Rajamouli’s cocktail of folklore, fantasy and now, history

As 'RRR' is poised to arrive in theatres in January 2022, a look at director S. S. Rajamouli’s romance with larger-than-life cinema steeped in graphics

December 24, 2021 05:16 pm | Updated 06:54 pm IST

On a grand scale: Ram Charan and NTR in the soon to be released RRR

On a grand scale: Ram Charan and NTR in the soon to be released RRR

‘Brace yourself for Ram, brace yourself for Bheem…’ goes a line in the trailer of director S. S. Rajamouli’s new film RRR (Rise Roar Revolt in English and Roudram Ranam Rudhiram in Telugu), scheduled to release worldwide on January 7, 2022, in multiple languages.

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Inspired by The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), RRR is a fictional story exploring the possibility of revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem having crossed paths in the 1920s, when they were relatively unknown. What if they had been kindred spirits or friends and inspired each other, before they went on their individual journeys?

Ram or Alluri Sitarama Raju (1897 to 1924) led the Rampa Rebellion in 1922 against the British in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari and was hailed as ‘Manyam Veerudu’ (hero of the jungle). Bheem or Komaram Bheem (1901 to 1940), a rebel leader from the Gond tribes of Adilabad, led a rebellion against the Nizam of Hyderabad and the British Raj in the 1930s.

RRR has Ram Charan and NTR as the younger Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem respectively. RRR promises another larger-than-life outing from the director of Baahubali , if the visuals are any indication.

Rajamouli is the only director in Telugu cinema to have had a 100% success rate in his 20-year film career, beginning with his debut directorial venture Student No.1 . The opening portions of Chatrapathi , which brought together Rajamouli and Prabhas for the first time, feature the lead actor outwitting a shark and even riding on it. The rendezvous with graphics got bigger in subsequent films, along with an undercurrent of mythological references.

Rajamouli often recalls being fascinated by Amar Chitra Katha stories in his growing years. And that he shares a common interest in history, myth and folklore with his father and screenwriter Vijayendra Prasad.

Films that used visual or special effects were not new to Indian cinema, since the time of Pathala Bhairavi (1951) and Mayabazar (1957). In the 1990s and 2000s, the storylines for which graphics were used witnessed a change. In Tamil cinema, director S. Shankar incorporated visual effects both for song sequences and segments where his protagonists took on corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, before exploring science fiction in his later films.

Meanwhile in Hindi cinema, Rakesh Roshan embarked on stories inspired by Hollywood, featuring extra terrestrial beings and a home-grown superhero with Koi Mil Gaya and the Krrish franchise.

Rajamouli, on the other hand, dipped into mythology, folklore and the idea of reincarnation, perhaps understanding that such stories never go out of vogue.

His tryst with myth was evident in Yamadonga , his third collaboration with NTR. In this comic fantasy drama, the protagonist took on lord Yama (veteran actor Mohanbabu). The yamalokam (hell) portions unravel on a lavish set, with generous help from graphics. A brief segment features young NTR alongside his grandfather, the legendary N. T. Rama Rao, in an obvious hat tip to senior NTR’s Yamagola (1977) that had a similar plotline. Magadheera dealt with romance, reincarnation and revenge, while playing to the gallery. A segment features Ram Charan, then an emerging actor, replicating his father Chiranjeevi’s (in a cameo) dance steps.

Rajamouli wasn’t going to keep things simple anymore. Eega was built on the premise of a murdered man being reborn as a housefly. Here, visual effects served the role of the hero, in the form of a house fly.

Cinematographer K. K. Senthil Kumar, who by then had become Rajamouli’s trusted associate, disclosed in an interview to The Hindu that Eega was conceptualised as a small experimental film. On sensing the story’s potential, the team took the leap of faith. Dummy house flies were used in a few scenes. But mostly, the camera crew and actor Kiccha Sudeep had to deal with vacant space since the ‘eega’ was inserted later using computer graphics.

Rajamouli tasted blood with the pan-India success of Eega, though the Hindi dubbed version, Makkhi , elicited tepid response.

At the time, Rajamouli had said that the Hindi version was not presented well. A lacuna that he went on to fill in his subsequent project Baahubali , strengthening the marketing muscle by bringing in Bollywood producer Karan Johar on board.

What Vijayendra Prasad had envisioned years earlier as the story of Sivagami, was fleshed out until it grew bigger and bigger, much like the statue of Baahubali installed in the pre-interval portions of Baahubali : the Beginning .

Everything about the film was big, beginning with Shivudu (Prabhas) scaling a gigantic waterfall. Prabhas swung from ropes against a green screen, and the waterfall and vegetation were added later. Prabhas lifting the massive shivalinga on his shoulders, Rana Daggubati as Bhallaladeva taking on a large CGI-created beast, and the innovative weaponry used in the war sequences, showed the rest of India and eventually even the far east that Rajamouli’s film is a combination of story, character, scale and imagination, enriched by technique and visual effects. Unlike Krrish or Chitti (of Endhiran and 2.0 ) who were bestowed with extraordinary powers, both Amarendra and Mahendra Baahubali were men in stories replete with palace intrigue and revenge on a large canvas.

For Baahubali:The Conclusion , Rajamouli’s team worked with 35 visual effects studios worldwide. Visual effects supervisor R. C. Kamalakannan had disclosed that 15% of the Mahishmati palace was a set created in Hyderabad’s Ramoji Film City and the rest were digital extensions. Likewise, 30% to 40% of Devasena’s Kuntala kingdom were actual sets and the rest was achieved with the help of visual effects that had been until then deployed only in Hollywood, never in Indian cinema. Strip Baahubali: The Conclusion of all its grandeur and it boils down to a family story of a jealous and ambitious step son and the face off between a mother in law and daughter in law.

With RRR , Rajamouli has the responsibility of paying a tribute to the historical personalities Alluri Sitamara Raju and Komaram Bheem, once again, as a grand visual spectacle. If he can pull it off, it could well pave the way for his dream project Mahabharata - an epic from which, he claims, any character can be drawn.

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