali, but it's for the audience to judge in the end. Baahubali has been the most gratifying film in my career as a storyteller. So far, I have narrated stories which had few characters, but they were all largely hero-centric. But for the first time, I think we managed to create 6-7 strong characters and the drama between them is what makes Baahubali what it is, beyond all its grandeur.
Going back to the trailer of Baahubali : The Conclusion, it felt like the big fight between Baahubali and Bhallaladeva was almost like watching Bheema fight against Duryodhana in Mahabharata. Kattappa comes across like a Bheeshma-like figure in the story. Would you agree to this theory?
Now that you've said it, I wouldn't contradict it but it wasn't intentional. I've grown up reading Mahabharata and it's part of my DNA now (smiles). And whenever I make an action drama, all those influences are reinforced in the story in one form or another. I didn't envision Baahubali as Bheema or Bhallaladeva as Duryodhana because the emotion which drives these characters in Mahabharata are very different. And from the way I see it, Kattappa is more like Karna in terms of his emotions. But let's not delve deep into it. It is what it is.
Even though Baahubali : The Conclusion, is releasing 20 months after the first part released, people still remember the characters. In a way, you don’t have to spend too much time introducing the characters in Baahubali 2. As a storyteller does that change the way you’re going to narrate the story?
Not much because Baahubali was conceived as one single story in the beginning, but we had to make it into two parts because each character was so powerful.
We thought about what should be the screenplay - whether it should be narrated in a linear format or have a flashback. All we did was fine-tune action sequences, grandeur element and add more humour. As a director, it’s my job to ensure that my films have to be packaged well to cater to everyone and that’s what we did.
What makes the lead characters in Baahubali 2 so powerful? Is it because of their quest for power?
Not all characters desire power. It's the clarity of the philosophy that we've have given each of the character that makes them so powerful. When the character is clearly etched, then you get fascinated by them - be it Duryodhana, Ravana and for that matter, even Bhallaladeva. Baahubali wants power because he wants to reform the society, but Bhallaladeva’s thirst for power is that of a tyrant-king.
When we sat down to design the characters, we had to answer hundreds of questions about each of the characters, including things like where were they born, what would they read, what were their childhood influences etc, and none of these answers were supposed to contradict each other. So by the time we approached the actors to play these characters, we knew exactly what they would do and why they would do something. So, when you have a definitive character - good, bad or evil, you get attracted to characters which behave in a certain manner consistently till the end.
Most of your films, so far, have had one defining visual in the first half - whether it’s NTR Jr holding an axe in Simhadri or Prabhas crossing the line in Chatrapathi. But in Baahubali, you’re striving to turn every single frame into a strong visual element. What’s your approach for this film? Are there some really strong 3-4 defining moments that you want to connect?
That’s precisely how my father (K Vijayendra Prasad) and I conceive stories. When my father tells me about a character, he also shares an incident through which we understand what the character is all about.
We discuss about the conflicts and relationship of the characters, and take it forward from there. Now, it's my job to figure out how a character should behave to create the maximum impact during those peak moments. We delve into the backstories and then start connecting the dots.
The previous scenes are supposed to lead up to that moment, but the challenge is also to make each of the scenes better in itself. Each scene has to hold its ground on its own. Of late, I've cut down on a lot of unnecessary scenes in the process of leading up to those peak moments. Initially, I used to add a lot of scenes for the sake of comedy, songs because I used to fear how people would react if they aren't there. Once I got a lot of confidence as a story-teller, I no longer see the necessity to do all that.
Let’s say the characters in Baahubali were not in Mahishmathi, but lived in the modern society. Would they still have the same impact? Or is the grandeur of Mahishmathi gives it that edge?
Beyond all the visual splendour, what hooks to your heart is the family drama. For instance, let’s look at the greatest Telugu film ever made - Mayabazaar, which released in way back in 1957. If you look closely, it's also a family drama about how a young couple, who are betrothed to each other, are separated because the boy’s family loses everything and how, in the end, a plan is hatched to reunite them. The fact that it has characters like Krishna, Balarama, Ghatotkach gives it scale. For that matter, even Mahabharata too is a family drama.
You’ve often spoken about Mayabazaar as one of your biggest influences. Did this film make you fall in love with movies in first place?
I think so. I was 7-8 years old when I first saw it and as a kid, I loved it immensely. Later, when
I came to the film industry, I kept thinking about how KV Reddy and his team made the film back in those days. I was mesmerised by the visual effects in that film. Later, while making Yamadonga, my VFX supervisor and I spent two days just to figure out how KV Reddy had pulled off such amazing special effects back then. The more I explored the world of Mayabazaar, my respect for KV Reddy kept growing.
Your films have a strong connection with Gods and there’s some form of religious symbolism, in the form of statues of Gods, especially Lord Shiva. There’s plenty of that in Baahubali. Where does that come from?
To tell you the truth, I'm an atheist.
For me, Bhakti, in terms of subservience to a higher power, is a very strong emotion. I use it as a storytelling element in my movies. As a director, it’s my job to bring out such strong emotions for a big impact on the viewers.
That’s surprising! When did you realise that you were an atheist?
It didn’t happen overnight. As a teenager, I was a very religious guy and I used wear kaashayam vastralu (dyed red clothes) and even go to churches to listen to hymns. In the process of being so deeply religious, I wasn't happy with myself, the atmosphere or the things going around. Few years after I joined the film industry, when I met and worked with Gunnam Gangaraju, who himself is an atheist, he gave me Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. I won't say I'm an ardent follower of Ayn Rand's philosophy, but it changed me a lot. However, I must add that my personality and my films are poles apart.
You’re quite a successful filmmaker, but what keeps you grounded?
I grew up in a household where we were taught to be humble all our lives. If I don't stand up in honour of an elder person, I used to get be severely reprimanded by my father or my brother (MM Keeravaani). When you're an assistant director in Chennai, you're expected to fold your hands in respect of people who are senior to you. Of course, RGV changed all that, but I'm from a generation before that (laughs).
When you were young, I heard you were a big time movie buff and used to watch every film, no matter how bad it was. In fact, your cousin Raja Koduri revealed that you would always find something good to say about every film. Have you trained yourself to look at films that way?
I've always loved telling stories. If I read something and didn't like an element in the story, I used to come up with my own version. I loved the dramatising events - be it films or cricket. I think I saw Nayakudu and kept narrating the story to Raja Koduri, who had already seen the film. He was so frustrated with it and asked me to stop after four days (laughs).
A lot of people say that long before Baahubali was made, Eega was your ground-breaking film. Do you see Eega as a testing ground which enabled you to take up a film like Baahubali?
Eega was far more complicated than Baahubali purely from a filmmaking point of view because we had to work really hard to bring alive our vision.
Baahubali, on the other hand, was a different kind of challenge. I always had the confidence that I can make a big film like Baahubali. People say that I’m a madman, who’s obsessed with films, which is true.
So, when I meet another madman like Shobu (one of the producers of the film) who’s willing to support my vision blindly, films like Baahubali happen. Otherwise, I'm not sure what I would have done. I’ll always be indebted to Shobu, Prasad, my family, and Prabhas for making Baahubali happen. I’m not driven by money or fame. The only thing that keeps me going is to tell a story in the best possible way. I don’t want to compromise there.