Since the time a project called Bahubali was announced the ripples it has created in this glamour ocean is unmatchable. 28th March, being a Monday began to most of us with the joyful news of Baahubali receiving the 63rd National awards for the Best Film and Best VFX for the year 2015.
Producer Shobu Yarlagadda of Arka Mediaworks sets aside some time to reminisce the moments while making Baahubali, India’s biggest motion picture. He also opens up about Baahubali - The conclusion and why Kattappa killed Baahubali in this extensive chat with D Meera Chitirappaavai.
What was Arka Mediaworks’ initial motto?
We started the company in 2001, so we have just completed 15 years now. We started with the tagline of entertain, inform and transform. The first word, I think we have achieved, the other two, we are sure to achieve in course of time.
My co-founder Prasad and I were specific of making it a professional outfit and a trustworthy company. We are very proud that we achieved the above said aspects too. Prasad is my wife’s cousin. We started the company together. I primarily handle the production and marketing while Prasad takes care of the finance end. He also is in charge of our TV productions.
Though we were completely new to the industry, my wife being the granddaughter of veteran filmmaker Kovelamudi Srinivas Prakash Rao, that film background helped us with contacts and rendered support to our initiative.
2. What made you take up a project as big as Baahubali?
The two main reasons were Rajamouli’s potential and credibility. When I say potential it stands for the potential of the story too.
By saying credibility, I mean the personal bonding I share with Rajamouli. 15 years ago, both of us almost started off at the same time. Then, Rajamouli used to direct TV series for us. The film Maryada Ramanna happened later.
Rajamouli and I are very good friends and we trust each other a lot. According to me, the relationship that the producer celebrates with his director is very important while making a film. It was indeed a challenge, but the above said aspects made us take it up.
3. The first reaction after listening to SS Rajamouli’s narration- fear or excitement?
It was definitely excitement! When you hear a story as a producer, you will know if it is THE tale you want to make. That is the producer’s instinct or gut feeling which might or might not work out though. At the same time, we were well aware that this project won't be a cakewalk, and it is a challenging endeavour.
4. What was your contribution in SSR’s casting idea?
My contribution in this aspect was very little. I would give away suggestions or be available for second opinions. Mainly, the casting strategy was worked out by Rajamouli and his team.
We started the project with Prabhas in mind. All the other stars came on board later. Anushka was the first choice to play Devasena. In case of Rana, we were on the look out for a person who would match Prabhas in physic, image and on screen presence. At the same time, we were specific that the person playing the character of Bhallaladeva should not have too much of a past, he shouldn’t be a well established or exploited villain. Rajamouli was impressed with his performance in Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum and approached him to play the baddie.
It took us a while before we shortlisted Tamannaah as her character was to enter the film after sometime, initially. Ultimately, I strongly feel no other artist can replace the role played by each and every one of them. From Sathyaraj garu to Ramya Krishnan, every body fitted right in their parts.
5. Who took the call regarding splitting the film into two parts? What was your thought process at that point of time?
Initially this story was penned for a single film. When we sat together for narration, we learnt that the story will run upto 3 ½ hours. Even then, we were afraid of loosing few emotional elements and further while trying to bring it to 2 ½ hours (as the attention span of audience is less these days), we saw that we were diverting from the core essence of the tale.
And, for the kind of sets and for the kind of visual effects Rajamouli had planned, we knew that there wouldn’t be a large difference in cost even if it was made in parts. So, initially it was my suggestion to make it as a sequel. Rajamouli and co gave the idea a thought. Rajamouli reworked for 4-5 months to look at the film from a two part perspective. Then he also attained the confidence to go ahead with the sequel plan.
6. What are the bottlenecks that you faced while funding a project of this range?
Having Rajamouli, a filmmaker who has delivered back to back successful films on a large scale, there was a lot of trust and belief on the reception we would get from the industry (distributors and other producers). We also knew our credibility as a company was well maintained. These points helped us raise the required money for this project.
Even after all this, at certain points, we definitely had highly stressful instances and time constrains took a toll on us. During the release of the film also, all financiers stayed by us and supported us.
7. Did the final output match your initial vision?
Partly yes. We were particular that the scale of the film should fall into the never-before category and also the setup in terms of the plot of the story. In terms of the visual effects and the overall look, we wanted to get better quality. This wont imply to the entire film but to few pockets where the VFX was not in par with what we wanted. The VFX team should not be blamed for this, it was purely due to time constraints and financial pressures. This made us go in for slight compromises. If I had given more time to my director and the VFX team, they would have come up with a much better product. End of the day, it is the balancing act that you should perform while producing a film.
8. Explain your relationship with the VFX team.
As a producer I am a very participative member of the team. I got directly involved in the VFX process as it involved time, quality and money. From following up with the VFX team to check how long each shot would take for processing to coordinating with the director for the same, I personally got involved in the process. I became the bridge between Rajamouli and the VFX end, as at points, I had to convince Rajamouli that certain shots cannot be bettered/given time further. I was trying to acquire the best out of the team with whatever time and money we had.
9. How did the contribution of your distributors help the film?
Global United Media (GUM) in Kerala, Sri Thenandal Films and Studio Green in Tamil Nadu and Dharma Productions in North India, all of them were very supportive. It worked very well for Arka Mediaworks. Each of them started seeing the film as their own product and came up with innovative marketing techniques. If GUM came up with the largest poster idea, it didn't take the film only to people of Kerala but boosted the expectation throughout the country. That way each of their marketing strategy complimented each other.
KE Gnanavel Raja of Studio Green and Murali of Sri Thenandal films made sure that Baahubali got the best kind of release with allocation of right screens. On the other hand, Karan Johar endorsed the film by giving it the “India’s biggest motion picture” tag that took the film to every nook and corner of the country. Everywhere the film became a local film.
Nobody outside Andhra (Telengana) might have known who or what is Arka Mediaworks but when the film said Global United Media/Sri Thenandal Films/Dharma Productions presents, it gained the attention of the respective audiences.
10. How do you see the response from Tamil market for the film?
We did hold a certain level of confidence about the film’s reception in Tamil market as Rajamouli’s previous flick Eega/Naan E did well here. Added to this, we had Sathyaraj, Ramya Krishnan, Anushka and Tamannaah in the cast list. But the degree of love and appreciation bestowed by Tamil people was enormous and was slightly surprising too.
11. Initially Baahubali - The conclusion was planned for 2016. Now we hear that it will be a 2017 summer treat. What is the reason for the postponement?
Yes, it will be here in 2017. The reason is that we do not want to compromise on the quality this time. It is also taking much more time than what we expected with regard to the shooting and the visual effects process. This time we are certain that we will not deliver a product compelled by time!
During the first part, the audiences were very forgiving in certain areas but the second time they might not be as forgiving as the previous time.
14. Many inmates of the industry are involving themselves into production ventures. What is your advice to them?
Like I said, the story is important. The story should call itself to me made. The relationship and trust within the team is vital too. Producers should start becoming a part of the team rather than looking at themselves as a member from the opposite side. Realising that we are all on the same side trying to make a film is very important.
15. What is Arka Production’s next step after Baahubali - The Conclusion?
In terms of films, we are yet to plan the next step. Only after competing Baahubali, we will give an ear to stories and see what can be made. But what we are actually focusing on currently is to expand the Baahubali franchise. As it holds a wide interest and fan base throughout the world, there is room for more stories to be narrated. These are stories that cannot be covered in 1 or 2 films. So we are looking at other platforms like TV, animation, comics etc to present more of Baahubali.
My interview would be incomplete if I didn't ask the million dollar question of “Why Katappa killed Baahubali”. But Shobu signed off with a sheepish smile. I console myself for not getting an answer to that question as I got to know bigger things about this biggest blockbuster film of 2015.