Every storyteller learns first from Ramayana, Mahabharata: Anand Neelakantan on Baahubali books

Bestselling author Anand Neelakantan spoke to about taking up the task of transforming the Baahubali universe into the literary medium through Rise of Sivagami: Book 1. Here are excerpts from the interview. 


Shriram Iyengar

With The Rise of Sivagami: Book 1, Anand Neelakantan has created a book that expands the universe of the astounding Baahubali series. A bestselling author who began his journey as writer in 2012, Neelakantan is familiar with the enormity of handling popular mythological tales. He began his career with Asura: Tale of the Vanquished, a retelling of the epic Ramayana through the perspective of its mighty villain, Ravana. The book was a bestseller, and won the Crossword Popular Award in 2013. Neelakantan followed it up with Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, and Ajaya: Rise of Kali, which dealt with the other major Indian epic, The Mahabharata. 

Speaking to, the author discussed the challenges of transforming the visual spectacle of Baahubali into a book, and the advantages the literary medium offers over its cinematic equivalent. "It has a bigger canvas," he said. Comparing SS Rajamouli's epic to the Mahabharata, Neelakantan said, "Every storyteller learns first from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata." 

Here are excerpts from the interview.

How did the idea for the book emerge? What was the genesis like?

Rajamouli called me after reading my first book Asura. He liked the book and wanted to meet me. I went to Hyderabad. He had a big document on the Mahishmati Kingdom, and what could be a lot of stories of this world. He said, 'We want somebody to figure it out how we can go about' because everything cannot be shown in the film. There were a lot of interesting characters, but the film is about Baahubali. But Katappa or Sivagami, the stories had to be weaved and created. Their backstories are very interesting. He asked me to write a few scenes, and they liked it. 

From then onwards, this idea of doing a three-book series on the backstory of the characters, which is not shown in the film, emerged. 

The book, The Rise of Sivagami, is based on Sivagami, the queen mother of Mahishmati. Although she is crucial to the universe of Baahubali, Sivagami has not received equal attention. The internet is obviously obsessed with Katappa. How does she play in this universe of Baahubali?

All the books are about Sivagami. Before Baahubali, there is Sivagami. She is the hero of the book. There are about 40 characters I have created specifically for the book. The book deals with the era 30 years before the events in the film take place. A lot of characters have been created who shape Sivagami and Katappa into what they are. 

What are the challenges involved in transforming the Baahubali universe from its cinematic version into a book?

Baahubali is a big visual spectacle. Story telling is another thing entirely, it has excellent story telling, great acting, music et al, but an important factor is the visual spectacle it provides. So to provide that in a book was challenging. For instance, an action sequence. To provide that in a book is very challenging. By words, how much can you write? 

If you see the first film, 45 minutes consist of the massive action sequence of the Kalakeya war. It is beautifully and brilliantly shot. Almost half of the film covers that. Whereas I cannot write half of my book for an action sequence. So, I needed more characters. I needed emotions. I needed to include thrill and other things, more than just the confrontation or war. Whatever the miracle the film produced that I had to recreate with words.My major challenge was to create a lot of characters. 

The advantage of books over films is that books can even talk about the minds of the characters involved. It has a bigger canvas as compared to films. In a film, 2.5 hours is all you get to tell your story. Each scene has to be filtered out, and only the most important scene can be taken out when you write the screenplay. Whereas a book can delve into smaller areas and minor characters can be fleshed out. There are disadvantages as well. It is a different medium after all. You need to know how to handle them. 

Are there any plans to expand the series into more books for other characters?

This is not a biography series. There has to be a story involved. The other characters will feature, but not dominate. If you take the Ramayana, you can make a Ramayana from Hanuman's perspective, you can write a Ramayana from Ravana's perspective. Similarly, all these characters can be present, but it is the story of Sivagami. 

How involved were Rajamouli and makers of Baahubali in the book. Were there any structures that you worked in to keep the ethos of the film in place?

He (Rajamouli) set the boundaries for the characters. He gave me directions for Sivagami as to what she can be, and what she cannot and for Katappa as well. Only three characters from the film find their way in the book. (The third is Bijjaladeva). The rest of the characters were my creations. So I had complete freedom to create what I wanted to. 

The craze for Baahubali is phenomenal. The second part of the film, Baahubali: The Conclusion, is being awaited with bated breath. Does this phenomena affect the book? Do the events in the book foreshadow the rise of Baahubali?

Books are all about characters and characterisations. It is for those who want to know more about these characters, and fall in love with them. Baahubali 2 is telling a completely different story from the book. The book tries to create its own Mahishmati. So many characters have their own stories. It is not like I am simply transferring the script into a book format. 

It is also one of those rare moments when a book emerges from a film, rather than the usual film adapted from a book...

It is a prequel to the film. It is not telling the same story as the film. A better comparison would be the Star Wars universe. The books are not the same as the film. The characters spin off into something else. It is not a book to films or films back to book kind of situation. It is much bigger than that. 

It is a fascinating journey from Asura to The Rise of Sivagami. Did you find similarities between the mythologies from which Asura emerged, and now the one of Baahubali that is being created?

Every story in India is based on Indian mythology. From films to literature, everything is a spin off on some character in the Indian mythology. Naturally, Baahubali is also (the same). You see, it is like Mahabharata. Bijjaladeva is like Dhritarashtra, while Sivagami is like Gandhari, a woman of integrity. The two brothers, the pattern emerges if you analyse the film and its characters closely. Katappa is like Bhishma. Nothing can be free of mythology in India. 

Every storyteller learns first from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Everything else is a spin off on that. Even Sholay if you pick, you will find parallels there.