Before the phenomenal success of the Baahubali franchise, Telugu superstar Prabhas had a 15-year-long career, with almost as many films, in which he reprised the role of the soft romantic lead in movies such as Mr Perfect and Darling. Then, for five straight years, he immersed himself in SS Rajamouli’s epic. He learned sword-fighting and horse-riding, and convinced audiences that he could wrestle bulls with his bare hands and scale elephant trunks like it was nothing. Since the release of the two-film saga, he’s become a household name across the country, and inverted traditional Bollywood and regional cinema hierarchies.
Suman Naishadham travels to Los Angeles to meet the actor with the baritone giggle for GQ India’s January 2018 cover story.
Prabhas dreams of fishing. One day, when the film industry finally gives him the boot, he’ll buy a plot outside Hyderabad, rope in a few old friends and put to work the aquaculture tricks he studied in school years ago.
But for now, he’s South India’s biggest star since Rajinikanth – and Tollywood would rather he stay just where he is. Today, that’s sun-drenched Los Angeles, where the star is on vacation from shooting his new movie Saaho, a brooding trilingual thriller co-starring Shraddha Kapoor and Neil Nitin Mukesh.
Life has been good for the star since the wild success of the Baahubali franchise, the priciest Indian film ever made. The thunderous two-part epic grossed over `1,500 crore in less than 50 days, redefined what was possible for Telugu action movies and shook rigid pan-Indian cinema hierarchies. But Prabhas himself, the face of the phenomenon – who tosses a life-sized lingam over a sinewy shoulder in one memorable scene – feels familiar.
“Something very beautiful happened in my life. Baahubali has given something 10,000 times more than what I did before. Or even more than that.” He exhales, and a cloud of vapour smoke escapes his e-cigarette. “After this, I don’t know where I’m going.”
Despite being one of the Telugu film industry’s top-paid actors (he copped a pretty Rs 45 crore from both Baahubali films), Prabhas is a man who worries – about his future, his fans and how the hell he even got here.
Growing up, he recalls, his father, Telugu producer Uppalapati Raju, hit financial troubles “like most producers do”, and at times money was tight. Tight enough to leave 2017 Prabhas with some squarely middle-class memories.
“I went to college in buses,” he explains, kicking off one Manchester United slipper to cross his left leg. With my family background, that was big, you know? When I went in the bus, people knew that ‘Yeah, he’s from a very big family.’ So all these things helped me work harder.”
Few things animate Prabhas like the story of his film debut. In 2002, a doe-eyed 22-year-old Prabhas was offered a role in Eeswar, a movie with a budget so small it was shot blind on an ancient analog camera. Prabhas describes the surreal experience of watching himself on the 70mm screen for the first time.
“My sister and my mother were sitting on [either] side and we were holding hands and watching,” he tells me. “And I could feel, ‘The film is good.’ It didn’t do so well but, you know, every shot of the film, we didn’t know until then if it’s good or amazing or what… It was something very emotional.”
Even now, 17 films later, Prabhas is unsure about what it is that resonates with audiences. “It’s very frightening to make fans happy,” he says. “Fans have unconditional love, like mothers.”
WRITTEN BY SUMAN NAISHADHAM
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARUN KHIWAL
STYLED BY TANYA VOHRA
To read the complete interview, grab your copy of GQ India’s January 2018 issue, out on stands soon.