Why Kattappa killed Baahubali is no longer the mind-numbing riddle for fans of SS Rajamouli’s epic fantasy adventure. That question, until Friday, was replaced with a tougher one: would Tamil actor Sathyaraj, who plays the abject warrior in the fictional Mahishmathi kingdom in Baahubali, apologise for his remarks on the Cauvery river issue?
The April 28 release of the sequel, Baahubali 2, had run into trouble in Karnataka over the veteran actor’s remarks in 2008 on the sharing of the Cauvery river waters. The festering dispute over the 800-kilometre-long Cauvery river, which originates in Karnataka, has riven the film industries of both states for years. Actors and filmmakers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have frequently participated in protests and made statements supporting the stand of their respective governments.
In his fiery speech made during a protest that was attended by Tamil film celebrities, including Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, Sathyaraj roundly condemned Karnataka’s demands and declared that Tamilians should not stand mute like a tree on which a dog urinates.
The Kannada Chalavali Vatal Paksha, led by Vatal Nagaraj, has called for a Bengaluru bandh on April 28. The shutdown has the support of the official bodies of the Kannada film industry. In a previous protest meeting organised by the Nadigar Sangam, which represents Tamil actors, Sathyaraj had called Vatal Nagaraj a comedian.
On Friday afternoon, ANI reported that Satyaraj had apologise for his remarks.
But before this, NM Suresh, secretary of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, told Scroll.in, “Sathyaraaj has made cheap comments about Karnataka and Kannadigas. We are not bothered if it is an old video, it resurfaced three months back. It is a fact and it has hurt us. We have always given solid support to Telugu, Tamil and Hindi films in Karnataka. They have all enjoyed good business here. The same cannot be said about Kannada films in neighbouring states.”
The Kannadiga activists claimed that the state’s exhibitors were also on their side. “We are not against Rajamouli, we respect him but we want Sathyaraj to apologise,” Suresh said. “He does not have to come here, he can do it on Facebook too. It is a question of our prestige.”
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is one of the year’s most hotly anticipated movies and the solo release on April 28. The combined budget is pegged at Rs 450 crore. Baahubali 2 is set to releases on 6,500 screens in India and on 650 screens in the United States alone. It has been made simultaneously in Telugu and Tamil and dubbed in Malayalam and Hindi.
Rajamouli was worried enough about the potential loss of business in Karnataka to release a video in which he spoke in Kannada and pleaded with protestors to allow his labour of love to be released in the state. Delinking his mega-budget film from Sathyaraj’s views, Rajamouli said, “His work in the movie and what he said are not related. It was his personal opinion. He is not the producer of the movie… If you stop the screening of this movie, please understand that Sathyaraj will not be affected in any way. The people who will be affected are the ones who worked on the film over the last five years – the technicians, the crew, the producers, and the Karnataka distributors; not to mention all the movie lovers who appreciate good cinema.”
By not releasing Baahubali 2 in Karnataka, the state’s distributors and exhibitors could have faced losses running into crores. “The film was being offered to distributors at rates higher than Rs 45 crore,” said Ramu, a veteran producer of action films. “It is all about business for Rajamouli, finally. The film will not be released in theatres here unless Sathyaraj comes to Bengaluru and apologises to Kannadigas.”
Flared tempers over Cauvery water sharing and riverine projects have singed even Rajinikanth, who was born in Bengaluru. In 2008, the Tamil star was forced to apologise to Karnataka for supporting the proposed Hogenakkal drinking water project in Dharmapuri, which uses Tamil Nadu’s share of the Cauvery river. Rajinikanth had to buy peace to ensure that his movie Kuselan was released in Karnataka.
Sathyaraj and director Bharathiraaja had criticised Rajinikanth’s apology at the time, claiming that rather than capitulating, he should have compensated his producers and distributors for the film’s non-release.
Tamil film personalities have even swallowed losses to their own productions over the issue. In September 2016, protests followed a Supreme Court order to Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Tamil film industry associations enforced a day-long bandh, damaging the prospects of local releases.
Although the ire of the Kannadiga activists was directed at Sathyaraj, members of the Telugu film fraternity are nervous that other releases will be affected too. Karnataka is an important territory for Telugu cinema, said Rajkumar Akella, head of the anti-piracy cell at the Telugu Film Chamber of Commerce. Karnataka contributes 10-15% more revenue for Telugu films than Tamil Nadu, and Telugu stars such as Mahesh Babu, Pawan Kalyan and Nagarjuna have a sizable fan following there, Akella said.
An equally big headache for Arka Mediaworks, the Bahubaali franchise’s producer, is piracy. The movie is being released in new overseas territories such as East Asia, and it has been subtitled in multiple foreign languages. The greater a film’s exposure, the greater the chances of intellectual theft, which is why Arka Mediaworks is working with the Telangana Intellectual Property Crime Unit, private anti-piracy companies around the country, and an in-house anti-piracy unit to ensure that the film isn’t ripped and uploaded on pirate sites.
“The challenge this time is because it has such a widespread release and leaks can happen anywhere,” Akella said. A John Doe order against piracy obtained from courts before the release of the first film will continue to be effective for the concluding part of Bahubaali too.