Rana Daggubati is made for cinema

He strides into the actor’s lounge at talent management agency CAA Kwan’s office in Andheri, apologising profusely for turning up 20 minutes late. “I always underestimate Mumbai’s traffic,” he says sinking into the couch.

Dressed casually in a pair of maroon jeans, white T-shirt and sneakers, Ramanaidu Daggubati, better known as Rana Daggubati, looks leaner and not as imposing as the evil Bhallaladeva of the two-part Baahubali. The area where the meeting takes places is the hub of studios and talent management firms: Dharma Productions, Yash Raj Films, Eros, Balaji Telefilms, Turner International. This is also where many struggling actors live in rented homes.

Daggubati’s struggle is, however, of a different kind. He wants cinema to be language agnostic. That was his vision for Baahubali, which led to the film being released simultaneously in four languages: Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam. In the process, it broke all records, with its second instalment, The Conclusion, bagging Rs 1,000 crore across languages in India alone since its release a month ago. In fact, the Hindi version of the film outscored the original Telugu version, collecting a whopping Rs 498 crore at the box office, according to industry estimates — a staggering record for any Hindi film.

BeforeBaby (2015). For Telugu cinema, however, he is no newcomer. He is part of a family that has been furthering the cause of cinema down south for over five decades.

Born in Chennai in 1984, Daggubati says he “grew up with cinema”. He recalls spending his summer vacations in his father’s sound recording studio in the basement of their Hyderabad home. “While other kids would go for summer camps, I would learn how to mix sound,” he says. “Films were not differentiated by language for me; we would watch Telugu, Tamil and English films. A lot of that has gone into shaping me as a film professional.”

Rana Daggubati in still from Baby
Daggubati’s grandfather, D Ramanaidu, founded one of Telugu cinema’s most successful film production and distribution companies, Suresh Productions, which his father, Daggubati Suresh Babu, now runs.

Daggubati, whose uncle Venkatesh and cousin Naga Chaitanya are also actors in Telugu cinema, however, took a different route. Starting out as a visual effects producer at the age of 17, he went on to work as VFX coordinator in some 70 films. He set up a company called Spirit Media, which was eventually taken over by Prime Focus, a partner to studios and film production companies. His stint as a producer later earned him a national award for Telugu film Bommalata (A Belly Full of Dreams) in 2004.

The transition from working behind the camera to courting the spotlight took place when he wanted to produce off-beat content but could not find any takers for it. “I wanted to do exciting content but could not find the cast for such films. So I took a couple of years off, went to film school, studied acting and then started approaching people for work,” he says.

His first film, a Telugu title called Dum Maaro Dum, Sippy’s crime thriller set in Goa. This was also Daggubati’s entry point into the “Bollywood circle”. It would go a long way in helping him realise his plans for regional and Hindi cinema.

He has since acted in numerous Telugu films and a few Hindi ones, including magnum opus, Baahubali, the two-part mythological VFX spectacle.

Baahubali, by Daggubati’s own admission, has marked a turning point in his career — and not just as an actor.
“Daggubati worked with us on many different layers for Baahubali franchise. “First and foremost as an actor and then as a bridge between us and Dharma and A A Films.” He played a critical role in the strategy to market the film to as vast an audience as possible. “Being an entrepreneur and from a business family rooted in the Indian film industry, he grew up with first-hand insight,” says Yarlagadda.

Daggubati recalls the time when he took the concept and the initial footage of the film to some Bollywood producers. “Because of my Bollywood projects, I knew some people in the industry. Understandably, not many were convinced about the whole thing,” he says. At that point, the footage was mainly him and Prabhas (the franchise’s protagonist) running around in front of a green screen. “I have to give it to Karan (Johar) for taking the idea seriously and coming on board at that stage. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he isn’t only a businessman, but a director himself.”

Rana Daggubati in still from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion
Daggubati and Johar had previously worked together when the actor starred in a cameo in Johar’s 2013 hit,Baahubali wasn’t restricted to a Telugu film being simply dubbed in Hindi and Tamil. He saw the potential for a pan-India appeal in it, but needed an ally in Bollywood, which he found in Dharma Productions. Both the instalments of the film were distributed and marketed by Dharma, which pumped in Rs 150 crore into it.

Describing Daggubati as a “solid” connection between Hindi and Telugu cinema, Johar says, “Daggubati is one of the most evolved and progressive film minds I have encountered in the industry. His vision and understanding of cinema is exemplary.” He adds, “I will always remain grateful to him for bringing the majestic Baahubali (to us) and starting our association with the most successful film franchise in Indian cinema.”

While Daggubati will be taking his next film, a political thriller, to only Tamil and Telugu markets, Baahubali, because he felt it had a national appeal.

Indian storytelling, he says, is unique and “while we have a long way to go when it comes to VFX, we have something that strikes a chord with the Indian audiences: mythology.” In the past, some very successful stories told on celluloid have been in this genre. “It was only a matter of time before someone saw the potential and capitalised on it. That is what we did with Baahubali.”

Cinema is what Daggubati is most happy talking about. Steer him to any other subject and you can sense the interest waning.

In the future, he hopes to forge more relationships with the Hindi film fraternity, but maintains that Dharma will always be his first choice. “Daggubati is one of the few people who have an innate understanding of commerce and film production, in addition to the creative aspects of film-making,” says Dharma’s CEO Apoorva Mehta.

Daggubati’s plans for Baahubali game, an animated series developed around the movie on Amazon, and, he reveals, something is in the works with Netflix as well.

“Like I said, I only understand the business of content and films. I like gaming and health and fitness,” he says. If not films, “you’ll probably find me running a gaming company or endorsing a health and fitness brand. That’s all I see myself doing”.

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