Gone are Bhallaladeva’s muscles, backbrushed hair and menacing eyes from Baahubali. In Prabhu Solomon’s Haathi Mere Saathi, Rana Daggubati plays Bandev, an elephant-loving environmentalist who saves s forest from a corporation and a corrupt minister.

Bandev’s unkempt appearance, bony frame and walking stick were inspired by Charlton Heston’s Moses in the Hollywood film The Ten Commandments, Daggubati told Scroll.in. “Prabhu sir is an extremely spiritual filmmaker,” the 36-year-old actor said. “He told me that if Moses came to the world today, he would try saving the jungle and not man.”

Haathi Mere Saathi was simultaneously filmed in Tamil (as Kaadan) and Telugu (as Aranya). All three language versions will be released in cinemas on March 26. The cast includes Zoya Hussain, Shriya Pilgaonkar and Anant Mahadevan. Vishnu Vishal plays a mahout in the Tamil and Telugu versions, while Pulkit Samrat plays the role in Haathi Mere Saathi.

Daggubati’s upcoming films include the Telugu remake of the Malayalam-language Ayyappanum Koshiyum and Gunasekhar’s Hiranyakashyapa. “I need to regain weight for that,” Daggubati said in the interview.

Who is Bandev from Haathi Mere Saathi?

The film is about fighting against urbanisation in a jungle, an elephant corridor. Bandev has lived in the jungle since he was 16-17. He’s the one who turned the barren land into a jungle by planting one lakh trees. He moves with the elephants like he’s one of them. He’s their voice when someone threatens their home.

All of this is delivered in an action-adventure tone, the most fun way to consume this story. But it also has a strong and loaded message about what we need to do to save the environment.

Haathi Mere Saathi (2021).

Where is the story set and where was the film shot?

The story is set in the Kaziranga elephant basin, but we shot at whichever place allowed us permission. We initially shot in Thailand with a herd of 15 to 18 elephants. Then in Kerala with the mammoth tusker Unni. The cliff portion was shot in Mahabaleshwar, and then we shot in Satara.

The idea was to create the feeling of being in a rain forest in the theatre, because we thought that after the lockdown, people would want an experiential feeling. And then there’s Resul Pookutty’s sound design.

You lost a lot of weight for the film.

Prabhu sir offered me the film right after Baahubali. He did not know my previous work, what my market was like. He just said, your face looks fine, but not the rest. I was two-three times bigger. So I only ate vegetarian, little protein, skipped meat.

Shooting the same scene thrice in a physically demanding environment is hard.

Once you are in the jungle, you are cut off from the world and lose track of time and day and night. We shot in phases for roughly two-and-a-half years, covering 2018 and 2019, with shoots often interrupted by rain. We had to relocate from a forest near Santhanpara, which had been destroyed by the 2018 Kerala floods, to another forest.

We shot a scene first in Tamil, which is the language Prabhu sir thinks in, then Telugu, which is my mother tongue, and finally Hindi. So if I did the scene better in Telugu, he’d ask me to go back and give a retake for the Tamil scene. Then if Pulkit did something better, we would go back and start from scratch.

While the jungle is the same in all three versions, the village around the jungle cannot be because North and South India have different cultures. So we had separate actors for these portions who brought their own nuances to these scenes.

Ae Hawa, Haathi Mere Saathi (2021).

What was shooting with elephants like?

When discussing about moving with a 15-elephant herd in a conference room, you don’t know what that means until you actually do it, because there’s no way to rehearse.

When you are walking on the same land with elephants, the earth moves. You feel it under your feet. When you have to walk ahead of the herd, it’s very scary, because you can’t tell how far behind they are.

Our first workshop was 15 days long. After seven days of training, I began hanging with the elephants, did some shooting, and we quickly became friends. They treated me like they were helping me do a job. To get the shot right, I’d have goodies with me, like bananas or jaggery. They are like children once they know you.

You act in and produce films. Your technology company is invested in visual effects, augmented reality and game design. You are also invested in celebrity management and acquiring films.

Whatever I do, including business, technology, films, it’s all in service of telling the story in the best format possible. To shoot and create spectacle-based cinema, we need to understand tech.

Hollywood is a hundred years ahead of us. Different industries aided it as it grew, but it was concentrated in mostly one city, Los Angeles. In India, we produce films independently in several places, but we are only now understanding what a pan-Indian film means. So a Tamil film can land in Bombay and we can send a Bombay film to Madurai. As much as cinema is about art, business and tech need to work hand in hand.

Virata Parvam (2021).

How did SS Rajamouli’s ‘Baahubali’ change you?

It taught everybody to dream bigger and make it a reality. Unless SS Rajamouli spends four-five years of his life on something like this, it’s not possible. The intent comes on top, wanting to make something the world will take notice of.

I also keep taking references from Baahubali to films I now shoot, for example, how to organise sets faster.

Did you connect Rajamouli to Karan Johar, who distributed the Hindi version?

Yes. I was hanging in Bombay, understanding how the industry works. I knew Karan very well and took Baahubali first to him, and he got us the best platforming.

Rana Daggubati in Baahubali.

You are from the Daggubati–Akkineni clan. Has the debate about nepotism affected the Telugu film industry as much as Bollywood?

The word nepotism makes sense only in politics or a publicly limited company. Here we use it for anyone who is helped by his family. India comes from a place of family understanding. Parents make money to make children safe. In cinema, this is seen more.

In the Telugu industry, everyone understands that it’s a job. My lineage offers me the opportunity to make cinema better than what’s around, and do things to support other films in the system itself.