SS Rajamouli, Maker of Myths

S S Rajamouli’s filmography reveals a shrewd filmmaker looking to play audaciously and ambitiously with myth, alchemizing Indian epics and Hollywood Fantasy while looking back over his shoulder every once in a while to check if the audience is coming along
SS Rajamouli, Maker of Myths

The year I turned eleven, my friends in the colony wanted to try out a new game. Cricket and Badminton, the staples, were passé. Now, we were going to try Rugby.

Rugby did not even skirt the periphery of our consciousness as kids. We'd never watched it on TV or live at a ground. But they had just watched Rajamouli's new sports drama, Sye, and were in the grip of the viscerality of the sport. As the skinniest kid in the group, I ended up being tackled the most, serving as an accessory for the realisation of the macho fantasies of the bigger kids. 

But this is what Rajamouli films do.

Heir Unapparent: A still from Baahubali: The Beginning (2014)
Heir Unapparent: A still from Baahubali: The Beginning (2014)

A dying woman's defiant hand holding an infant heir above a gushing river, a warrior who rides on horseback across a vast expanse of white sand to capture a chariot to win the hand of the princess of his land, a young man killed abruptly waking up to find himself reincarnated as a fly. These moments exist in the collective cultural consciousness of the Telugu filmgoer — signposts that Telugu cinema could realize the kind of ambition we assumed for years that only Hollywood was capable of. 

What they have meant for Telugu cinema is the triumph of directorial ambition over the actor-star — the triumph of a brand of storytelling over the South Indian star image. And he has never failed — he has not had a film which was unprofitable at the box office, and almost every film that he has made has been remade in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. This is why Telugu filmgoers permit S S Rajamouli the vanity of having his name appear in a stamp-of-quality at the end credits of all his films — he does, after all, afford the Telugu film fan the vicarious pleasure of recognition across the land.

The SS Rajamouli stamp-of-quality
The SS Rajamouli stamp-of-quality

In the Telugu states, an S S Rajamouli film is an event — inevitably they enter conversations with friends and family. Did you think Part 2 was better than Part 1? Why do you think Katappa killed Baahubali? That scene was lifted from a Hollywood film…wasn't it? Most who watch these films want to linger in the fantasy a little longer. In this, Rajamouli has served the primordial function of the storyteller: he has created worlds that most would prefer to the real one — mythical worlds with strong, noble, and attractive men and women who stand up to the tyranny of vile, treacherous villains.

Even governments are not immune to his powers. In 2017, as the Andhra Pradesh government was in the process of establishing Amaravati as its capital city, the Chief Minister consulted Rajamouli for inputs on the design of the capital, and Rajamouli obliged with designs inspired by Mahishmathi, the fictional city from Baahubali. (Most notable among these: a plan for the assembly which would entail having a rotating set of mirrors direct sunlight from the terrace onto the feet of a Telugu Thalli statue placed within the assembly at exactly 9:15 am.) Things didn't materialize to make this happen, but the proverbial writing was on the wall. 

Rajamouli was the mythmaker of choice for a new state and its new capital. The state government, like the kids in my colony all these years ago, had bought into the fantasy of the worlds he created on screen. Like those kids, they wanted to keep a piece of it long after the credits rolled and the screen went black. And now, after Baahubali's astronomical multi-lingual success and far-reaching impact for large-scale, S S Rajamouli's RRR might be India's most awaited film.

Unsurprisingly, SS Rajamouli's career began with political myth-making — filming ads for the  Telugu Desam Partywhile his father, K. V Vijayendra Prasad, found success as a screenwriter in the 90s with films like Bobbili Simham and Gharana Bullodu. Rajamouli would then go on to direct the TV Drama Shanthinivasam produced by K. Raghavendra Rao, whom he credits as his mentor.

K. Raghavendra Rao would produce Rajamouli's directorial debut, the Jr. NTR-starrer Student No.1 (2000) which would go on to be a runaway success. But the first SS RajamouliTM film would be his sophomore endeavour, the smash-hit Simhadri (2003), which like every Rajamouli film after it, would be based on a story by his father K.V Vijayendra Prasad.

Mythical, Violent Spectacle

And having said this, that foremost of men, with eyes red in wrath, relinquished his hold of Kichaka, whose dress and ornaments had been thrown off his person, whose eyes were rolling, and whose body was yet trembling… And having crushed all his limbs, and reduced him into a ball of flesh, the mighty Bhimasena showed him unto Krishna. And endued with mighty energy that hero then addressed Draupadi, that foremost of all women, saying, 'Come princess of Panchala, and see what hath become of that lustful wretch…'

— Section XXII, Virata Parva, KM Ganguly Translation of the Mahabharata.

"Indian epics are full of violence, and such stories have shaped India. As filmmakers, I don't think anyone in India would tone down the violence, keeping in mind the censorship."

— S S Rajamouli

The largest thematic influences in K.V Vijayendra Prasad's stories — the dramatic spine of Rajamouli's filmography comes from the Indian epics. The family drama in Indian mythology — jealous siblings, adopted sons who strive to prove their loyalty, all feature prominently in Simhadri (2003), Chatrapati (2005), and Baahubali, while Magadheera (2009) and Eega (2012) contain reincarnation as central plot devices.

Rajamouli has long said that it is his dream to make an adaptation of the Mahabharata. Much of this ambition is manifest in Baahubali which contains many elements from the epics. The Devasena-Bhallaladeva scenes practically mirror the Sita-Ravana interactions in the Ramayana. The Bhallaladeva-Baahubali conflict itself is a reiteration of the Pandava-Kaurava conflict in the Mahabharata. 

Yamadonga (2007), is largely a tribute to the 70's NTR-starrer Yamagola — a comedy that involves many of the Gods and Demigods of Hindu mythology. Despite his self-professed atheism, it is evident that he believes in the power of religious and mythological imagery — the Shiva Linga at the beginning of Baahubali, the giant Shiva statue atop a mountain in Magadheera, etc.

But there is another dimension to mythology that is central to Rajamouli's filmography, long unexplored in Indian cinema — that of violence.

There is much graphic violence in Indian mythology — take, for instance, Bheema's brutal killing of Kichaka — that has long been kept away from sanitized screen adaptations due to censorship, a general fear of alienating the audience, and a lack of technical prowess. But Rajamouli, like Zack Snyder, stylises violence, elevating it to spectacle. Unlike Tarantino, this is not tongue-in-cheek; unlike Snyder, the motives are uncomplicated and often black-and-white. 

All the plot threads in the first half of Simhadri, which borrows subplots and devices liberally from Moondram Pirai (a mentally adolescent girl) and Baasha (hints at the outwardly submissive protagonist's violent past) converge at a central, violent set-piece — an element that will define his filmography — this particular one set during the Godavari Pushkaralu, a festival on the banks of the Godavari at which thousands of devotees converge to immerse themselves, Jr. NTR's Simhadri, in typical mass-movie fashion, takes on an army of goons.

Simhadri (Jr. NTR) gets handed the first of Rajamouli's trademarked weapons—an ornate axe
Simhadri (Jr. NTR) gets handed the first of Rajamouli's trademarked weapons—an ornate axe

These bloody, brutal sequences are the most memorable in Rajamouli's filmography — when Ram Charan's Kaala Bhairava slaughters an army of a hundred men on a narrow bridge in Magadheera, the Godavari Pushkaralu sequence in Simhadri, the central fight scene in Vikramarkudu and the battle sequences at the end of Baahubali Parts 1 and 2. There is a remarkable, menacing imagination in the orchestration of violence in a Rajamouli film; an objective to induce awe by invoking mythology. This violence is often carried out as ritual, with ornate weapons — another signature element that comes with the SS Rajamouli wax-seal — as a sort of dharmic necessity (In a scene in Simhadri, the hero impales a rapist on spikes overhead, bathes in his blood, and is then given an abhishekam for his deed by priests).

The set-pieces themselves are structured in stages, with an attention to detail that suggests an interest in the logistics of war — it is clear that the battle-strategies in the Mahabharata's Kurukshetra as well as scenes like The Battle of Helm's Deep from Peter Jackson's The Lord of The Rings, The Battle for Troy in Troy, and Red Cliff inform the construction of the big battle sequences in Baahubali: there is a sense of location, progression, and individual character-arcs amidst the chaos of war.

Bhairava (Ram Charan) slays a Hundred Men in Magadheera(2009)
Bhairava (Ram Charan) slays a Hundred Men in Magadheera(2009)

But what makes these set-pieces narratively effective is the craft in them: these scenes are moments of spectacle that provide dramatic catharsis — resolving narrative threads that the film has set up, while escalating the stakes. And there is tragedy—something that commercial Telugu cinema with its perennially invincible heroes has traditionally been afraid of. The famous scene in Magadheera where Ram Charan's Kaala Bhairava fights off a hundred men leads to his death despite a victory; there is a sadness that permeates the entirety of Eega — that a man has been reduced to a fly — and the finale ends in a literal self-immolation. Even the central twist in the Don-inspired Vikramarkudu contains tragedy: the real Vikram Rathore dies during the central set-piece after being built-up to in the entire first half of the film, and in both Baahubali and Simhadri, the main character is betrayed by someone closest to them at the halfway-mark.

Betrayal in Simhadri (2003)
Betrayal in Simhadri (2003)
Betrayal in Baahubali (2015)
Betrayal in Baahubali (2015)

Experiments, and the Birth of the Star Director

While much of Rajamouli's career is defined by star-vehicles that married his father's mythic stories with the image of the star he was working with — NTR in Simhadri, Raviteja in Vikramarkudu, and Ram Charan in Magadheera — a defining trait of Rajamouli is the way he has alternated star-vehicle blockbusters with smaller experiments — something he has said he does consciously to avoid being pigeonholed. This is why a sports drama like Sye followed Simhadri, and comedy-dramas like Maryada Ramanna and Eega followed Magadheera. It is these films that allowed Rajamouli to transcend the star-system and establish himself as a star-director that did not need to ride on a star's fame to make massive box-office success. And it is in these films that we find the best of Rajamouli.

Maryada Ramanna (2010) is not an Alpha Male
Maryada Ramanna (2010) is not an Alpha Male

In Maryada Ramanna, Rajamouli cast Sunil, an actor who had predominantly featured as a comedian in Telugu films, in the lead in a loose adaptation of Buster Keaton's old silent film Our Hospitality. In the film, Sunil plays a man who travels to his late mother's village in Rayalaseema to claim a piece of land — only to end up trapped in the house of a family that has vowed to slaughter him; the catch — it is their custom to not spill blood in the house. 

For a filmmaker who has come to be associated with the muscularity of Magadheera and Baahubali, Rajamouli's storytelling powers truly shine in stories where the hero is enormously outpowered by the villain and has to outthink him. Sunil in Maryada Ramanna plays a hero who is decidedly not hypermasculine: he has to use his wits to find an excuse to stay in the house, taking advantage of the family's hospitality. This is something that the protagonist in his next film, arguably his best, Eega also has to contend with.

The primary strengths of Rajamouli as a teller of stories are found in the audacious, endlessly inventive Eega (Makkhi in Hindi). The lead, played by Nani, dies a third of the way through and is reincarnated as a fly. Unlike a film like Bee Movie, the fly has no humanlike face — but this is not a detriment to the storytelling largely because of the strength of the writing and the storytelling.

Many of the best sequences of Eega are in how a fly manages to find a way to kill a human being — unlike a sanitized Disney film, Eega is often bloody — midway through the film, the fly orchestrates a car accident capsizing Sudeep's car, and then tells him his intention in no uncertain terms by scrawling on his windshield.

Eega (2012): A housefly's statement of intent
Eega (2012): A housefly's statement of intent

This is a film where Rajamouli gets almost everything right — while many of his early films have forgettable romances, and cringe-worthy comedy tracks which feel forcibly inserted, Eega's narrative is powered by a charming, unfulfilled romance — and comedically, it is his most effective film, since most of the humour stems from the inventive ways a fly torments the rich, smug villain Sudeep. Here too, there is a sense of the mythological: one can see Ravana in Kiccha Sudeep's villain — a rich, powerful man whose downfall begins when he decides to pursue a woman who loves another man.

By having done away with the need for a star in the lead role (except for Nani, a then upcoming hero, in the first act) and by delivering on storytelling through remarkably ambitious CGI sequences, Rajamouli's reputation among Telugu filmmakers breached the stratosphere: he had transcended the South Indian Star system and his early days in mass-masala filmmaking and had begun to aspire to James Cameronesque levels of imaginative blockbuster storytelling—a remarkable feat for a non-Bollywood Indian director, whose only precedent, arguably was Shankar.

With Baahubali, many of these ambitions would be realized, and SS Rajamouli's fame would explode beyond the borders of the Telugu states to the national level.

The Politics of High Fantasy

There is sexism and objectification in Rajamouli's early films, and this was the case with much of Telugu cinema at the period. Since much of his filmography relies on the direct, visceral impact of elements from mythology, there is very little by way of reflexive, deconstructive commentary. One of the fundamental unstated questions in Baahubali is that of the politics of Mahishmati, its central kingdom, and what we are supposed to feel towards it.

It is clear there is a caste hierarchy — Katappa clearly remains subservient to whoever is in power despite his personal feelings and mentions caste as a reason for not dining with the young Amarendra Baahubali, while allusions are constantly made to Kshatriya Dharmam. While Amarendra Baahubali refutes the idea of dining separately from Katappa and of animal sacrifice, it is unclear if Mahishmati is going to change its customs under his (or his son's) rule. There is also the Lord of The Ring-esque portrayal of the dark-skinned Kalakeyas as a savage, blood-thirsty people and the sense that by virtue of a royal birth, Mahendra Baahubali is superior to those that adopted him. (The Lion King also shares this trope, along with its implications).

Both films consist of princesses who aspire to become warriors, trapped in patriarchal royal setups and the driving force behind the violence is the patriarchal protection of women by men seeking to assert their traditional roles as warrior-protectors, with little reflexive commentary on these customs and practices. In Baahubali, a line by Devasena where she says she would be happy living at Amarendra Baahubali's feet drew much ire on social media. Leaning into the comfortable tropes of fantasy and mythology, with their clearly defined gender roles are also one of the ingredients for Rajamouli's effective mythmaking — as evidenced by many on social media celebrating Amarendra Baahubali as the "ideal boyfriend"— sharing screenshots of when he acts as a plank, allowing Devasena to board a ship. 

Some of this owes to the structure of myth itself — in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the book that became the basis for the hero's journey in film, the woman is posited as the trophy for the hero on his journey — Baahubali: The Beginning which follows this structure reflects this when its protagonist ascends the waterfall to meet Avantika, a guerilla warrior who he subsequently disarms in a controversial seduction scene, making her aware of her "femininity".

The narrative seams are revealing — it is hard to create a story that draws on the power of myth while deconstructing the politics of myth; this is a line that commercial Telugu cinema, unlike Tamil and Malayalam cinema, is yet to, and probably reluctant to, cross.

Yet, there are progressive, independent women, even powerful women in Rajamouli's filmography — Samantha's Bindu, a miniature artist who designs miniature weapons for Nani's Eega to take down the villain, along with Devasena and Sivagami — women who defy men and wield agency in both Baahubali films.

There are also vague allusions to other political matters in Rajamouli's filmography — in Chatrapati, the protagonist, his brother and mother are refugees from Sri Lanka where their village is burned down, and yet there is no reference to an ethnic, Tamil identity — they are referred to vaguely as "Indians" who have been persecuted. There is also a reference to a fight for the entry of underprivileged castes into temples in the opening sequence of Simhadri.

But unsurprisingly, there is a reluctance to take definite political stances — something that big-budget commercial Telugu films have never done, and perhaps can't afford to do. Rajamouli is looking to transport us to his worlds, after all — not to change ours. To ask whether these worlds are imperfect by design or by oversight is probably futile, except for those who dream of Mahishmati as some halcyon civilizational model for us to emulate in 2022.

Film as Commercial Product

The progression in Rajamouli's craft is apparent: compare the early, ambitious, but raw underwater whale-wrestling sequence in Chatrapati to the polished craft of the CGI sequences in Eega and Baahubali. So also is his improvement in the comedic and romantic subplots from the sequences in Simhadri and Yamadonga to Eega and Maryada Ramanna. His heroes have graduated from pure brawn to thinking, intelligent, heroes who outthink their antagonists in Maryada Ramanna, Eega, and even Baahubali (think of the flaming cloth sequence in Baahubali: The Beginning). 

Magadheera, in hindsight, seems like a step in the ladder towards Baahubali (which is probably another step in the ladder towards his dream Mahabharata project). The iterative improvement makes sense — in interviews, he often refers to his films as "products". With RRR, there seems to be a marriage of gargantuan scale, Telugu star power, and Cecil B. Demille style historical mythmaking. 

In it, Jr. NTR will play Komaram Bheem — a revolutionary freedom fighter belonging to the Gond community who fought against the feudal Nizamate and the British, and Ram Charan, Alluri Sitarama Raju, a freedom fighter who fought against the British in the areas around Visakhapatnam. The real figures never met, and yet the film seems to be speculative fiction — celebrating their imagined friendship.

On the outset, this seems audacious, given the historical figures involved, the tumultuous period in history whose scars still mark the region, and the multi-starrer angle with the prone-to-outrage fanbases of the two stars. And yet there is clever commerce underlying the premise — Komaram Bheem hailed from Telangana and Alluri from Andhra — signalling an attempt to cater to both Telugu states by mythologizing their historical heroes.

At this moment, SS Rajamouli's ambitions resonate with many Indians — to tell Indian stories with the cinematic muscle and scale hitherto reserved for the James Camerons and Peter Jacksons of the world. Many would have told him his dreams seem impossible to realise, yet S S Rajamouli's filmography reveals a shrewd filmmaker looking to play audaciously and ambitiously with myth, alchemizing Indian epics and Hollywood Fantasy while looking back over his shoulder every once in a while to check if the audience is coming along. At what he has set out to do — whether or not it's to the taste of the art film aficionado or the film critic —  he has never yet failed. You'd have to be bolder than Amarendra Baahubali to bet against his success.

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