India’s Newest Superstar is a Middle-aged Film Director

SS Rajamouli proves you don’t need a Khan or a Kapoor to strike gold at the box office, just telling a good yarn and spectacular special effects will do the trick

In case you missed it, the Tamil/Telugu bilingual film Baahubali has grossed Rs163 crore globally in three days. The nett domestic figure (calculated minus taxes) stands at a staggering Rs118 crore; that is the most made by any Indian film on a single weekend ever.

Let that sink in. To further put this in perspective: The two previous record-holders for weekend openers in India were Happy New Year (Rs108 crore), which featured Shah Rukh Khan and released during Diwali in 2014, and Dhoom 3 (Rs107 crore), which had Aamir Khan and came out around Christmas weekend in 2013. Baahubali beats both these films by quite a margin.

And this is just part one. Baahubali is a two-part action fantasy, directed by SS Rajamouli, and the budget for both is around Rs250 crore, making it our most expensive cinematic undertaking ever. The first part, also dubbed in Malayalam and Hindi and which released on Friday, has made more money than any mainstream Hindi film in this short period so far.

The film has also taken the biggest opening for an Indian film in the US, breaking the records set by Bollywood films PK (2015) and Dhoom 3 (2014), says trade analyst Taran Adarsh. The Friday-to-Monday figure of just the Hindi dubbed version is a whopping Rs28 crore, placing it above most Hindi films that released this year. In an industry obsessed with box office numbers, this is an impressive performance indeed.

What these numbers mean

These are startling figures when you take into account the fact that it has none of the Bollywood superstars that drive the film business in the country. No Khans, Kapoors or Roshans – instead, the main lead is Prabhas, a Telugu film star with a respectable number of hits to his name, though few Indians outside the southern belt would know about him. The second lead is played by Rana Daggubati, who may be slightly better-known due to the couple of Hindi films he’s acted in. Yet, the Rajamouli film is shattering records and, more importantly, several assumptions about film business in India.

Baahubali, for instance, released a week before Eid – during the Ramzan period – which has traditionally been considered a risky period for tent-pole films. Also, the movie didn’t release over an extended weekend, the kind bolstered by the presence of a national holiday like Independence Day, Gandhi Jayanti, or any of the festivals most Hindi marquee films target.

Hindi being the most widely-spoken language in the country makes the pan-India appeal of Bollywood films understandable, but what could explain the euphoria about Baahubali? The buzz around its budget, and the grandeur its trailer promised, could have been factors. But many a potential blockbuster, driven by glitzy and smart trailers, has sunk at the box office. In Baahubali’s case, it is not just the special effects or indeed the stars, but the credibility of filmmaker Rajamouli that is the biggest attraction, making him probably the first Indian director to cut across the language barrier in the country. In the south, the 41-year-old screenwriter and director is known not just as the son of veteran Telugu filmmaker KV Vijayendra Prasad, but as a director who is ready to try risky subjects and deliver pure entertainers.

The master at work

More than three years ago, a studio head had told me that major Mumbai-based production houses would start investing more in Tamil/Telugu films as a means to expand their market. Soon, we were both talking about Magadheera (2009), a Telugu reincarnation drama that first introduced me to the films of SS Rajamouli.  “His next film is about a fly – a reincarnation of a human being – that takes revenge on the man who killed him. That’s not exactly a safe bet for most Mumbai studios,” the producer had then said. That statement was a compliment – Rajamouli’s filmmaking vision was grander than what traditional producers could accommodate, and in no way a “safe” proposition.

The film we spoke about was Eega (2012), or as it came to be called in its Hindi dubbed avatar, Makkhi – a campy, outrageous film that a mad filmmaker had managed to pull off in style. The audiences loved it. Rajamouli had been a sought-after filmmaker even before Makkhi, having delivered huge hits like Vikramarkudu (2006) and Maryada Ramanna (2010), which were remade in Bollywood as Rowdy Rathore (2012) and Son of Sardaar (2012) respectively. These were regular commercial fare, but there was a clear shift with Makkhi, with Rajamouli trying to expand the definition of “mainstream” in India. Both Magadheera and Eega/Makkhi, incidentally, won National awards for visual effects (VFX).

That continues with Baahubali, where Rajamouli engineers a never-seen-before desi visual spectacle as good as any elsewhere. The plot follows a predictable template: A baby is adopted by a kind-hearted couple who raise him as their own. The boy, now grown-up, lands up at a new place ruled by a tyrant, only to find out he’s himself the rightful King. In this Prince of Thieves-meets-Hamlet-meets-Mahabharata, Rajamouli pulls out all the stops to ensure the fantasy element plays out like a Game of Thrones episode. The acting is par for the course – not exemplary in any way, but also apt for the genre – and the screenplay moves along rapidly.

What makes Baahubali really tick is the inventiveness in storytelling and the action sequences, which leave you stunned in the best way possible. The emphasis on visuals and VFX over plot, in fact, works in the film’s favour, making it ideal for universal viewing. The cultural differences – and language – cease to matter in epic war sequences, where boulders fly majestically over a sea of tribal warriors, and in scenes where the lead character fights off a thousand arrows with a singular sword movement. Rajamouli shows a potboiler needn’t be run-of-the-mill, or lazily put-together. That’s a rare quality for a mainstream director in India, and probably only seen in short bursts in Rajkumar Hirani films, though Rajamouli’s storytelling style is entirely his own, and not derivative.

Baahubali’s massive box-office success, hence, is uplifting not only because it broadens the extent of an Indian film’s reach and potential, but also because it’s tied closely to its director, making Rajamouli the rare homegrown auteur who also enjoys box-office clout.

The writer is a Mumbai-based film critic. On Twitter: @AniGuha