S.S. Rajamouli has taken the box office by storm with his Telugu-Tamil bilingual, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), its sequel Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), and more recently RRR (2022). Giridhar Jha of Outlook speaks to the 48-year-old director with the Midas touch. Excerpts:
With your epic scale films, you seem to have bucked the trend of small budget, content rich films. Why do you prefer these big ones?
I’m moved by larger-than-life scales and characters. I can only tell stories I can “feel”. I don’t look at market conditions. I just write a story that pushes me to make the film. Only when I’ve finished writing, do I start thinking about the kind of film I want to make, its budget, etc. Once I feel my project has the ability to reach beyond borders, my team and I figure out how to take it there. It is primarily the story that inspires us to make a film and how to market it.
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During the lockdown, when people began watching films on small screens, it was said that only a Baahubali can revive theatrical releases.
Larger-than-life movies do draw audiences to theatres, but they have to be made well. Also, they have to have an emotional connect with the audience. By pumping money on lavish songs or sets alone, you can’t expect audiences to shower your movie with love. Even a beautiful, small-budget film with lots of laughs will pull audiences to theatres. Actually, the more you connect with the audience, the more people will flock to theatres.
So big movies with a lot of grandeur will always hold their charm for theatre audiences?
There was a time when the circus was a big thing across the world, but it gradually lost its charm as people found other interests. Circuses started reducing budgets to compensate for dwindling audiences. One day, one circus company decided to go bigger than ever before, and completely reinvented the circus. They even brought in a swimming pool on stage and started telling stories. With all its grandeur, it became a big hit and revived the profession. Just because the pandemic came and people got used to seeing content on a small screen doesn’t mean you can’t make films for theatres. That is a completely wrong way of thinking. I don’t believe in it. But yes, many people believe in going small. I believe in going big.
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You worked with a big Bollywood star—Ajay Devgn—in RRR. How was the experience?
It was fantastic. Ajay Devgn Sir was so down to earth. During the shoot, he would not return to his van, just sit away from my camera on a chair under a tree, read a book and wait for me to call him for the next take. The moment I would look at him, he would raise his hands to ask if he was needed. I didn’t even have to send my assistant director to escort him to the set. He would rehearse a scene and ask me if I wanted him to do it differently. It was easy with him. I never felt he was a Bollywood star. In fact, I felt I was working with a very normal actor. No airs.
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What about Alia Bhatt?
It was the same. She prepared herself and wanted to speak her lines in Telugu. She asked me to find her a Telugu tutor, took online classes for about 8-9 months, mugging up her lines. She recorded everything in Telugu. The moment I saw her performance on the monitor, I was happy.
Southern industries are known to be more disciplined than Bollywood. Is it the same now?
Both industries are more disciplined now, except for filmmakers like me who take years to complete a film. But then, there are undisciplined production houses in both Hindi and the South. Of course, there are financially disciplined production houses in both places as well. All kinds of conditions exist in all industries everywhere.
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Many South hits have been remade in Hindi, but only a few did justice to the originals. Why?
Actually, there was a time when a lot of Telugu movies were also remade from Hindi. Remakes from one industry into another were always being made, but most of them failed to capture the flavour of the originals, whether it was Hindi to Telugu or vice-versa. If you just do a frame-by-frame remake without understanding the emotions of the original or just create a clone, it will not connect with the audience. You have to understand why it was successful in the first place, and try to capture that spirit. There are filmmakers who understand that and others who don’t.
While making Baahubali, did you have a global audience in mind, or just the South?
I am very conscious of which story could have a universal appeal, because the decision is made at the scriptwriting stage itself. I make sure I’m not becoming regional just because a line resonates with my people. If it does not resonate with others, I don’t do it.
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Even Southern stars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have failed to crack Bollywood, but directors have had great runs there. Why?
Difficult question. Maybe success is easier to achieve for the directors because their stories are universal. Some of Chiranjeevi and Kamal Haasan’s films have also worked nationally. Maybe their follow-up projects were not universal.
After Sholay (1975), everybody expected the director to make another biggie, but he failed. It’s called the Ramesh Sippy syndrome. You are going bigger with each film. No complacency?
In no way can I get complacent. Once an image comes into my mind, I get excited, but when I get to work on translating it on to screen, I am scared and worried I may fail to achieve the perfection I had in mind. After I made Magadheera (2009), a well-wisher told me that once a person peaks, the quality of his work falls. But you have to act smart and use the success to motor ahead. He told me I had peaked with Magadheera but when I announced a small film after that, he said I can’t do that. He said I had to pick big, successful heroes so that their success would rub off on to my project. He gave me many examples. I was shocked to think of Magadheera as my peak as I had just started. In my mind, I was exploring big films and this gentleman was telling me I had already reached my peak. That worried me. But I had bigger dreams and I was not going to stop. I went on to make Maryada Ramanna (2010) and Makkhi (2012) before I made Baahubali and RRR.