Not many outside South Mumbai party circuit can connect with Bollywood films: ‘Baahubali’ prequel author (IANS Interview)

New Delhi, April 30 (IANS) With a dramatic improvement in quality in recent years, South Indian films are more rooted to our culture, have a deeper emotional content and connect well with the Indian ethos, and competition from them has triggered a race for both content and quality in Bollywood.

“Once the Indian film industry converges, it will knock Hollywood off its pedestal,” predicts author, columnist, screenwriter, TV personality and motivational speaker Anand Neelakantan, the writer of the official prequel of the ‘Baahubali’ series.

He was engaged in a conversation by IANS to explain the recent resurgence of southern films on a pan-India scale.

“Though ‘Baahubali’ was a trend-setter, it was the advent of OTT platforms that broke language barriers. Now, a huge section of viewers are familiar with films and shows from other languages. Viewers watch Korean shows, Turkish serials or Spanish films in the comfort of their drawing rooms. So, it is no surprise that Indian content from various languages finds viewers, breaking the language barrier.”

Noting that “this is just the beginning”, Neelakantan said competition from the South Indian film industry “will trigger a race for quality and content in Bollywood too”.

He said: “The language barriers will break down and we will have truly pan-Indian superstars and actors. So far, we tend to address Hindi actors as national actors and others as just regional superstars, despite Malayalam, Bengali or Tamil bagging most of the national awards in most departments of films since inception.”

Neelakantan emphasises that Yesudas, Mohanlal, Mammotty, Kamal Haasan, Ilaiyaraaja, S.P. Balasubramanian (SPB), Mani Ratnam, K. Balachander, Vetrimaaran, Sowcar Janaki or K.S. Chitra, “with a shelf-full of national awards were addressed as just South Indian artistes, while those from Bollywood, who had far fewer achievements, were hailed as national icons. The Bengali or Marathi industry, which has produced great artistes, also suffered from the same fate”.

“It is refreshing to note that this trend is changing,” Neelakantan added, and predicted: “Once the Indian film industry converges, and language barriers break down, we will be able to take on the world and compete with Hollywood in scale and content and aim for the global dominance, knocking out Hollywood from its pedestal.”

What, to his mind, does Bollywood need to do to catch up?

Continuing his conversation with IANS, Neelakantan said: “It needs to start thinking that there is an India outside Mumbai. The era of mindless masala in the name of entertainment is over. People are exposed to global content now and the brand name of a star is no guarantee for box office success.”

Pointing to the examples of ‘Baahubali’, ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Minnal Murali’, Neelakantan said: “They are pure entertainers, but have a deeper message. Each film is rooted to the culture in which it is made and yet it has a universal appeal. ‘Baahubali’ or ‘RRR’ are Telugu films, talking about Telugu heroes, acted by Telugu stars, yet they break barriers, because of the making style and the story telling. They are not apologetic about their own culture; instead, they celebrate it with style.”

Many Bollywood movies forget this “and show a shallow world, which no Indians outside perhaps the south Mumbai party crowd can connect with,” Neelkantan added.

Noting that there have been “fantastic films in Hindi always”, Neelakantan said box office success in recent years, except for a few honourable exceptions, “used to be grabbed by mindless flicks”. Today, the success of South Indian films has shaken up this trend. “Let us hope Indian films, irrespective of geography of origin, will come of age and achieve their true potential,” the writer added.

“I think, in a few years, the difference between Bollywood and other Indian language films may go and there will be truly pan-Indian films with artistes and technicians from all languages collaborating to create a truly global content. The future belongs to Indian storytellers. If we do not squander this opportunity by playing petty language wars and work together, we can create world-class films and content. We have the talent and we are on the threshold of greatness,” Neelakantan maintained.

The ‘Baahubali’ series was, in fact, a trend-setter. How did this come about?

In Neelakantan’s words, ‘Bahubali’ “is an outright S.S. Rajamouli product”. He said: “It is his vision that made it so big. My part in it was to create the backstory of the characters in the form of a novel trilogy. I merely expanded the universe. I had been commissioned by Rajamouli as he was making the films to create a larger story world. My three-book series, ‘Baahuabali Trilogy: Before The Beginning’, serves as the prequel to the film’s story and expands the ‘Baahubali’ universe.”

Netflix, he said, is doing a screen adaptation of the trilogy. Apart from the ‘Baahubali Trilogy’ series, Neelakantan has written another seven novels in English, one in Malayalam, two audio dramas and more than 450 hours of television shows and OTT content in Hindi for popular channels such as Star TV, Colors, Sony, Discovery and Netflix.

What next? What’s his next project?

“I am working with Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra for a pan-India mythology film in four languages,” Neelakantan concluded.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at [email protected])