SS Rajamouli’s fantasy period drama Baahubali (2015) and its upcoming sequel have several iconic characters, including the titular hero (played by Prabhas), Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati) and Sivagami (Ramya Krishna), but a special place has been reserved by fans for Kattappa, the slave who kills the man he has vowed to protect. Played by veteran Tamil actor Sathyaraj, Kattappa has inspired a question that has plagued fans since the conclusion of the first film – why did Kattappa plunge a sword into the back of the prince Baahubali?
The question – which has become a hasthag WKKB (or, Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali) – will be answered in the sequel Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The movie will be released on April 28 in the original Telugu language as well as dubbed versions in Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. At the trailer launch in Mumbai on March 16, the media scrum was disappointed to learn that Sathyaraj wasn’t around to answer the all-important question. Ramajouli said at the event, “How many theories do I have [for WWKB]? Only one. But I have lost count of the number of theories proposed by various people.”
Sathyaraj finds himself in a sweet spot. The villain-turned-hero has acted in more than 230 films over 40 years, and the phenomenal success of Baahubali has given him a late-career boost. Sathyaraj is already familiar to Hindi audiences as Deepika Padukone’s stern father in the 2013 hit Chennai Express. “Much like superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who moved from being a hero to essaying character roles, for which he is appreciated more than his work as a hero, the same thing is happening to me here in southern cinema,” the 62-year-old actor told Scroll.in.
What was SS Rajamouli’s brief for the Kattappa character?
I love to play historical characters, since I am a big, big MGR fan. I merely followed what SS Rajamouli told me. He had done his research and knew the dialogue from my films, and he also knew that I am an ardent MGR fan. So he asked me to look at Bahubaali with the same love, admiration and affection I would show MGR. That is what I did.
I am totally a director’s actor. I have acted in so many films that I know what the director wants by the end of the first day on a set. Rajamouli knows the audience pulse. And he is extremely detailed and handles every small thing. They had stuntmen from Hollywood, and I was amazed by the novel action moves, but Prabhas told me the ideas came from Rajamouli.
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How do you assess the character’s popularity?
It is delightful that social media and memes are all about Kattappa. I am so happy. There is great scope in a character that has shades of grey, like in real life. It was an easy role for me to do. I have 40 years of experience in films. I was skilled in sword fighting for a long time, so I was comfortable.
I love different get-ups and I loved the shaved head and beard look. It was different from what I had done before. Kattappa’s look is unusual and distinctive, he emanates an inner strength – it is amazing how he has caught the imagination of people.
So why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?
Now how can I answer that? I cannot reveal the reason.
I have done Tamil films for 40 years now, but Kattappa has made me famous not just all over India, but all over the world where Indians live. I can only give credit to Rajamouli. Kattappa is Rajamouli’s well-crafted character, I just brought him to life. People may have thought that I slogged to portray the role because I am 62 years old, but it was very easy.
In my career, the nicknames of the characters I have played have stuck in people’s minds. For example, my role as Professor Virumandi “Virus” Santhanam in Shankar’s Nanban [a Tamil remake of 3 Idiots] was the rage. People used to call me “Virus.” I am also known for my role as corrupt politician Amavasai in Amaidhi Padai.
What I liked is that the director and the crew used to call me Kattappa. It is a matter of pride for me. Wasn’t it Periyar who bestowed the name Sivaji on Ganesan, which is a matter of great honour for the actor?
What was it like working on the massive ‘Bahubaali’ sets?
The real strain of making such a huge film lay with the director and his crew. We, the cast, enjoyed working on the beautiful sets. It was like being in college.
What is a role that is closest to you?
Undoubtedly, it is Periyar [2007, about the social reformer and architect of the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu]. It was my ultimate dream role. It was a real challenge because I had to get his body language and dialogue delivery completely right. His contemporaries, such as Kalaignar M Karunanidhi and K Veeramani, are still alive. In the Gandhi biopic, Ben Kingsley had just two makeovers – one in a suit and the other in a veshti. I had nine makeovers, since I had to portray Periyar as a young man until he was 95 years old.
Karunanidhi cried when he saw the film. He gifted me Periyar’s ring, which is 130 years old. I am still wearing it.
You also worked with Rohit Shetty in ‘Chennai Express’ as Deepika Padukone’s father.
It was the most relaxed role I ever did. We used to start shooting only at 11 am. It was a film for which I was paid very well and had a relaxed holiday at a hill station.
How will you live down Kattappa? What are the films you are working in?
Life goes on. I am shooting for a period Tamil/Telugu film that is set in 1945 and stars Rana Daggubati. I am also playing a retired cop, a very strong role, in a Tamil film whose title translates in English as “Caution, humans are walking around in this place.” I am happy I am still getting good roles.