As S.S. Rajamouli’s “Makkhi” takes a successful flight up North, we speak to the director who has become a source of inspiration for action entertainers in Bollywood

“Now I can tell the world that the Indian film industry has Salman Khan on one side and a ‘Makkhi’ on the other.” This is what Shekhar Kapur told director S.S. Rajamouli after watching the antics of his precocious fly. After a long time a dubbed film has created buzz at the Bollywood box office, and Rajamouli is elated.

Son of eminent Telugu writer and director S. Vijeyndra Prasad, Rajamouli says the idea of “Eega” (the title in Telugu) came from his father in the early ‘90s. “He narrated us this love story where the villain kills the boy and he gets reincarnated as a housefly and torments the bad guy. We found it very funny.” Years later, after making a series of big-budget action blockbusters, when Rajamouli decided to “dabble in something small” the funny story came back to his mind. “Small films are usually romantic films, comedy films or horror films — the three genres I am not comfortable with. I wanted to make an experimental film which would shock the audience in a positive way. At that time the story resurfaced in my mind.”

Rajamouli says when he started the idea was to make a three-crore film in five months. “Initially I was hesitant because, come to think of it, the idea was crazy. I thought only a small section of the audience would dare to come to theatres. But when the story was complete we knew we had a winner on our hands. So we went all out. It ended up being a 30-crore film and was made in two years.” According to reports the film garnered around Rs.130 crore in the Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam versions.

The film’s special effects have been appreciated. Rajamouli maintains that the perception that special effects will take a whole lot of budget is a misconception. “There are ways of working around it. I went for relative newcomers and gave them training. This film would have cost me four to five times more if I had gone to any established studio.” The film’s concept is tailor-made for 3D but it seems the budget constraints prevented him from going for the third dimension. Rajamouli disagrees. “After spending 30 crore, another four crore would not have been a big issue. I am not a big fan of 3D but this film would have worked better in 3D. But I was already taking on a new subject and working on animation for the first time, which was too much of a burden,” he insists, adding if he goes for a sequel it will definitely be in 3D.

But it is a rare film where content and visual effects blend seamlessly. “I like larger-than-life ideas. I take an impossible situation and then make the audience believe in it. Sudeep is a superstar in Karnataka but I approached him after seeing his performance in ‘Rann’. I was not sure whether he would accept a negative role but not only did he accept the role but also made it so nuanced and intense.”

Of late he has become the go-to man for Bollywood producers. His “Vikramarkudu” has been remade as “Rowdy Rathore” and this Diwali we will see his blockbuster “Maryada Ramanna” as “Son of Sardar”. And last heard the remake rights of his “Magadheera” were bought by Anurag Kashyap’s production company. “Human emotions are universal. It is the finer nuances that are regionalised. So if a story has worked at one place because of content — not because of star value or marketing — then chances are that it will work at another place as well.”

What prevents him from turning his works into Hindi, considering directors like A.R. Murugadoss and Siddiqui have done it? “As a storyteller I want to reach out to as many people as possible but I don’t want to make a remake. I spend almost two years on one subject, and I don’t want to spend another two years on the same subject. However, in my forthcoming films I am looking at the possibility of shooting my films simultaneously in Hindi.”

Eager to see the transformation of “Maryada Ramanna” in rural Punjab, Rajamouli is not too perturbed by the lack of recognition for the original in the national media. “Sooner or later people come to know. They bought the rights. Also, ‘Maryada Ramanna’ was not an original idea. It was a scene-to-scene copy of ‘Our Hospitality’, a silent film of 1920s.”

Rajamouli is all for the change that Hindi cinema has seen in the past couple of years. “The Hindi film industry is offering a complete package. On one hand there is mass masala like ‘Rowdy Rathore’ and Salman Khan films, and on the other hand you have experimental films like ‘A Wednesday’, and there is space for innovative ideas like ‘Vicky Donor’ as well. These films are commercially successful and catering to different sections of the audience. That is the way an industry should be.” This wave is missing in Telugu cinema, which is still stuck to action entertainers full of bloodshed and gore. “The change happened in the North with the advent of multiplexes. In South India the number of multiplexes is increasing now, and in two to three years you will see a change.”

A couple of years back one listened to Sai Paranjpye at the National Awards ceremony. As the head of the jury she was chastising the Telugu film industry for not making films that could compete at the National Awards. “I personally don’t like awards. I am not the right person to tackle this question but it is obvious that our films are not winning National Awards. But I can give you an interesting statistic. Andhra Pradesh has 1,800 screens, which is the largest in the country. And the second largest number is in Tamil Nadu, which has 800 screens. The rest of the country doesn’t have 2,500 screens. In Andhra Pradesh film is the main source of entertainment. So it is an economic need to make more entertainment-based films.”

Does the socio-economic profile of the audience coming to theatres influence the kind of films that are being made? “It is a chicken-and-egg kind of situation. You can’t deny the fact that there is too much gore in our films and I am myself guilty of it. In the last two to three films I have completely cut down the sleaze part and edited out too much violent portions but, being a director who has gone through this route, I feel we go for these things more out of insecurity rather than the audience wanting it. I gradually realised that we are losing more audiences rather than gaining them. It is just a matter of time when we will be catering to all sections of society,” signs off Rajamouli with the promise that he is working on a big-budget historical.

A taste for the dubbed

Amit Awasthi, Regional Head of Reliance Entertainment, who have released “Makkhi”, says the film is doing better than the other Hindi releases of the week but the business is not as expected. “We expected 70 percent occupancy but it turned out to be 40 to 50 percent.”

The craze for dubbed films started with Mani Ratnam’s “Roja”. Distributor Sanjay Mehta, who released dubbed films like “Bombay”, “Hum Se Hai Muqabla” and “Hindustani”, says, “All three films were superhits and it sparked a trend. But as dubbing rights come cheap, distributors went for an overkill leading to diminishing returns. ‘Makkhi’ stands a better chance because of high quality effects and there is very little lip movement.” He feels the film could have done better with focussed publicity and a clever title.

As for the trend, Mehta says, “Only those films which have faces – heroines and villains – which are known in the North do good business. “Action entertainers are in demand in small towns in North India. The audience want relentless action and some sleaze and Telugu films provide high quality action. I released Chiranjeevi’s ‘Bajrang’ and it turned out be runaway hit.”

Mehta says the trend started at a time when Hindi cinema preferred the so called gentry over the masses. Agrees Neeraj Vyas, business head of Max channel. Like most movie channels, Max shows at least three dubbed films a week. “Four years back, we felt there is a demand for action films and decided to have a slot for dubbed films. They get consistent TRPs from Sec C,D, E.”