Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Epic Sweep of Rajamouli’s Baahubali: A Towering Show of Indian Competence and Enterprise

There are somethings in life that need to be seen, heard and experienced to believe them. India’s Telugu magnum opus movie “Baahubali: The Beginning” is one such phenomenal achievement. Taken simultaneously in Tamil as well, and dubbed into Hindi and Malayalam, Baahubali was released globally in 4,000 screens on July 10, 2015. The fantasy period film, billed as the most expensive Indian movie ever made at USD 40 million (Rs 250 crore), has opened to rave reviews and blockbuster collections, crossing the Rs 250 crore mark in the very first week. It has won the appreciation and approbation of ‘who is who’ of Indian Cinema. The movie that has been in the making for over three years is the dream, passion and magic of its director, S S Rajamouli. Singlehandedly, as the leader responsible for screenplay and direction, he conceptualized and catalysed a mammoth planning and execution effort to bring Baahubali onto the screens. In Rajamouli’s and Baahubali’s success lie certain inspirational guidance for Indians and Indian organizations who despair that India cannot match up to international standards. The film demonstrates that India can indeed take quantum leaps to match or exceed the best that the world can do.    

In terms of scale and scope, Baahubali has set new records. The film was canned in specially created sets, fields and expanses of Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad (RFC) as well as in Oravakal Rock Gardens in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, Athirappily waterfalls in Thrissur, Kerala for over two years. The film had a preceding one year of preproduction planning. What started as a single movie became a two part movie given the multi-generational story narration, with a sequel “Baahubali: The Conclusion” committed upfront for release in 2016. Some highlights of the movie relate to the gripping narration of a story involving warring brothers (across two generations) for Mahishmati kingdom, one brother being good and the other evil and the triumph of good over evil, breath-taking visuals of waterfalls, expanses and hills of India and snow mountains of Bulgaria, nearly 5000 visual effects shots that enhanced the scale and depth of visual splendour, unprecedented aerial and multi-dimensional shots of the mammoth set of Mahishmati fort, installation of a massive 125 feet high and 8 tonne weight statue, over 20,000 uniquely designed weapons, and use of 110 acre space in RFC with 2,000 artistes for a year for battle scenes. At least seven key actors dedicated themselves to the movie for over two years while 25 national awardee technicians worked on the movie exclusively.

Visualization + Detailing

S S Rajamouli may have directed only nine movies in the past but with each movie has won accolades for making films each increasing levels of uniqueness in thematic content and differentiation in film making. Baahubali, however, represents a quantum leap in his directorial style and story narration. Verily, it is his most intense effort in bringing high technology visual effects with sweepingly successful impact to the Indian cinema to date. According to Rajamouli, the story has been developing with him for seven years, with key roles emerging adding drama and emotion to the story. That he has been able to accommodate eight key characters in pivotal roles and have both hero and anti-hero almost as powerful equals and yet narrate the story in a silky smooth fashion reflects his competence. Rajamouli has amazing clarity in narration, and a rare skill in aesthetically translating to the screen what he visualizes.

Rajamouli is detail oriented and meticulous in his work, and never takes his viewers for granted. Some of his directorial tweaks are out of the box yet very logical. There is a scene in the movie in which the hero tattoos on the hand of the warrior heroine as she sleeps on the riverside dipping her hand in the water; an alert warrior, she is not disturbed by the underwater calligraphy as several small fish are seen to dabble with her hand simultaneously. In a follow-up tattoo scene, he is able to repeat it on the warrior girl even as she is ready to shoot an arrow by bringing on a green slithering snake onto the arrow, and making her stay frozen and fixated on the snake until she is able to release the arrow with the snake.  It is this capability of Rajamouli that pervades throughout the movie and makes the period fantasy look and feel not only visually grand but also emotionally inspiring, transporting the viewers into the mythical kingdom and the life with the protagonist characters.

Specialization + Integration

Specialization with integration ensured end-to-end success for the movie. As Rajamouli states, selection of, and dependence on, the most appropriate technicians and artistes has paid off handsome dividends. The faith in the completely fictional story developed by Vijayendra Prasad was the bedrock of the movie. The heads for visual effects (Srinivas Mohan), cinematography (Senthil Kumar), art (Sabu Cyril) and costumes (Rama Rajamouli) are not only the best in the field but they gave also their best to the movie. Each expert had absorbed Rajamouli’s visualization and narration, and produced expected output. Sabu Cyril drew more than 20,000 sketches in the pre-production phase. The Art department became a design studio and construction factory for developing the unique sets of fort, weaponry and sculptures with contemporary construction materials sporting period look as well as colour schemes reflecting historical times. The cameraman, Senthil, is an expert in use of sophisticated digital cameras, drones, cranes, blue mat and slow motion technologies. He is an adept at enhancing physical camera capture with computer graphics and visual effects.

Srinivas Mohan is the master CGI and VFX Supervisor of India who played a major role in Baahubali’s success. His work on 1,500 feet high waterfalls, snow avalanche, war sequences, beheaded walk, statue installation, and aerial shots of Mahishmati fort (to name just a few) with the latest software and multiple visual effects studios resulted in unprecedented visual grandeur for the movie. Rama played a stellar role in designing costumes to various lead actors that are appropriate for the period film, providing authenticity. Costumes and actors enhanced mutual impact. The costumes of warriors, kings and commoners reflected authenticity that is vital for a period firm. They were ably supported by music composer, M M Keeravani, stunt choreographer team led by Peter Hein, dance choreography led by Prem Rakshit, sound engineer P M Satheesh and editor K Venkateswara Rao, among others, to make each and every scene an extraordinary audio-visual experience. And to add to the novelty, a completely new language called Kilikili was created by the lyricist Madan Karky to be spoken by Kalakeya tribe! The key in all this was that each of the functional specialists were narrated the movie vision and visual expectations by Rajamouli, and each absorbed and responded to the expectations, and worked in an integrated and symbiotic manner making the whole far richer than the sum of the parts.

Dedication + Development

No new amazing task can be accomplished by merely following past achievements. Breakthrough achievement requires not only dreamy passion, extraordinary vision and innovative strategy but also development of high performing talent with new skillsets that can enable quantum leaps in execution. However, dedication to the cause comes first and development next. The life of Rajamouli mirrors the lives of several self-made leaders, rising from the constraints of oscillating poverty and common community to pinnacles of visualization and expertise. As Rajamouli says the stories of Hindu epics such as Mahabharatam and Ramayanam narrated by his grandmother in his childhood left a deep impression on him to create such epic sagas on the celluloid. Each of the key actors in the movie, Prabhas as Baahubali, the hero, Rana as Bhallala Deva, the warring brother, Anushka Shetty as Devasena, Tamanna as Avanthika, Ramya Krishna as Sivagami, Nasser as Bijjaladeva, and Satyaraj as Kattappa dedicated themselves to the movie fulltime all through without any distractions or other career options. All of them placed once in a lifetime opportunity of Baahubali higher than alternative and possibly higher revenue opportunities.

Prabhas and Rana learnt sword fighting and horse riding as well as marshal arts, endured serious injuries, followed stringent diet and exercise patterns to reflect the challenging requirements of their roles, from looks to skills. Each of the other actors also underwent gruelling makeovers to match the requirements. Thousands of stunt artistes from all over India were housed and trained in RFC for the battle scenes for over a year. Yet, the whole team functioned as a family with shared food, domestic attention and camaraderie. The core team of Rajamouli, Rama, Vijayendra Prasad, Keeravani and Sri Valli belonged to a common family but succeeded in enveloping the hundreds and thousands of workers in a similar familial atmosphere inspired by a common cause. Producers, Shobu Yarlagadda and Prasad Devineni placed unwavering faith on Rajamouli despite this being an extraordinarily high budget film for India.  Dedication and development must come with a canopy of gratitude. Rajamouli gave the credit to director K Raghvendra Rao as the presenter of Baahubali because he gave Rajamouli the first break in independent advertisement and commercial television serial making. The first frame of the movie pays homage to the Telugu cine stalwarts who passed away in recent times.       
Leap, unbounded

The success of Baahubali spawns far beyond the success of a movie in India; it triggers a sense of national pride that India Can! Every Indian in the faraway shores of USA today aspires to see the movie and feel proud that India can conceptualize and make such world-class celluloid epics. Baahubali inspires that India can match world standards in conceptualization and execution of mega projects. It demonstrates that Indian talent that works for international companies can produce a completely Indian product bettering world standards. It teaches that the rich history and ethos of India are indeed of epic potentialities even contemporaneously. Baahubali also underscores a leader’s sagacious and bold role in scripting a future of unseen and immense potential. Almost invariably, the leader who achieves dramatic transformations dreams big. As Rajamouli admits he likes to dream of larger than life images. However, he has the tenacity to persevere till he is able to launch on his mission and translate them into physical realities. No one had any expectations when the project was announced in 2011 that Baahubali would be the high technology visual spectacle that it has been shaped into. It is easy to develop an Avatar in a Hollywood ecosystem which routinely makes Jurassic, Terminator and Avengers series. However, Baahubali proved that an Avatar level film making is possible in India too, and that too at quarter the cost of a similar Hollywood movie. Indian leaders have to only dream of building infrastructure in India as in US, Japan or China and there could be no reason why India cannot indeed build such infrastructure (Incidentally, a movie of Baahubali’s vision and scale required the scale and scope of the infrastructure of Ramoji Film City). 

Dreaming a greater future and raising the bar continuously is an essential enabler for world-leading development. The key lesson from Baahubali for India’s build for the future is that India has the necessary competencies for world class design, construction, manufacture, and delivery. What is required is visionary leadership that can dream big, visualize the dreams, detail the visions and deploy leaders who can execute the parts and finally deliver the project as a whole. If one individual as Rajamouli can deliver a magnum opus which is truly a world-class Indian movie, clearly other endowed leaders and administrative entities and business organizations should be able to create world-class infrastructure and deliver world-class projects in India in their domains. The three formulae identified in this blog post as the key drivers of Baahubali’s success, Visualization + Detailing, Specialization + Integration and Dedication + Development, constitute the unique alchemy for India’s quantum leaps of the future. If the Baahubali momentum is maintained in its follow-on part, referencing the movie as Indian Avatar may be passe; future Hollywood movies could be referenced as Hollywood’s Baahubali! Prior to release of Baahubali this could have been a bizarre statement but today it is a logical aspiration. So must be the aspirations to discover new laws and theorems, innovate new science and technology, make global products and services and build new infrastructure, ENTIRELY AND INDIGENOUSLY IN INDIA, COMPLETELY WITH INDIAN TALENT.    

Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 19, 2015

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