It’s been over 3 years since Baahubali: The Conclusion graced the big screen and concluded S.S Rajamouli’s path breaking two-part epic, forever changing the Indian film industry. And yet, the world of Baahubali lives on. Since the movies, there’s been an animated spin-off series, graphic novel, VR experience, Netflix series currently in the works and a prequel book trilogy.
The Baahubali: Before The Beginning book series, written by author Anand Neelakantan, takes place 30 years before the events of the first film and traces the origins and back stories of key characters such as Katappa and Sivagami. Following the release of the last book of the trilogy, titled Queen Of Mahishmathi, author Anand Neelakantan and Baahubali-producer Shobu Yarlagadda spoke to us about expanding the world of Baahubali, the upcoming Netflix adaptation, and why the movies were only the beginning.
Anand, I believe Rajamouli approached you after he read one of your books and thought you would be the right person to expand this universe. What drew you to this world?
Anand: Yes, one day a mail landed up from Rajamouli sir who had read my book Asura. I met him and the producers Sobhu sir and Prasad sir and I was given this challenge to go back to the Baahubali world and expand it. The film was so beautifully written by Vijayendra Prasad sir, who created a fascinating world which the entire world knows now. So writing what came 30 years before that and led up to the events of the movie was a real challenge. Rajamouli sir made it more challenging by asking me to do it in 100 days. So the first book, the Rise of Sivagami was entirely completed in 100 days and the last book Queen of Mahishmathi was even faster. It’s been four years, three books and almost 1400 pages now and I hope these books will also stand the test of time like the Baahubali movies have done.
This is obviously the third and final book in the series. Are you going to miss this universe and Sivagami and Katappa and all these characters?
Anand: It is very difficult to send them away actually. Finishing off the book was quite a tough moment. Sivagami, Katappa and Bijjaladeva are the three main characters of the book but I’ve also created around 40 new characters to go further and deeper than the movies. But yes, I’ll miss them. When you send your characters off into the world, it’s like seeing your children off when they leave home. We can only hope that they do well.
Shobu, in the West they have a rich heritage of expanding their massive movie franchises with merchandising, spin-offs etc which is a culture we’ve never really had in India. You’ve obviously done that with Baahubali, but why do you think that we’ve never traditionally had that culture here?
Shobu: I think it’s a growing process, and eventually we’ll reach there. The West is a much more mature market. But I think Baahubali has shown the way now and I think more stories are coming out which will become franchises and have a world and many spin-offs and soon that will become a culture.
I think we’ve never focused on that till now. We were more focused on single screen cinema, independent cinema, hero-based cinema and star-driven films. But I think now it’s changing and very soon we’ll be seeing a lot more franchises being made because they bring a lot of advantages. You have a solid existing fan base to depend on and capitalise on, and it’s not just one film, there’s a continuity to the process. And now especially in the current scenario where there are so many mediums that are opening up, whether it’s streaming, gaming or digital media, there’s a lot of opportunity and I think it’s just a matter of time before we see a lot more franchises.
What’s been your biggest learning in doing this and taking Baahubali to different mediums and platforms?
Shobu: I think the primary thing is that every story can’t be made into a franchise like Baahubali or Star Wars or a Marvel Universe. They need strong characters and very strong worlds. If you have those, then from that world, you can make a film, you can make a series, you can make an animated series, live-action series, games and so on. So, what we’ve realised is the film is not at the centre of the franchise building, it’s just one part of the world.
Tomorrow fans could discover this series through Anand’s books or the Netflix series. When we started the film was the centre of the universe for us but that’s not the case, they’re just one successful component of it.
We did film quite a bit of it but Netflix wanted to scale it up, because we felt that we have to do justice to the films. So in an effort to scale it up, we had to go back to the drawing board, revisit it and redesign the whole show. So, it’s being rewritten and it’s going on floors very soon and will be on Netflix soon after that. It was a very tough call because everybody put a lot of effort into it but, although the wait might be longer, I think it’s in the best interest of the franchise and we’ll be able to give much more to the fans.
I have to ask about the Netflix series which is based on the first book, The Rise Of Sivagami. It was announced 3 years ago and they reportedly wrapped production in 2019, and now there’s talk of scrapping it entirely and starting again. What can you tell us?
Shobu: So it was started in 2018, one year after the second part of the movie was over. We did film quite a bit of it but Netflix wanted to scale it up, because we felt that we have to do justice to the films. So in an effort to scale it up, we had to go back to the drawing board, revisit it and redesign the whole show. So, it’s being rewritten and it’s going on floors very soon and will be on Netflix soon after that. It was a very tough call because everybody put a lot of effort into it but, although the wait might be longer, I think it’s in the best interest of the franchise and we’ll be able to give much more to the fans.
There’s been so much talk about ‘the Baahubali effect’ and all the recent period epic films that have tried to replicate that magic and scale of the Baahubali movies, but nothing has come even remotely close. Why do you think that is? Is it just the years of commitment that went into making them?
Shobu: As you said, one reason is definitely the time that everyone devoted to the project, from the director to the team to the stars. Everyone, including production designer Sabu Cyril and DOP K. K. Senthil Kumar gave it everything they had for 4-5 years. And that was driven by the vision that Rajamouli had and how he could convince everyone. I think we need to have more visionary filmmakers who can devote that kind of time.
Some filmmakers like to do small independent slice-of-life films, that is just their forte. But others, like Rajamouli believe in larger-than-life films and it’s about tapping into those people and giving them the freedom they need, but it also requires them to make that level of time commitment and make their peace on losing out on other opportunities. I think that’s what we need and I’m very optimistic that we’ll find many more filmmakers like that.
You’ve also said that you and Rajamouli are constantly ideating on how to do more with this world with new spin-offs and stories. So what else can people expect?
Shobu: We are working on something in the Baahubali world right now, but it’s too early for me to say anything. All I’ll say is there’s a lot more coming from the Baahubali universe in the future. It’s not over.