Midway through the production of Eega, S.S. Rajamouli panicked. After he'd shot half the film, the VFX company showed him a demo of what they'd been working on independently for six months — trying to realize his audacious dream of making a protagonist out of a housefly — and his heart sank. "The fly didn't look like a fly, the movements were jerky…we would have spent Rs 10 crore or so by then. Had it been Rs 50 lakh or Rs 1 crore, I would've pulled the plug on the project," Rajamouli recounted to Ragalahari Talkies. But he chose to start from scratch: the audience won't listen to excuses; they'll decide if they like the fly in an instant, he contended. This meant throwing away reference images which they'd used to design the fly, capturing flies in a bottle, refrigerating them to slow down their movements, and photographing them with ultra-long lenses before the lights managed to thaw the flies out, following which they'd move fast again. All this, while the film's budget doubled.
When he chose to go on, Rajamouli made perhaps the most fateful decision of his career, and for the course of commercial Telugu cinema. Eega (2012) is not just Rajamouli's best film, but one of the most important Telugu films ever made, because it broke the shackles of the biggest hindrance to their creativity — its subservience to stars. Since most A-listers in the Telugu industry come from film families, mainstream movies in the 2000s would be tailored to the image of the star, featuring them and their families. You can see this in Rajamouli's own films. Watch Yamadonga (2007) or Magadheera (2009) now and you see a director wrestling with the star's image and family legacy while trying to realize his own Cameron-esque ambitions.
With Eega, the most VFX-heavy Telugu film up to that point, Rajamouli leaped off a building without the harness of a star and managed to land on both his feet, much like one of his heroes would. (He had taken a step in this direction before with Maryada Ramanna (2010) — but that was still a comedy with a comedian as a protagonist.) And with it, he put the writer-director back in the driver's seat. If, in RRR (2022), he can get Ram Charan to be the antagonist for the first half, have NTR Jr.'s Bheem (problematically) be subservient to Ram, and get away with not including tributes to either star's families, this is because the stars are now contributors to Rajamouli's vision, not their authors.
This is not to say that Rajamouli's films don't have stars. No Rajamouli film relies on a single performance as much as Eega relies on Sudeep's pitch-perfect, broad-strokes performance as its villain — but it isn't a star vehicle. With Eega, Rajamouli also pointed the way forward. Telugu films didn't have to be about amma sentiment, Rayalaseema factionism, or rehashes of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995) and Sooraj Barjatya films. Telugu filmmakers could dream, they could scale up and compete — not just with Bollywood, but with Hollywood too.
The plot of Eega, inspired by an idea from his father and frequent collaborator Vijayendra Prasad, is appropriately framed as a fable. A young couple's romance is tragically interrupted when a man who lusts for the girl kills the boy. The boy, reincarnated as a fly, now seeks to kill the man for revenge. Yet, it's the storytelling choices that reveal the strengths of Rajamouli, the filmmaker.
The casting, for one, is immaculate. Samantha, as Bindu, though underwritten, delivers on the exact kind of next-door likeability that makes this simple story work. Nani channels the sort of charm Shah Rukh Khan did in Nineties' films like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) and Deewana (1992) — to the point where you want to overlook the fact that he's stalking the heroine (there is even a callback to DDLJ with a scene in a church).
(The stalking here isn't as egregious as in the other Telugu films of its era where the act of stalking typically convinced the woman of the "purity" of the male lead's love and caused her to reciprocate the feelings. The twist here is that when we begin, Bindu enjoys his affections and is playing hard to get. And yet, scenes like the one where Nani shows up at Bindu's office and texts her while pretending to have a professional conversation still rankle. While we know Bindu likes him, Nani is still stalking her with no sign of interest from her. The male gaze of the film also reveals itself when you think about how Bindu doesn't realize Sudeep's behavior is predatory until Nani reveals it to her.)
You can see why Nani is written the way he is in the film. He needs to be persistent and creative in showing his affections from a distance, and yet he needs to be denied the consummation of love for the story to have emotional stakes (a trick Ghajini (2005) employed to a similar effect). This has its intended effect when the titular fly shows up — since it has no facial animations, you project your impressions of Nani's character from the first act onto it.
Thus, the titular Eega works because three things come together. Firstly, the VFX — Rajamouli notes that after obtaining ultra-detailed images of flies, they selectively picked features to design the character model and animating it. This meant keeping appealing features, getting rid of unattractive ones, and making sure the animation style wasn't cartoonish. Secondly, its motivation and character traits are clearly defined. It is persistent, creative, and resourceful, as set up in the first act. Thirdly, your memory of Nani's performance in the first act makes you project his likeability onto the CGI creation.
Sudeep's performance holds the key to understanding the genre shifts in the film. For Eega — despite beginning as a romcom and having prominent melodramatic flourishes — is really, for the most part, a slapstick comedy like Home Alone. Its primary pleasures are situated in its second act, when Sudeep is reduced from a suave, menacing presence to a bumbling, eegalu ni kottukune pichchi nayala (fly-swatting madman). The second act is also a stellar example of rising action done well in a screenplay. As the fly's antics grow more ambitious — from disturbing his sleep to crashing his car — Sudeep steps up his defenses, turning his house into a fortress and even employing black magic.
Rajamouli acknowledges the Disney-Pixar influence (early in pre-production, he planned to rope in Disney to produce) and you can see this with its characters — Nani, Bindu and Sudeep are so clearly archetypal that they could be named Alladin, Jasmine and Jafar. Yet what makes Eega interesting is also what makes Rajamouli unique — this brand of unabashedly bloody, creative violence.
What sets Rajamouli apart from every Indian filmmaker in the past is that for him, the action set pieces are the film (whereas with others, the action was an indulgence that punctuated the drama). To enjoy RRR, Baahubali or Magadheera is to revel in the explication of their violent setpieces. The melodrama exists to provide these setpieces with emotional stakes. It is no surprise that Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear Solid video game series, loves Baahubali and RRR. He is an anime fan and Rajamouli's action sequences are similar to those in anime like Berserk and Attack on Titan. (In fact, Berserk has a 100-warrior vanquishing scene similar to Magadheera's.) To those of us that enjoy them, these sequences speak to the parts that made us dream up scenarios around our action figures.
Another hallmark of the Rajamouli film is how he executes character transformations—typically, by situating them in elongated sequences of spectacular melodrama. In RRR, this is the Komaram Bheemudo sequence which triggers Ramaraju's change of heart. In Baahubali Part I, it is the sequence when Kattappa realizes Shivudu is Amarendra Baahubali's son and kneels at his feet. In Eega, the melodramatic heft of the sequence when the fly reveals itself to her justifies Bindu's transformation from innocuous girl-next-door to accessory to murder. Rajamouli's stories work because he understands the crucial dramatic inflections in his screenplay and elevates them into the realm of irresistible mythical melodrama.
As always with Rajamouli, there is mythology. In the third act of RRR, there is a certain artless bluntness in its grafting of mythology onto the story. its characters seem to shed their existing motivations and accept mythological roles without cause — specifically Bheem, who accepts a subservient relationship to Ramaraju. Eega, however, is subtler. Sudeep's rising mania, his holing up in his fortified mansion, and his sacrifice of his subordinates in the face of mortal danger, all derive from Raavana in the Valmiki Ramayana's Yuddha Kanda, but this flows naturally from the narrative and is perfectly in character. (Nani and Bindu both pray in a temple and at a church — something notable in a filmography that contains as much Hindu iconography as Rajamouli's does.)
And yet, amidst all of Rajamouli's mythology-evoking filmography, Eega is his most forward-looking and wholesome. It has none of the political caveats of Baahubali and RRR, nor does it revel in bloodlust in quite the same fashion as they do. It is also, atypically for Rajamouli, anti-machismo — a victory of brains and heart over brawn.
It's also perhaps the only Rajamouli film that loses none of its power on the small screen (watch Baahubali and RRR on TV and their spells don't quite hold). With its first act, you get the pleasures of watching a director craft the smaller scenes carefully, without resorting to huge sets and VFX: the stretch where Sudeep discovers Bindu is in love with Nani is wonderfully directed, ending in a neat directorial flourish with Sudeep's menacing face distorted by a series of mirrors.
Eega was the start of the journey that culminated with RRR and Telugu cinema being discovered worldwide. There are several tributes to major Telugu stars over its closing credits, (including a rather funny one to Shankar and Sivaji: The Boss), but Eega is the film in which the writer-director finally came into his own, free of the shackles of the star system and the conventions of the South Indian blockbuster.
Chiranjeevi, at a recent public event, recounted that when he went to Delhi to accept an award for Rudraveena, their Indian film showcase contained photos of Hindi film stars — Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and others — but hardly any from the South, and none from the Telugu states. "Indian cinema ante Hindi cinema ani project chesaru vallu", he noted. Much will continue to be written about Rajamouli — about the audacity and bombast of his spectacles as well as their iconography and politics — but perhaps the most crucial aspect of his legacy is that Telugu cinema is, finally, being written about.