It’s been five years since Baahubali 2, a film that with its monstrous success across the country kick-started the recent phenomenon of ‘Pan-Indian movies’. We sit down with Rana ‘Bhallaladeva’ Daggubati, who also helms one of the biggest production houses in the country, to talk about the changes the industry is going through
Rana Daggubati made his Bollywood debut as a handsome and brooding Goan rockstar, Joki Fernandes, in Rohan Sippy’s 2011 action thriller, Dum Maaro Dum. He followed it up with Department and Baby (he was also the hunky photographer ‘friend’ of Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani). But it was in 2015, with his now-iconic turn as the larger-than-life Bhallaladeva in Baahubali: The Beginning, that he made the entire country sit up and take note. However, the actor is Telugu film royalty. He is the grandson of filmmaker Dr. D. Ramanaidu and the son of producer D. Suresh Babu. His uncle is the popular Telugu star, Venkatesh, while Chaitanya Akkineni is his first cousin. He was born into the business. “We used to live in a house that doubled up as a shooting location. On most days, I would have my breakfast with the shooting crew downstairs before heading off to school. So, yes, I was born into this world,” says the actor as he folds his 6’2” tall and lanky frame into an office chair. We are inside the sprawling Ramanaidu Studio in Hyderabad, his family seat. Today, he is one of the main forces behind Suresh Productions, a company that was founded by his grandfather in 1964.
He had started his career, not as a hero but as a VFX coordinator, and went on to set up his own visual effects company, Spirit Media P. Limited. In fact, he has over 70 film credits as a VFX coordinator.
“It is a company [Suresh Productions] that is almost 60 years old. There were many production houses that were founded around the same time as ours, but most have disappeared along the way. The only way to grow is to do it slowly. Every decision we make has to be a ‘longevity decision’. It is something that has been inculcated in us as a family and as a business entity. Our job is to create things that last forever; things that can be part of a legacy. At that point, VFX was the need of the hour. I believed that cinema can only get bigger if visual effects aid it well,” he says. Once he got it running, he kickstarted his acting career making his debut in the 2010 Telugu-language political drama, Leader. “I became an actor because most actors were not ready to do the films I wanted to make. Way back in 2005, I had made the film called Bommalata, it got a National Award [for Best Feature Film in Telugu], but I couldn’t get a theatrical release for it.”
That seems like a bizarre claim, coming from a man whose family owns around 380-odd movie theatres in the state along with one of the country’s largest production houses. “Although ours is a family-run business, you can’t run a business like your family and vice versa. In my entire acting career, I have done just one film with our production house. I have produced many films for the company. We are extremely cost-conscious,” he explains.
So ‘nepotism’ isn’t helping? I joke. “Of course it is!” he guffaws. “I don’t like the word ‘nepotism’ or the lens it is viewed through. But where else would I have gotten the business knowledge from? If I had not taken this up as my profession and gone on to do something else, a bunch of information and knowledge, acquired over generations, would have been lost. When our family started off, it was not an industry yet. People would not aspire to be part of it. Today, when it has become one, we find ourselves at the forefront. This generation is trying to enterprise and standardise things and ensure a structured way to transfer knowledge,” says the actor, who is now set to explore the web series space with his Netflix show, Rana Naidu. For him, it is not only about carrying forward his family’s legacy but also to add to it.
In 2018, he launched Anthill Studio, a business accelerator program for technology start-ups focusing on Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, Blockchain, Visual Effects, Cloud Rendering, Machine Learning, Internet of Things, Real-time Cloud Rendering, and Big Data in the media and entertainment sector.
More recently, he has teamed up with Amar Chitra Katha and launched a learning centre called ACK Alive with the aim that it becomes ‘a tool in carrying forward the Indian legacy — not just through stories, but with art, sciences and life skills entrenched in our roots.’ Ask him about that and he quips, “Amar Chitra Katha is another legacy that we have just got ourselves into.
We talk to the actor, producer, serial entrepreneur, and head of Ramanaidu Studios about the tectonic shift the movie industry is going through, the impact of the Covid-induced OTT boom on cinema, the rise of pan-Indian and mythological cinema, and how a film like Baahubali shook up the industry for good. Excerpts:
Baahubali is probably the most impactful film made here in our lifetime. It unified India as a cinematic nation. We have multiple languages, and film industries, and each has its specialisations. There were always a few filmmakers or films that travelled, breaking the language barrier, but those are few and far between. Baahubali gave the license to think and dream big, and it also brought back quintessential Indian storytelling, its largeness, its scale, and the spectacle, into the forefront. Now, we are seeing a surge in such movies, both in Bollywood and in the South.
However, such stories are not new in Telugu cinema. We had mythology and folklore-based movies in the black-and-white era. It was easier to tell such stories in black and white, there was no need for much detailing, and since these were ‘devotional’ in nature, these were mostly music and performance-driven. But that ended by around 1975. Baahubali brought back the culture of those stories and with the newer technologies; the spectacle became more spectacular. When we were working on the film, we were sure it would create a large impact, but we didn’t expect it to be this large.
Post the release of the first installment in 2015, things started to change. Producers and filmmakers started to back big content. And since then, every year we saw at least one big spectacle movie cross the language barrier and get pan-India reach. Films like the KGF franchise, RRR, Pushpa, and Kantara are all movies that created that big Indian moment. Also, Kantara and Pushpa proved that a ‘spectacle’ can be made by creating extreme emotions too — you need not always create a world, which is far more expensive, like a Baahubali or an RRR. You can tell a story that is right here.
Today, especially post the pandemic-induced lockdown and the rise of OTT platforms, you want to go to the theatres only if there is a large spectacle or if the filmmaker is offering an out-of-the-ordinary experience. The rest, the simpler stories, the lighter drama, and the longer format, are covered by the OTTs. Theatres continue to be the big spectacle place. It is also the biggest low-cost entertainment India has.
Before Baahubali released, I had started shooting a film called Ghazi [directed by Sankalp Reddy, the bilingual film was pitched as India’s first underwater movie with a large part of it unfolding inside a submarine]. It was a Telugu film but we wanted it to reach audiences across India. But it was very expensive. I had made the film in a relatively low budget but we had to spend 10/15 crore to land the film in Mumbai because the P&A [prints and advertising] costs of Hindi cinema are so high. I was doing it for the first time. Baahubali followed that; then came KGF and then, RRR.
But in between, came Pushpa, which was released just in Telugu. Its success made us realise that it is not the language, but the content that is getting us the audience. The audience is not waiting for big promotions; if the content is good, they will find the film.
Kantara broke another myth. Earlier, there was the struggle to release a movie across all centres, on one particular day. Now, there might be some other big release on the same day in some regions and that might impact the prospects of your movie. But Kantara did a deferred release. It came in Kannada first, then after a few days, in Telugu and Tamil, and finally in Hindi. And it did well everywhere.
So, the myths are getting busted with each new film. Today, the merit of the story is everything.
Our movies are mostly stories from our lands. I think we don’t even know how to make a film unless it is very local. We watch western films. In cities like Mumbai, people live in nuclear families and in a more isolated world; many have migrated to the city for jobs. Their physical distance from their cultural identities also impacts their stories and movies.
Also, if you go to any Bollywood set, you will see that the major chunk of communication happens in English, although they are making a Hindi movie. Even the script is in English. But here, we speak in Telugu and our scripts are also in that language unless the actor is from outside. Our top filmmakers and writers are not from the cities. Most are from small towns and come with their unique cultural experiences, which a person from the city, like me, might not have a clue about. We need more of such writers and filmmakers. These local experiences translate to cinema that is local. And it is these local experiences that are travelling today. It is great to have an English education, and to study western ideas; it is even ok to get influenced by the West. But if you don’t know what our stories are and what our storytelling is, then you will end up making western movies with Indian people. Those would never be ‘Indian movies’. We can learn so much from Hollywood, especially their tech and shot making. That industry is a much older one and has evolved magnificently, but you use that to tell our stories. According to me, that is the way forward for Indian cinema.
The sole purpose of that company is to make movies on Indian history and mythology and stories steeped in Indian culture. We are making it a norm to release these movies in at least 10 languages; not just the major industries like Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, but also go to places like Odisha and Assam and localise them. A tale from Mahabharata will resonate equally with a Telugu and an Odia audience. These are stories that all of India has grown up listening to and connects with.
These are movies that often deal with the supernatural and demand visual spectacles. One important reason for that is earlier the technology required to make such movies was very expensive. But now, it is finally becoming affordable. The better you plan, the more you can bring down production costs.
Also, this is the first time that we are seeing India as a united cinematic nation. Even five years ago, it was a far-fetched idea that the Hindi audience will watch a Telugu film. And it made little sense to put in so much money into making a film that will only be released in one state. But that is happening now. Producers and filmmakers know that if they make such a big film, they will have a country-wide audience and they don’t have to depend on one particular industry anymore.
If you have to reimagine Lord Vishnu and his superpowers in the superhero context, there is a layer of devotion that will first stop me from doing so. Gods are not comic book characters; they are worshipped and revered by the masses. An atheist would call it a story, a devotee would call it God, someone will call it mythology, and someone else will call it pre-history. But the minute you see it in a theatre, that moment of ‘god’ happens to everyone. We recently experienced this while watching Kantara.
I am working on a film called Hiranyakashyap for the past two years and I will take another year to figure things out. Initially, I thought it would be an easy process as we are not changing the story. But it is damn hard to reinvent it for today’s audience. There is a massive amount of research that needs to go into it to get things right. There is just no room for error while making films on such stories. It is easier to create a superhero than to turn a god into one, because of the devotional factor attached to it, and we are a religious country.
Rishab Shetty has become a writer, a filmmaker, and an actor to tell stories from his land first. He has known that story since he was born; he knows it inside out. But these days — and I am seeing this more in Mumbai than in our industry — filmmakers and writers are far removed from their traditions and cultures. So, it is very difficult to find writers, who would have the depth of knowledge and understanding to make such movies. And the old-timers, who might have the knowledge, might not always be well equipped to build a modern narrative around them. The combination of the right people is hard to get. Now, we have a few book writers who are taking up these topics and some of those books are then, getting adapted.
India has not built great products. We are the backend people. Moreover, India’s tech world has not really come into the entertainment sector. Also, Hollywood is a much older, bigger, and consolidated industry. Here, we have multiple independent industries spread across the country and there is no common infrastructure. Also, investing and tech giants have looked at Hollywood as one entity and these are the people who have brought about big changes. The big money had come into Hollywood since the 1970s. Companies like Disney have hit the 40/50 billion mark many years ago. That’s the scale they are operating from. In India, even big production companies are not among the country’s top big companies. I am hoping that in the recent future, we will see a few entertainment companies reach the unicorn status. The business side of the industry needs better entrepreneurial thought. Also, there is no government initiative. K-pop is an initiative by the [Korean] government to popularise their music across the world. Here in India, entrepreneurs and artistes make it happen; people invest in this industry like they invest in stocks. We wing it. It is still not structured.
Pan-Indian cinema is just emerging. But we still don’t have a centralised ecosystem like Hollywood where everything happens in LA and all the minds and resources are in one place. We have so many different industries spread across the country and there is a serious dearth of knowledge transfer that happens even within one industry. Rajamouli made RRR five years after Baahubali 2; his next might take four more years. But what is happening in-between? Are people getting trained? Is there a knowledge-sharing? The knowledge gained by one crew remains within the members and when they get on to a new project, maybe they carry that knowledge with them there. But there is no proper system in place to carry forward the know-how. We don’t have seminars or lectures about the processes; everything is done in an ad hoc basis. Unless we build an ecosystem, we won’t be able to create the scale.
Oh, there will be big changes. I see drastically different styles of monetisation. There will be films that would be played in the theatres for a limited time and then, continue to be on OTT post that. There will be many deferred releases. There will be bigger festival circuit films. The lifecycle of cinema is going to change. The way we consume cinema will change. Newer formats will emerge. Since its beginning, we have been consuming cinema in the same format and in the same manner — you buy tickets and watch it on a big screen. Both need to change and will change. Entrepreneurs will have to get into it.
There will be certainly some distinctions, whether there will be a definitive distinction, that is to be seen. There will be many things that will work on both platforms. For example, Vikram, Kamal sir’s film, was on Hotstar. But it continued to run houseful in theatres. India is such a diverse country that you can’t possibly have ‘one-rule-fits-all’. Here, in big cities, we want to avoid the traffic and opt for a movie on OTT, but in a smaller town, one can just walk to the theatre. For them, the experience of cinema is very different.
Describe your style in three words:
Easy casual. I keep going through body transformations for my movies and what looks good in one body type, looks weird in another, so I have lost my sense of fashion (laughs). Now I leave it to my stylists
Three essentials you don’t step out without?
Just my glasses. I am happy to leave my phone at home
A gadget you aspire to own?
A jet, maybe
What is the one thing we’ll always find on your nightstand?
If you were to style yourself for an event, what would you wear?
Anything in black is fine with me
What was the first car you ever purchased?
A Chevrolet Optra
What’s your dream car?
The one I own now. A Toyota Veilfire. It has the perfect legroom for me, which is rather challenging to find
Which is your favourite destination for a holiday?
What was your last luxury purchase?
Topmost thing on your 2023 bucket list?
To create a cinematic experience that people will see for the first time
One thing you want to gift yourself in 2023?
More free time
Art Director: Tanvi Shah @tanvi_joel
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva @neelangana
Brand Director: Noha Qadri @nohaqadri
Art Assistant: Siddhi Chavan @randomwonton
Photographer: Eshaan Girri @eshaangirri
Shot by Angad Bhatia @angadbhatia
Edit by Pratik Udkude @pratikudkude
Styled by Harmann Kaur @harmann_kaur_2.0
Make-up by Vijay Dhamne @vijaydhamne
Hair by Vasu