It is the start of the weekend and yet, KV Vijayendra Prasad’s office is teeming with assistants brainstorming about storylines and plot turns. Located in a high-rise complex in Hyderabad, the veteran story writer’s office is the only one that seems active on an otherwise sleepy afternoon.
Dressed in a safari suit, Prasad walks in around lunch time and continues the discussions with his team as if he had been there all along. There are important decisions to be made. Which actor or director will suit the story? Which of the film industries is best equipped to tackle the subject?
That 2017 has been a good year for Prasad is an understatement. He has co-written Baahubali with his son, director SS Rajamouli, and co-written the equally successful sequel as well as Tamil star Vijay’s money-minting Mersal. At 75, Prasad can afford to relax, but he is streaming forward with the screenplay of Manikarnika, the upcoming biopic of Laxmibai of Jhansi that is being directed by Krish and stars Kangana Ranaut. Prasad is also in the process of writing the sequels to Shankar’s Nayak: The Real Hero (2001) and Prabhu Deva’s Rowdy Rathore (2012).
That is not all. “I’m working on a forest adventure story for a Hindi film produced by Fox Star Studios,” he said. “This apart from a Tamil film starring Raghava Lawrence which, like Mersal, will be a commercial film and will go on floors shortly.” There are also rumours that Prasad will be making a movie about the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, but this is one project that he doesn’t want to talk about.
Prasad attributes the flood of offers to the phenomenal success of the Baahubali films. “Each project works differently, though,” he said. “Sometimes, a director comes with an idea which I develop. On other occasions, I have a story idea which I hand over to a director.”
The motivation to adapt the story of Laxmibai for the screen emanated from his immense respect for the nineteenth-century queen. “I have always had high regard for Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi,” Prasad said. “Nearly 50 years back, when I was reading about her, I found out that her original name was Manikarnika, which was changed after marriage. I even named my daughter after her because I was so fascinated by the character. When a chance to write a story on her came to me, I couldn’t help myself.”
After the kind of controversies that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati has been forced to face, does Prasad anticipate trouble with Manikarnika? “See, there are certain characters that revered by people,” he said. “This could be either because of their chastity or integrity. A filmmaker should not depict such characters in a wrong way. One can exaggerate aspects such as their valour. We want to set role models and inspire people through our films anyway. So there you can take liberties but not with characterisation. Nobody’s feelings should be hurt.”
Prasad took to writing stories in the late 1980s to make ends meet. “It was for survival,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t imagine a career or anything. I was happy with just ensuring there were two meals a day for me and my family.”
It was while assisting his brother Kodur Siva Sakthi Datta, the father of music composer MM Keeravani, that Prasad first developed the inclination to become film a writer. His first story was for K Raghavendra Rao’s Janaki Ramudu (1988), for which he shares credits with Datta. Themes of reincarnation and immortal love were evident in his first story, and he would return to them in subsequent productions.
Prasad’s stories for Bobbili Simham (1994), Bangaru Kutumbam (1994), Simhadri (2003), Sye (2004) and Vikramarkudu (2006) were hits, and cemented his yarn-spinning abilities. However, it is his collaboration with Rajamouli on such films as Sye (2004), Magadheera (2009), Eega (2012) and the Baahubali films, that has boosted Prasad’s fame.
The father-son duo have cracked the code for a hit film: “wholesome entertainment” for all age groups.
“There is nothing like a hit formula,” Prasad said. “If there is a formula, it is just one thing – when people go to watch a film, they should get wholesome entertainment. Across age groups and sections of society, they should all be happy.”
How does he define wholesome entertainment?
“Let me explain this with an anecdote,” he said. “You may quote me or you may not. I’ll tell you the difference between a wife and a prostitute. A wife is someone who is generally worried about a husband’s health and well-being. For example, if he wants to have too many sweets, she will stop him because she is worried he will get diabetes or cholesterol. On the contrary, if a man goes to a prostitute, she wouldn’t care if he drinks or smokes or ruins his health. All she is eyeing is the money in his pocket. Her goal is to tease him to shell out more money in a short span of time. Therefore, when you write a story, you have to keep both these things in mind. The base of the story should be honest, like a wife. All the embellishments you put around the story should be like a prostitute – they should be focused on the cash register. They must ensure the story makes money.”
Prasad is from the old-fashioned school of film writers: he doesn’t actually write a story but narrates it. He begins with an idea and slowly builds on it. “A story is nothing but a string of lies,” said Prasad. “You take one lie, then add one more to it and go on like that. Put together, all the lies must be so well-told that they look like the truth. And I am an expert liar.”
Prasad narrates the gist of his stories in a single sitting. “For instance, when Rajamouli and I were on the success tour of Simhadri, he said he wanted to plan his next film,” Prasad said. “He also specified that he wants a college at the backdrop, but it shouldn’t be a love story. He said he wanted something about sports. Then and there, I began narrating a story to him: there are two groups of students in a college – arts and science students. Whenever there is a clash between them, they settle it through a fight. Simultaneously, I introduced a land-grabbing goon who enters by the interval and somehow gets hold of the college. The students, because they love the college so much, bury the hatchet and fight together to get the college back. That’s how Sye’s story came about.”
For Eega, which was co-written with Rajamouli, the idea came to Prasad when a friend narrated an anecdote about the making of Steven Spielberg’s ET (1982). “Apparently, Spielberg asked his art department to create a creature that was so ugly that only his mother could love it,” said Prasad. “He apparently said that he would make a movie on that creature and ensure that audience would love it by the end of the movie. I thought that was a lovely idea. I thought about what according to me is the ugliest creature, and that’s how I thought of the housefly.”
In Eega, Nani (Nani) and Bindu (Samantha Ruth Prabhu) are in love with each other. Sudeep (Sudeep) is also in love with Bindu and kills Nani to get him out of the way. Nani is reborn as a housefly and torments Sudeep.
Eega did exceptionally well at the box office, especially because it managed to pull off an outrageous idea with humour and imagination.
For Baahubali, Rajamouli told his father that he wanted to make a movie with Prabhas. “Rajamouli loves action films and told me that he wanted lots of action scenes in this film,” he said. “He also said that it should be a period film. There should be strong female characters too, not the ones that run around trees and sing songs. And finally, he said he wanted grey characters too.”
Prasad narrated a small introduction to the character of Kattappa the next morning. “I didn’t have a story with me, I just told him about a character called Kattappa,” he said. “I told him about a foreigner who comes to India and sees an old person teaching swordsmanship to young students. Impressed, the foreigner hails the old man as the best swordsman in the region. The old man refuted the foreigner’s claim by telling him about Baahubali. He tells him that nobody was able to make an injury on Baahubali’s body as long as he had a sword. When the foreigner said he wanted to meet this Baahubali, the old man said that he was dead. And dead by his sword. The foreigner didn’t understand how that was possible. Then the old man said backstabbing is a more powerful weapon and told the foreigner that it was he who backstabbed Baahubali.”
The other scene that Prasad narrated was of a mother crossing a river with an infant, which eventually became the powerful opening scene of the franchise.
Prasad is also the mastermind of Kabeer Khan’s blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), in which Pawan (Salman Khan), a devout Hindu, does all he can to take a lost Pakistani girl back to her country.
The plot is a rehash of Telugu star Chiranjeevi’s 1987 film Pasivadi Pranam, Prasad admitted. “See, I’m an expert liar,” he joked.
Having written stories for films across languages, Prasad says he keeps audience tastes when he writes a story. “Malayalam and Tamil audiences like more realistic elements in their cinema,” he explained. “Telugu audiences like more of fantasies and escapist narratives. They are still rooted in the make-believe world begun by the fantasy and the mythological of early Telugu cinema. Though after Mersal, I’m happy to say that the Telugu formula is working in Tamil too.”
Mersal marks Prasad’s debut in Tamil cinema. Atlee’s film, starring Vijay, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Nithya Menen, SJ Surya and Kajal Aggarwal, deals with corruption in hospitals and medical malpractices. Vijay is cast in a triple role – as father as well as his two sons.
The movie is one of Vijay’s biggest hits, but it faced a controversy soon after its October 18, 2017, release for scenes that mocks demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. “I had nothing to do with that,” Prasad clarified. “Atlee came to me and said he wants a story that involved doctors. When I narrated the story to him, both demonetisation and GST had not been implemented yet.”
As a writer, Prasad says his work is restricted to narrating a story. He doesn’t bother too much with how it is represented on screen. “Say I write the same story that I narrated for Baahubali for a magazine, how much would I be paid?” Prasad said. “A few thousands? A lakh even? I will not be paid two crore rupees, right? When I’m getting such money, there is no reason to complain.”