Growing up, actor Rana Daggubati's life was about movie sets, being around actors and creators, devouring Amar Chitra Kathas, and geeking out on Star Wars. It seems not much has changed. Except now he gets to use his movie star status to marry all his childhood passions and create more evolved forms of storytelling. He's currently in the process of giving the 52-year-old legacy of Amar Chitra Katha (he's bought a stake in the company that's backed by Future Group) a digital facelift to make it more exciting for millenials. So he's using ACK's wealth of stories on Indian mythology to make a massive movie on characters like Hiranyakashyap, there are plans of a theme park, and he's working on bringing more sophisticated technology to India to make all of this come to life. The major inspiration of course has been the stupendous success of his movie Baahubali. I chat with him about his many passions outside of acting.
Excerpts from the interview:
You've spoken a lot about how Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) played a crucial part in your childhood. What does it feel like to now be in a position to invest in it and even shape its future?
Whatever I've been doing till now is a continuation of all the things I liked as a kid. My childhood was ACK, Star Wars and a bunch of Hollywood movies. ACK came very beautifully to us. It started off at the end of making Baahubali part one, when we realised we could actually make something this big. Earlier there were films being made but not at that size. I tried The Ghazi Attack which was a small independent film. We had some history of Robot working in the past but that again is a Rajinikanth film. But after Baahubali we knew that we were ready for a spectacle which was Indian. We had this story called Hiranyakashyap for so many years but we just didn't know how to make it. We got around to writing it and started pre-production and then started looking at how Hollywood is working. They, of course, have a head start of many years over us. They have AI, machine learning and so many tech people working on these films. That's the kind of stuff we're working on for Hiranyakashyap.
How does all of this tie into ACK?
Now when we came to the content bit, we thought, 'How do we put this universe in one place?' and ACK was the only answer. I remember speaking to Kishore (Biyani) ji about how this is probably the greatest legacy India has. Anybody who is English speaking in India today and knows anything about our mythology has learnt it from there. There is no other source that size. It's just that this last 7-10 years we have forgotten what it is. Children don't know ACK because their parents never told them. So we created a learning centre in Hyderabad called ACK Alive! that gave us an understanding of today's kids, what their understanding towards storytelling is, and sometimes these insights open your eyes. You realise the divide between generations has become too huge. Kids who are 12-13 years old assume that their parents who are into gaming or robotics don't know what they are up to. The only way to bridge that gap was through storytelling, which is why we thought let's make this for everyone.
These stories lasted for decades without anyone actually writing them down. People have told each other these stories. And there are so many versions – Tulsidas's Ramayana was different from Valmiki's. We thought let's go back to the original source, clean up the many, many versions and move away from the ones that came in later. The Hiranyakashyap that we are telling is from the Bhagavata Purana. It's a very cool story because at that time it wasn't the story of Gods. Everybody knows these stories in bits and pieces. We want to get a new line that connects this entire universe in some way.
Anybody who is English speaking in India today and knows anything about our mythology has learnt it from there. There is no other source that size. It's just that this last 7-10 years we have forgotten what it is.
So the aim is to make the Vedas cool for the digital audience?
These are cool! Rama is a terrific god. The Mahabharat is a great story. It needs to be told the right way. Look at how other mythologies like Greek mythology got their share on the big screen. Now filmmakers are charged to tell those stories here. (SS) Rajamouli will make the Mahabharata at some point. So ACK becomes that one source for everybody.
One of the biggest successes of Baahubali is that it managed to create an after life in the form of an animation series for kids, merchandise, books, etc. What have you learnt from this experience that you can apply to ACK?
I think everything that I'm doing now is based on the success of that film. I remember I was doing this interview for Variety during Baahubali 2 promotions and I was quite puzzled with a question. They said why you didn't you do any promotions for this movie? I said that's what we've been doing for 3 months! But yes, not in the classical American way. So when one percent in America decides to watch Baahubali it changes everything. It was the second biggest thing in America that weekend. It beat a Tom Hanks film. So that's the scale Indian cinema could go to.
It ran for a 100 days in Japan. A couple of months after the release when I went to Japan for Comic Con I realised it was still running. That blew me away. The other thing is that when we watch the film – we immediately think this guy is the hero, and this guy is the villain… but when I interacted with the Japanese audience, they saw it very differently. I remember there were people in my mask, or Prabhas' mask, or Kattappa's… then I saw 10 or 15 people wearing masks of this character in part 1 who is Tamannaah's tribe leader. So it's really like a Star Wars effect where you like a lot of characters. When I saw all this I felt let's put all these learnings together.
What's been your biggest challenge of putting this together?
We don't have the education that the West has in terms of technology. They are now building a submarine for James Cameron to go underwater in so they've really gone somewhere else with their tech. And that's what we're trying to marry. In the last couple of years we've been trying to find different kinds of technologies through Anthill Studios (a business accelerator programme for technology startups ) our other company. We thought let's find different technologies across the world that we can bring to India and make this film happen. I'm the actor of the film so there's no stress of getting the actor's dates.
What's your larger goal for ACK? Where do you see it 5 years from now?
Hopefully to influence India again the way ACK influenced it many years ago. We want to put our culture out in the digital world through comic books and do more in the video universe. It's come at the right time because everybody wants better content and if it's great Indian content it will be watched by the rest of the world, and vice versa, like we watch The Avengers. So we want to go full 360 on this. I'm working with all kinds of people – augmented reality people, then people connected to experience zones and theme parks… These are all in the pipeline. We are in the process of finding the right partners.
How are you making the time for this?
What else do I have to do?
That's what I do anyway! See the life cycle of these things is long. It's like when you've found this new tech, it will take you 8 weeks by the time you know what it can do. It's not like a desk job where you're sitting in the office from 9-5. We will now review the situation 5 weeks later. All of this is a great learning for me. It's the only thing that keeps me going. If you want to do something better than you did last time, you got to learn for it.
Your Instagram profile suggests that you're a bonafide comic book geek. I believe you have a massive Superman mural at home…
That is a comic book that I really liked. It's called Superman vs Muhammad Ali. It's a very old comic. To me Muhammad Ali was a superhero at the level of Superman and Batman. There are very few humans who have reached that calibre. So when he died, I got a bunch of artists to recreate it and put it up on my wall in my house.
What are the collectibles that you're most possessive of?
The sense of a collectible changes each time. Like I would not have thought that I'd put this poster on my wall till Muhammad Ali really went away and it shook me. What's also super sacred to me is my mother's old set of Amar Chitra Kathas that she gave me. It was her set when she was a kid and that got passed on to me. That must be the first set of ACKs available ever. It's a 50 year old company and these are probably 40 years old. Very few people have access to them so I've stored them perfectly.
What's your latest acquisition?
Two people have sent me wonderful gifts. Praveena (Paruchuri), one of the producers of my film, C/o Kancharapalem, gave me a comic which is one of the earlier versions of Batman. Then there is this partner of mine called Prasad at Anthill who gave me a version of Batman who is riding death itself and this is one of the 200 pieces in the world.
What's your most memorable experience at a Comic Con?
I've been to many, in many countries. The most memorable one has to be the one in Japan. Going for Comic-con is one thing, but going with Baahubali is another. Our producer Shobu (Yarlagadda) and I had gone there. Rajamouli had gone before. When I finally landed up, Shobu told me there would be about 150 people. I thought 'Wow, that's no joke'. When I landed up there were 1200 people. On that stage there was the Robocop guy, the Harry Potter twins, Tom Hiddleston and me. I was completely blown away. There were people buying Baahubali mangas in Japanese!
You've spoken of so many plans for ACK. What's the most immediate thing we can look forward to?
Immediately, it's the new set of comic books. There's a bunch of nostalgia sets that are back on the shelves. We got the Tinkle originals back so the first round of what Mr (Anant) Pai printed and edited is now back in the market again. So you can revisit the origins of how Kalia the Crow actually came and how characters like Shikari Shambhu were born. We're also planning something where animals and characters from films will be picked up and they'll come into the Tinkle universe. So we're trying to cross over universes and make them one big space.
There are also ACK characters like Suppandi that are still big and people remember them. We did a merchandise exercise by putting out a bunch of Suppandi T-shirts and they were all sold out. So we know that Suppandi is still a star. There's a cult status associated with the guy. The idea now is to bring them back in the way today's Indian audience wants to see them.