In the history of Indian cinema, there have been hits, superhits, industry hits and blockbusters. But run through the list of films and you'll find one common factor. Most of the films were helmed by actors who were already stars by the time the film released. The only exception in that list would be Bahubali, which catapulted its leading man Prabhas into national recognition.
Never has ONE film so drastically altered the fortunes of an actor as SS Rajamouli's 2015 epic. But what was Prabhas before the release of Bahubali?
2002 was a terrible year for Telugu cinema. Of the 110 films that released, there were eight hits, eight films were termed 'average', and more than 85 films tanked at the box office. Among the many films that sank was the debut of a tall, lanky youngster in a film titled Eeswar.
The nephew of yesteryear actor Krishnam Raju, Prabhas first completed his B.Tech like every good Telugu boy should, and entered the film industry on a film that was loaded with heavy producers and an ultra-light script. The big stars of the 90s— Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna—were still churning out superhits and Eeswar failed to raise any eyebrows.
It wasn't until his third film that Prabhas tasted success with Varsham—a romantic film that was as much about romantic rains as it was about bloody sickles. Prabhas' next few years in the industry would be shaky.
Ups and downs are part of an actor's life, but Prabhas' career had a unique trajectory. One hit would be followed by three disasters. Varsham, for example, was followed by Adivi Ramudu and Chakram. Chatrapati—Rajamouli's first venture with Prabhas—was followed by stroke-inducing flops like Yogi and Bujjigadu.
This pattern continued for a decade, and yet, one aspect was hard to miss. While he delivered three flops for every hit, the hits that Prabhas delivered were gargantua—-the kind that rewrote industry records and changed the fortunes of producers and distributors.
Prabhas had ticked all the boxes. He had delivered a hit with Rajamouli. He had worked with Puri Jagannadh in a couple of films. He had dabbled in romance with Mr. Perfect and Darling, factionist revenge sagas like Mirchi, and potboilers like Ek Niranjan. Consistent success though, was as elusive as Tamanna dancing on a different island.
Every popular star in Telugu cinema has a legion of die-hard fans. Fans are known to furiously defend their stars, and on some extreme occasions, kill fans of opposing stars too! In such an environment, Prabhas fans were never known to be loud or violent.
In an industry where actors are accorded names like 'Power Star', 'Mega-power Star' and 'Stylish Star', Prabhas' fans had given him a rather simple title—'Darling'—a gender-neutral term in the Telugu speaking states. Prabhas was known as a silent, nice-guy who was completely malleable in a director's hands. Which made sense because his films didn't seem to be chosen on the basis of a solid script. For a Prabhas film to succeed, he needed a director with absolute clarity of vision.
Fortunately for Prabhas, a director was busy scripting a film—and his destiny—in what would become the biggest Telugu film of all time.
Director SS Rajamouli is the son of scriptwriter K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, who still writes every film that the director makes. Rajamouli began his career under director K. Raghavendra Rao—arguably the biggest Telugu director of the 90s.
Rajamouli started his career directing television serials, and debuted as a director in 2001 with Student No.1. Over the next 10 years, Rajamouli scripted one superhit after the other. In an industry as shaky as the celluloid business, Rajamouli's filmography boasts of not a single flop. He directed socio-fantasies, sports dramas, action-comedies, and revenge sagas—and each of them firmly entrenched his place as a director with the golden touch.
At a time when the industry was fighting off piracy and story-leaks, Rajamouli twisted the game on its head by himself revealing the one-line plot of his film in press conferences. Before his films released, the audience knew exactly what the film was about. In a sense, his films became less about the script, and more about the spectacle.
In 2012, Rajamouli directed Eega (Makkhi in Hindi) with a story that could give a producer a stroke. Eega was the revenge saga of a housefly, and amidst plagiarism claims and scepticism, Rajamouli pulled off the impossible by earning hundreds of crores around the world. In the next few years, he would script a film that would change his life, along with the lives of his actor, and the entire Telugu film industry forever.
10 July 2015 was the day it all changed. The release of Bahubali: The Beginning elevated Rajamouli to national recognition. The film seared through theatres all over the country, blurring the lines between A, B, and C centres. The shy, reticent Prabhas was now plastered all over.
It is hard to think of any other actor who would have fit the bill for Bahubali. For starters, the film required Prabhas to refrain from signing any other film for five years. This is a huge risk in an industry where the unwritten rule is 'Out of Screen, Out of Mind'.
It was also Prabhas' physicality that helped him fit the bill for the role. Telugu cinema is bereft of large, beefy heroes to pull of mythological sagas. Rajamouli's earlier large-scale fantasy Magadheera was a superhit in every sense of the term, but perhaps it required the physicality of Prabhas and Rana to give it its truly 'epic' look and feel.
The years 2015 to 2017 were a dream for Prabhas. The first instalment earned money and fans, and ended with a cliff-hanger that was mouthed by every kid across the country. The second instalment broke every record imaginable, and Prabhas' career would never be the same again.
Prabhas' next release Saaho has been delayed and postponed, and finally sees the light of day on 30th August 2019. Over the last few years, a lot has changed.
Prabhas' fans can be found all over the country. Large-budget Telugu films witness producers like Karan Johar and Farhan Akhtar collaborating over the distribution. Telugu films like Arjun Reddy have been remade in Hindi and Tamil.
Amidst the many boons that Bahubali gave Prabhas, it also left him with the Curse of Bahubali. Every film that the star now makes will be held against the Mahishmatian saga. Every screenplay will be compared to the writing of Rajamouli.
There will be hits and flops, or to use a Hyderabadi term – 'Industry hits' and 'Utter flops'—but never has one film changed the fortunes of an actor like Bahubali did for Prabhas.