At 6 PM on 17th October, 2015, the excitement in the Student Activity Centre at IIT Madras was palpable. It was completely packed with people, cutting across faculty, staff and students, eagerly awaiting the arrival of S.S. Rajamouli, the director of the recent blockbuster movie, Baahubali, and several other award-winning Telugu films. The day also marked the 100th day of the release of Baahubali.
When the director finally arrived, he didn’t disappoint. He told us that he would shape his lecture in the form of a question-answer session, where the question “Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?” was the only question out of bounds! He not only answered a volley of questions from the students, but also managed to tackle a rapid fire round.
Tryst with Engineering:
He talked about his childhood, saying that he too spent time preparing for the JEE, but did not have high hopes of actually getting into an IIT. He said he was skipping classes from 1st to 4th and then to 7th standards, and this made his foundation weak. He joined the CRR College of Engineering, Eluru, but dropped out soon after, since he knew that his interests lay elsewhere. Since most of his family was in the film industry, he too wished to make his mark. He had visited IIT Madras several times, and it was love at first sight.
When asked how he developed his interest in filmmaking, he told us about his childhood love of watching films, especially Hollywood movies. As a child, he also loved to read Amar Chitra Katha, and then he would tell these stories to his friends in his own way. His father was the writer for most of his stories, but when Rajamouli was asked whether that got in the way of professionalism, he disagreed. He said his word was always final, even though they had their share of fights and disagreements.
He doesn’t take the word of most critics seriously, unless they perform a holistic analysis of his film. He said that it is the appreciation of the audience that drives him. He said that as a storyteller, he loves to see his ideas playing in the minds of the people and the emotions on their faces, their expressions, their feedback, and their responses.
When asked what the most difficult challenge was when filming Baahubali, he said that some of the scenes were spread out over a huge geographical area, and they had to set up green screens over several kilometres. To hold up the green screens, they needed people to stand in the sun, holding down the ropes. These people would then attempt to innovatively solve the problem by using rocks and other available resources so that they could sit in the shade of a tree while also doing their jobs. The biggest challenge, he said, was in managing human resources efficiently as some scenes involved over five thousand people on a set, including actors, designers, cameramen, and stuntmen. Another major challenge while directing a movie is to get the ideas in your head into the minds of the other people involved in the movie, including the actors, the writers and the designers.
Another student from the crowd asked Rajamouli whether any of the Hollywood films he grew up watching “inspired” any scenes or sequences in his films, to which he replied, “He’s being very respectful. The real question is, ‘Do you copy from Hollywood?’”. He added, “Yes, I do. But I have never copied from any of my contemporaries.” He never found it wrong to copy from Hollywood movies, since he spent so much time watching them as he grew up that it had become part of his DNA and it had become natural for him to just use ideas from them in his own movies. He also said that as an Assistant Director, his colleagues had never watched Hollywood movies, and they would find his ideas innovative even if he narrated scenes directly from English movies. However, he maintained that he always improved upon the original idea before implementing it.
Another Magnum Opus?
A student from the crowd inevitably asked when he would begin filming the epic war drama, Mahabharata. Rajamouli was very clear about his plans for his dream project, stating that he would need at least ten more years of experience before getting started, after which he would make it in four parts. He said it would take at least six years to complete, and he would have to “create” stars for the movie, since no established actor would be willing to commit six years of his career to one movie. To emphasize his point, Rajamouli drew parallels with the popular American TV series, Game of Thrones. Most of the actors in Game of Thrones were new, but now, no one can imagine anyone else in their place.
Here’s EML team’s video on Rajamouli talking about his Mahabharata project.
“Who wants to become a director?”
Finally, when he asked how many of us in the crowd wanted to become directors. He was pleased to see several hands going up. He called one of the students on stage and asked why he wanted to become a director. When the student said that he wanted to make movies like Rajamouli, the director replied, “Why do you want to be a Rajamouli? Have you ever heard of any other director who has made it big by wanting to be like another director?” When the student mentioned one of Rajamouli’s favourite Hollywood directors, he replied that he admired his work, but did not want to be like him. To be a good director, first you must be a good storyteller and enjoy the process. The first litmus test of a good storyteller is to know if people around you are listening to your stories with interest or only listening because they are your friends.
He also spoke about film production, characterization, his aversion to the term ‘Tollywood’ and his favourite actors/directors in the industry. All in all, it was a great insight into the film industry for all his fans, as well as for students aspiring to get into directing movies.
Photo credits: Extra Mural Lectures Team