The Cult Of S. S. Rajamouli | Verve Magazine
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March 28, 2022

The Cult Of S. S. Rajamouli

S. S. Rajamouli is known for his fantasy and adventure films that are derived as much from Amar Chitra Katha as they are from Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Prathyush Parasuraman examines the defining elements of the Telugu director’s filmography, as well as the controversies of representation which have plagued the Baahubali series, which catapulted Rajamouli to the status of a pan-Indian icon

In Kerala, where director S. S. Rajamouli was promoting RRR – his upcoming Telugu film, a pre-independence action drama also releasing as dubbed versions in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada – six-sheet posters were pasted across Thiruvananthapuram. What was instinctively remarkable (and understandable) about their design was the placement of Rajamouli’s face, smack in the centre, taking up as much space as the stars in his movie – Jr. NTR, Ram Charan, Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt.

Rajamouli is in this slim category of “star directors”, which includes Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sukumar, Rajkumar Hirani, Puri Jagannadh, Karan Johar, Mani Ratnam, Rohit Shetty, Zoya Akhtar and Shankar – contemporary directors whose names on posters are always a size bigger than the norm – reflecting their pull, their reach. In that respect – with around 5.7 million followers on Twitter and over a million followers on Instagram – Rajamouli has established himself as not just the most successful Indian film director but also managed to grab the kind of superstardom status that is reserved only for leading actors. Not a single flop pimples his filmography, which goes all the way back to 2001.

He established himself with his early slate of releases in the Telugu and Tamil heartlands (the latter through dubs), but it took the Baahubali franchise for the North to consider his art seriously and without irony. Before Baahubali: The Beginning, Hindi-speaking belts only accessed his films in roundabout ways – Vikramarkudu (2006) remade as Rowdy Rathore (2012), Maryada Ramanna (2010) spun into Son of Sardaar (2012), and Magadheera (2009) being suspiciously similar to Raabta (2017). Hindi dubs of his films were lazily circulated on television through satellite networks – Aaj Ka Mujrim (2001), Yamraaj Ek Faulad (2003), Aar Paar: The Judgement Day (2004), and Hukumat Ki Jung (2005). Each of these films can be found on YouTube, with some raking in over 30 million views.

This popularity is part of a new surge where South Indian “masala” films, especially Telugu and Tamil, are dubbed in Hindi and Bhojpuri and uploaded to viral summits – a recognition of the disaffection from the recent tilt of Bollywood towards realism, from “single screen” to “multiplex” movies.

With Eega (2012) – Rajamouli’s most audacious stab – where the hero, Nani, is a CGI fly for most of the film, Rajamouli tried something new. The film was dubbed in Hindi and released theatrically a few months after Eega’s release, as Makkhi. A special song was even added with the housefly mimicking Ajay Devgn, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan. While Makkhi did not do well commercially, collecting a little under 3 crores in its first week, its satellite rights were sold at a whopping 8 crores to Star Gold, an unheard of number for a Hindi dub. (Later, with Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Rajamouli would sell the satellite rights for 51 crores to Sony TV, another record for a Hindi dub, second only to Shankar’s 2.0.)

But awe is a labour-intensive production. In the context of Rajamouli, his pan-Indian phenomenon that roared through India can also be understood as a carefully constructed, shrewdly planned budgetary requirement. He knew that to theatrically present a film dubbed in Hindi, you also need an ecosystem of support with established tentacles. So, for the Baahubali franchise, with the help of actor-producer Rana Daggubati, who starred in Baahubali as the antagonist, he enlisted Karan Johar to present his movie and Anil Thadani to distribute it. Johar promoted it as the “biggest film made in India”, and the messaging stuck. Rajamouli had found “the missing link”.

Baahubali: The Beginning took over 500 days to shoot, and this is not including the pre- and post-production, which took over a year each. Some of the battle sequences rounded up more than 2,000 junior artistes. The VFX, too, came to life after dealing with over 17 studios across India, China, and South Korea. Actor Prabhas gave Rajamouli 5 years – not picking up any other project during that time, growing and maintaining his hair, beard, and muscles. RRR, for example, had a budget of over 400 crores, making it one of the most expensive Indian films ever made. While promoting it in Kerala, they invited Tovino Thomas as the chief guest, in Chennai, Udhayanidhi Stalin and Sivakarthikeyan, and in Mumbai, Salman Khan – building webbed associations of stardom across India. The multiple, simultaneous release in various languages was, thus, necessary, for as Rajamouli claims, “It is impossible to cover Baahubali’s costs with one language release.”

Made on a total budget of over 450 crores, each Baahubali film was considered the most expensive of its time, with both setting benchmarks at the box-office. The total collection of the first film was over 600 crores, and the second made over a 1000 crores worldwide within 10 days of its release – an unbroken record that no Hindi movie has been able to wrest since. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion became the highest grossing film in India, and the second highest grossing film worldwide, edged over by the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal (2016), which had a dream run in China. The usual ritual fanfare preceded the screenings: milk poured over towering cutouts as though invoking a Hindu god; fireworks bursting, with fans having taken permission in advance for a half-day at work so that they could catch ringside seats to the spectacle of a first day, first show.

In 2017, Chandrababu Naidu, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, invited Rajamouli to design the facade of the proposed legislative assembly in Amaravati – the capital city he was carving out after the previous capital Hyderabad’s border shape-shifted into Telangana. In the initial years of this project, when Naidu was garnering enough support, he kept harking back to the ancient Buddhist namesake site that was home to the Satavahana kingdom. It is to be noted that while Rajamouli isn’t the production designer, it is his steering vision that Naidu wanted, in addition to his star value, for around then unfavourable news regarding the eternally unfinished Amaravati project was denting his political prospects.

Rajamouli’s contribution, as the person who also came up with the fictional city of Mahishmati, was to add oomph to urban planning with mythic grandeur. Such is his reputation – a man who narratively, architecturally dabbles in grand notions of mythic pasts (back in the day, Rajamouli also used to direct commercials for the Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party). The entire Baahubali set has been retained for tourists to drop by the 2000-acre Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, one of the largest studio complexes in the world, for tickets that range from Rupees 1150-2350.

There is certainly no doubt about the Indian appetite for mythology – past and present – and Rajamouli taps into both. For example, he will lasso Chiranjeevi into a dance cameo in Magadheera, which stars his son Ram Charan, knowing fully well that it will make the audience hurl money at the screen (it did). It’s almost as if he has access to the pulse points of audience excitement.

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Most of Rajamouli’s films emerge from stories his father, the startlingly productive screenplay writer K. V. Vijayendra Prasad, narrated to him over the years, harking back to an oral tradition of storytelling that he used as the overarching frame in Eega. The plot points are easily describable, the shock can be heard as much as seen, recounted as easily as visualised. Unsurprisingly, he notes Amar Chitra Katha as a touchstone, his father introducing him to these comics in the town library in Kovvur. Stone-clad ideas of good versus evil that permeate his movies come from the comics, which have easily over 400 editions, in upwards of 20 languages, and have sold over 100 million copies. These stories are rarely about the reform of evil, as opposed to the destruction of it – through humiliation, followed by death. In the Amar Chitra Katha comics, we have access to both a character’s voice and inner turmoil through speech and thought bubbles, respectively. There is no space for ambiguity – no cracks that could be filled with assumptions and interpretations.

Rajamouli is a self-confessed “film-freak”, and his transition from spectator to spectacle-maker was well oiled. His cousin M. M. Keeravani was a music director, and he, along with his father, would become a staple feature of his filmography. Rajamouli used to give the narration of his father’s scripts to other directors, and seeing the final cut would always leave him disappointed and wanting. With the desire to make movies so inextricably tied to his disappointment with what he was seeing, the directorial seed of ambition and edge was sown.

What began as advertising gigs, directing social message and political commercials under the mentorship of the prolific Telugu director K. Raghavendra Rao, turned into an opportunity to direct the family drama Shanti Nivasam, a TV serial, and later, his debut feature film, Student No. 1 (2001), starring Jr. NTR, marking his first, and a very successful collaboration with the actor. The success of that film was attributed to Raghavendra Rao’s darsakatva paryavekshana, his directorial supervision, and his second film Simhadri’s (2003) success was attributed to his lead actor Jr. NTR’s swelling fan base. But by the time his third film, Sye (2004), had emerged a success, the verdict was clear – here was a director who would wring commercial success out of a film, creating visually inventive imagery that was preoccupied with muscularity while bringing an attention to technique that was rarely seen until then. Magadheera (2009), for example, would become the first Telugu film to list a “visual effects producer” in its credits.

Rajamouli’s characters feel and express emotions with such definite fullness that there is no need, forget space, for subtext or subtlety. As film critic Baradwaj Rangan writes, “He doesn’t condescend to the [masala] genre. He treats it with respect, integrity.” The muscles that prop the eye, throat thrumming, noses flaring – everything is physical, seen, expressible, and thus, expressed. On good actors, this can feel consummate, on bad actors it can feel contrived. His filmography is littered with both.

Maryada Ramanna

A word that best describes his craft is outrance – the last frontier of possibility, the extremity of exaggeration. Both the physical logic and emotional pitch of his movies exist within a revved-up stratosphere of their own. This is how he had described  the allure of his film Vikramarkudu, a description that passes the litmus test pulling any movie from his filmography: “In order for the action to click, we should have a strong foundation of emotion. When you have action and emotion on the screen, you need to cool down the audience a bit with nice entertainment.” Thus, buffooning humour is a steady presence as a comic buffer in his films, even the austere ones. It is unsurprising, then, that when the American band The Black Eyed Peas were looking for “out-of-this-world, exaggerated … unapologetic and self-ironic… action sequences” from Indian movies to stitch together into a deep-fake music video, they would land at the doorstep of Rajamouli’s filmography. A scene from Maryada Ramanna (2010), where a bicycle’s rogue turn on a honking road leads to an orgy of flying cars and flung trucks, was used in the music video for Action.

With Baahubali, however, his name became synonymous with a visible tilt in the understanding of “what works” with today’s pan-Indian theatre audience. Echoes of Baahubali can be seen across films: the two-part release of Pushpa (2021); the bull fight sequence in Kalank (2019); the imagery of a mother holding on to a child as she takes the throne in Manikarnika (2019); the statue coronation in Thugs Of Hindostan (2018); Chiranjeevi citing it as the shoulder over which Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019) stands; and an upcoming slate including The Immortal Ashwatthama, Adipurush (2023) and The Incarnation. Netflix has been working on a Baahubali spin-off for a few years now. Karan Johar even sent his director, Ayan Mukerji, who was glacially sculpting Brahmastra (finally set for a September release), to shadow Rajamouli and learn the craft of scale, the business of awe.

To revel in awe then, and just that, is Rajamouli’s gift to celluloid.

But a tour through his films makes one wonder if his preoccupation with awe comes at the expense of beauty. While, certainly visually ambitious and striking, there is a lacking sense of aesthetics.

Rama Rajamouli, Rajamouli’s wife – who also styles him – a regular costume designer for his films, teamed up with Prashanti Tipirneni for the Baahubali films. Bright, deep colours with gold borders and puff-blouses were used, meant to symbolise richness, but silk as a texture can look garish under the flattening floodlights his film is often bathed in. Good costume design is never an act of isolation, elevated to beauty with the help of the camera that gazes upon it, lights it delicately, and the production design that allows for its beauty to emerge. Similarly, when clothing flutters, like Tamannaah’s white cloth in the song Dhivara, it looks like programmed pixels and not textiles.

In Maryada Ramanna (2010), when a person is being knifed, the screen turns this ugly shade of grey-green, like an X-ray, to connote dramatic intensity — as if a knife through a body wasn’t clear enough. The odd camera angles, the smoke-machine romantic songs, the gaudy tutti-frutti colours on screen. Sometimes it seems like he is holding on to older ways of telling newer stories, stuck uneasily between the two. It explains his allure, for his marriage of technology of the future with emotions of the past is seen as the cultural bridge by an audience which cannot and, perhaps, does not want to differentiate between scale and beauty. An over-reliance on technology has crippled the emergence of beauty. Sometimes, it feels like there is no technology advanced enough to bring Rajamouli’s vision to the screen.

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Rajamouli has often cited K. Raghavendra Rao as his mentor — the fount of his cinema — who not only gave him his break but also a cinematic language to further tinker with. Rao’s movies, which launched actors like Sridevi and Jayasudha into steep success — have just as frequently been criticised for their midriff-baring heroines, a literal kind of navel-gazing. Actress Taapsee Pannu, in an interview, joked, “[K. Raghavendra Rao)] is known to show the sensuality of a woman by showing the midriff and throwing fruits and flowers [at it]. So it was his 105th movie, with me… They threw a coconut at me! I don’t know what’s sensuous about a coconut hitting my midriff.” This apparently innocuous jab at the director did not fly well with the fans, who rumbled, unable to differentiate their passionate defence of Rao from trolling, wondering if Pannu, who had migrated North, had acquired the airs of stardom. Pannu apologised.

This fixation on the fair-skinned heroine’s navel cascades into Rajamouli’s films, from Shriya Saran in Chatrapathi to Anushka Shetty in Vikramarkudu to Tamannah in Baahubali: The Beginning. The deeply uncomfortable scene in Baahubali: The Beginning where Prabhas’ character gives Avantika, Tamannaah’s character, a “makeover” by disrobing her, rubbing the pungent colours of berries to dye her lips, stripping, teasing and touching her without her consent or comfort, was pulled up by critics and the Twitterati. Some even went as far as calling it “the rape of Avantika”.

Baahubali – The Beginning

On the one hand we must recognise that Rajamouli cut his teeth making films in an industry that cannot distinguish feminine subservience from feminine representation, requiring it to be thumbed under male desire. But on the other, for a director who, in his films, has given a bicycle dialogues, who gave a fly a life-like disposition and the phrase “human shield” the most literal, aerodynamic incarnation, is it too much to ask for a new way of looking at women? At men? A less repulsive language of desire? Or does this betray a sinking comfort with a syntax inherited from not just K. Raghavendra Rao but also the masculine genre of wars and Westerns that Rajamouli often cites as influences — Braveheart (1995),  The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), Terminator 2 (1991), and The Indiana Jones series?

For all this, Baahubali: The Conclusion, his last film, gave femininity not just grace, but feisty determination – ahankaram as alankaram, arrogance as beauty. Some, in an unexpected jolt of joy or shock, even called it a “feminist movie”. According to a paper in the International Journal of Creative Research Thoughts, it “[portrayed] women as equally informed about their rights, choices and autonomy as men”. The midriff was gleefully missing. The money still came in.

Take the outsized machismo of his male leads. It is a thread connecting all his movies, and when mixed with the heady melodrama of mythology, produces the muscular Hindu hero. In the context of comics now reimagining the gods of the Hindu pantheon with broad, muscular shoulders and etched, cut abs, Rajamouli’s action heroes seem like both a saviour and an overcorrection, the 56-inch chest that, in its exaggerated claims, betrays both an insecurity and a promise.

Then, there is the language and steady moral compass borrowed from Amar Chitra Katha that Rajamouli successfully leverages, like the use of “Kshatriya Dharma” in his films as a call to action, as a moral threshold. Here “Kshatriya” is used as an adjective denoting a personality, and not the noun that it is – describing a being fashioned in a locked, deterministic, hierarchical society. In the beginning of Baahubali, we see the people of Mahishmati being whipped for non-payment of taxes. Has caste been replaced by class as a convenient category of persecution, then?

It isn’t unsurprising that the movie doesn’t delve into or even hint at the violence of caste, for this world is insular to that kind of critique. (The closest would be Baahubali refusing to sacrifice an animal, a tradition whose violence he doesn’t find materially or spiritually useful.) It would be anachronistic, not to mention narratively odd, to suddenly burst illuminations of caste violence into Rajamouli’s neat moral binaries of good Kshatriya versus bad Kshatriya. He has merely held on to the assumptions from the world of Amar Chitra Katha as truth and mounted his moral dramas over that sticky terrain.

This issue becomes complicated when the insular world of Baahubali is seen as a petri dish for director Rajamouli’s own opinions. A 2012 Facebook post by Rajamouli was pulled up, where he boldly (and incorrectly) notes that caste is not about one’s birth but one’s lifestyle. So now, in between worrying about the maker’s ideological makeup and the viewer’s awareness of caste violence and their ability to be swayed by what they see, what gets ignored is what mediates the two — the movie itself. Suddenly, dialogues stop becoming invitations to cinematic surrender, but instead become evidence in arguments. Slowly, the magic of his world falls apart. But this further gets complicated, when seen alongside Rajamouli’s admissions of atheism. For him, religion, like caste, is an aesthetic choice that gets its vitality from drama.

It is the very thing that makes his films “pan-Indian” – the lightly sexualised recasting of a glorious Indian past with fair-skinned women and muscular men, exaggerated expressions, grunting courage, where caste is shorn off its violent appeal, and the unsteady politics is distracted by logic-gutting visuals of awe — that has invited criticism.

A distinct uneasiness with the idea of the “other” and how it is reckoned with, is another issue that rankles.

Take the Kalakeyas, the villains of the first Baahubali film – brutes who will rape every woman and slit every child’s throat from the vanquished lands, who speak in their own un-subtitled language, Kilikki, and whose grammar, vocabulary and syntax was created by lyricist Madhan Karky. Their rapacious villainy is established imagery first – the black powder they lather themselves in, an unsurprising connection to Africans, for Kilikki includes the clicking of the tongue, also a feature of African Khoisan languages. Elsewhere Karky notes how he was inspired by Tamil even as he was cautious to note that “using any known or existing language could possibly hurt the speakers”. People were eager to call this a violent depiction of tribals, but here was a round-about logic to this: the word “tribals” or “adivasis” was never used; the Kalakeyas were given characteristics used in bigoted depictions of tribals and so, the argument goes, they must be tribals.

From another perspective, this depiction of the Kalakeyas can also be seen as Brahmanical slandering, in the same way the Amar Chitra Katha comics painted the Rakshasa as an uncivilised tormentor of their lifestyle, one that we fused into our moral binary. The Marathi writer Ushakiran Atram, trying to destabilise this notion, writes, “The rakshasas were Adivasis trying to protect their culture and way of life from the invading Aryans.”

In his reading, Ravana, a figure of contempt and villainy in Sanskritic readings of the Ramayana, is considered one of the great Gond kings, with temples dedicated to him. So what we see as hero-villain dichotomy can be, when looked askance, seen as Brahamnical contempt. So, while the “good tribals”, the ones in the beginning with Warli paintings on their walls, embrace the Hindu iconography of the Shiva lingam, the “bad tribals”, the godless marauding Kalakeyas are given the nihilistic violence of the trishul instead. Either way, they are subsumed under Hindu iconography.

Magadheera

Are we reading too much into a filmography that explicitly rejects thought? Perhaps. For Rajamouli’s uncritical entertainment also requires an uncritical reception. Politics in his films becomes an aesthetic choice – where to question its intent is to mistake and misread it, which eludes logic, dialectic, criticism, doubt, subtext, and paratext. These movies don’t demand articulation but affectation.

The same discomforting reading can be extended to Muslims. There is a megalomaniacal Akbar-like figure in Magadheera – though of course he isn’t called “Akbar”, much like the Kalakeyas aren’t called “tribals” – as well as Prabhas’ kohl-rimmed, fez and keffiyeh-tipped look to fit in among the “lawless… bandits, thieves, murderers” from Baahubali: The Beginning. Take the scene in Maryada Ramanna where we first see a mosque – deserted, amidst wilderness, bare boned autumnal trees, a barren site of potential violence in the narrative – to then immediately be served with images of polished marble and sandstone gopurams amidst verdant, flourishing trees. Suddenly, this desire to show varying landscapes, the barren and the pregnant, the colourless and the rainbow riot, gets mapped onto religion with an uneasy simplicity that doesn’t call too much attention to itself.

This is not to say his films are Islamophobic, for that would be a flattening, reactionary reading and seem to suggest that the makers had an unbending ideological spine. The key to understanding the Rajamouli filmography is to understand what is absent. The ideological spine doesn’t exist, for what we consider a political position, a Brahmanical world view, feels like air to these films, a natural, incontestable thing.

Rajamouli’s films have led academics like Anu Thapa to call these seemingly inane spectacles as “serving the technophilic avatar of Hindutva 2.0”. Such characterisations feel like warnings, burnishing our uncritical embrace of joy-giving films with a thin polish of doubt. That we can love the very product of the things we hate. That technology, awe, imagination and passion can mask the stench of ideology, however faint – for us and even for them, the artistes.

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