“I was only playing,” he says, with the grin of a child who’s been up to some mischief. It’s 11 AM on a Monday, and I’m on a Zoom call with director-screenwriter KV Vijayendra Prasad. He’s in formal office attire, a sight a lot of us have forgotten during this pandemic. I ask him if he’s used this lockdown to take a breather from work, perhaps catch up on movies. “Let me tell you two things,” he says. “I never take a break and I never work. I just keep amusing myself.” As for watching movies, he declares he has a “weakness”. “After 15 minutes, I go to sleep. I fell off to sleep in the auditorium even during Baahubali,” he adds.
Prasad is 78 years old. But you wonder if he knows that. For starters, he is freakishly productive. He’s written some of the biggest blockbusters of the last 5 years – Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan in Hindi and Vijay-starrer Mersal in Tamil. And of course, the game-changing Baahubali, directed by his son S S Rajamouli. He’s written Rajamouli’s next film RRR too and the Jayalalithaa biopic starring Kangana Ranaut, Thalaivi. Writers who’ve assisted him in that past say Prasad rejects at least 10 scripts a month and is still left with a bank of over a 100 stories across genres that are waiting to be made. “Except horror. I don’t like it,” he says.
A few years ago at a movie event, Rajamouli was asked to give a speech about his father. He described his father’s stories as “futuristic” and spoke of the time he came up with a movie about a tsunami, which no one saw merit in until the world was actually hit by one in 2006. Something similar happened with Eega – a story of a man who is reincarnated as a fly and takes revenge on his murderer. “They all laughed at me,” says Prasad. Truth be told, even 6 years on, the idea seems preposterous but he and Rajamouli were clearly ahead of the curve. “Now I usually try to find out the IQ of the person with whom I’m sharing my idea. If I feel they won’t understand, I won’t open my mouth at all,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek.
Prasad’s creative juices start flowing as early as 3.30 AM everyday. His mind throws up vivid images and scenes which he spins into movie ideas. The image that set off Baahubali was of an injured woman wading through rough waters, holding up a baby with one hand. The character of Bhallaldeva (played by Rana Daggubati) was born from a visual he originally came up with for Rajamouli’s 2004 film Sye. “I thought of this villain Bikshu Yadav who has a passage in his house. He stays at one end, and a buffalo at the other end. Then one day, the buffalo moves forward, and he also runs forward. Then Yadav catches it by its horns and pushes it back to the other end,” he narrates, with astonishing precision.
Prasad is a storyteller, quite literally. He prefers to tell a complete story as opposed to writing it. He narrated Bajrangi Bhaijaan to Salman Khan in 12 minutes flat. “I don’t underestimate the value of writing. But my handwriting is very bad. I hate looking at it,” he says. Putting pen to paper also slows him down because he works on multiple films at a time. “He’s a classic old-school writer. He won’t tell you just an idea. He will tell you a whole story with the beginning, middle and end,” says Rana Daggubati.
Writers and directors who’ve collaborated with Prasad describe his Hyderabad office as this magical place where scripts are being conjured up in every room. I imagine it to be like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where instead of candy, there’s a free flow of potential blockbusters. Prasad says he’s looking for “a little bit of madness” in his assistant writers as well as the ability to punch holes in all his ideas. He once split them up into two opposing teams and got them to argue the merits and demerits of a script he was developing. Later, he switched the teams, so the guys who were tearing it apart now had to defend it. A L Vijay, the director of Thalaivi, says Prasad made him buy a huge blackboard before coming to the office. “My assistant director and I would write what was happening in the first 30 minutes of the film, then the second 30 minutes, and he would check the arc of the story,” he says.
Prasad relishes a good argument even when it’s his son on the other end. Vamsi Krishna, who was his writing associate for 5 years, says it was always great fun to see them have a go at each other. “Both of them are strong, sometimes pig-headed, opinionated people. But they have given each other the space to express themselves. Rajamouli calls him nana garandi. He’s extremely respectful. He can also respectfully say an idea is rubbish. They know what they want and they fight like teenagers,” says Krishna. Prasad prefers to downplay his competitive streak. “I’m an old man. How can I ever win?” he asks with a twinkle in his eyes.
At the same event where he spoke about the tsunami movie, Rajamouli also talked about a time when nearly 14 of his family members survived off his father and uncle, who worked as ghost writers. “We were all waiting to see our father’s name on a film’s title cards,” he said. Krishna says Prasad and his extended family almost have an excess of talent. He calls them “genetic mutants”. In fact, the sets of Baahubali gave new meaning to the term ‘home production’. It wasn’t just father and son running the show. The scenes were being directed to M M Keeravani’s (Prasad’s nephew) score, the second unit director was Rajamouli’s son, his wife Rama handled the costumes, Keeravani’s wife was the EP on set, and there were many more. “Rajamouli’s strength comes from his family. He’s got an army of them supporting his vision,” explains Rana.
Prasad would love to make more films with his son, if only he didn’t take years to complete a movie. Till then he needs to give wings to the other million ideas that he says “keep popping up” in his head. I ask him what he’s working on now, and he again playfully chides me for using the word ‘work’. “It’s not work. It’s entertainment 24/7,” he smiles.