CHENNAI: In the kingdom of Mahishmathi, everybody is a pawn. Someone is making all the right moves to topple the reigning king Somadeva. And at the centre of the game is young Sivagami, a female hero that Mahishmathi doesn’t know it needs.
The plot is set 30 years prior to the now-superhit movie Baahubali. Kattappa’s loyalty, Sivagami’s righteousness, and Bijjaladeva’s thirst for power — are all something that we have witnessed. But Chaturanga, the second book in the Baahubali, Before The Beginning Trilogy by Anand Neelakantan, delves into what shaped these characters. In 2017, Anand first introduced us to the dwellers of Mahishmathi in the first book of the trilogy The Rise of Sivagami. Three years later, Chaturanga takes the plot further. “The idea behind Chaturanga was to bring forward a story where a woman competes in a man-driven and dominated world. The book captures an eventful journey of Sivagami, and how she goes to live in the same kingdom under the king who killed her father. Chaturanga weaves a beautiful story of romance and pragmatism that we experience in life,” says Anand.Excerpts follow.
You credit the creators and writer of Baahubali for the freedom they gave you to delve into a prequel to a superhit film. What kind of creative liberty did you have to shape the past of these characters and invent new ones?
The creators of Baahubali had given me all the freedom to write the backstory of the characters. I had picked up Sivagami, Kattappa, and Bijjaladeva from the film and created over forty characters in my trilogy. The trilogy spans thirty years before the film’s timeline, yet to create an exciting story world and an intricate plot, I had to make a fictional history stretching thousands of years back from the timeline of the film for Mahishmathi.
We are confronted with the negative traits of almost all the characters. Was it deliberate to show that there is so much evil in the world where everyone is plotting against the good?
I have shown characters in shades of grey and not in hues of milky-white or charcoal-dark. Grey represents the natural order of things. As no one is entirely good or evil, the question of someone plotting against good doesn’t occur. What is good for one character may be evil for the other and vice versa. Even the villain is a hero in his own point of view.
It’s been three years since the first book, and the books have left several loose ends, which I am sure will be tied up in the final one. How easy or difficult is it for you as a writer to go back and forth with the plot? What is your process?
I write organically. I don’t plan each plot point and try to stitch them up. I create characters first, live with them, often become them, and allow the characters to develop their plot. All my novels are character-driven rather than plot-driven. Everyone has a motive and works to achieve his goal. Even the characters who wander aimlessly have a purpose of wandering aimlessly and anything threatening that is the beginning of a story to them. The way each character reacts to a situation makes the story. The plot flows naturally from that process.
With the lockdown in place, can we expect the third book soon? How has the lockdown period helped you?
The third book is almost ready. Another few thousand words and I’ll wrap it up. I expect to publish it by the end of this year or early next year. I was very productive in this period. My first children’s book called The very extremely naughty asura tales for kids is releasing this month. I have written the script for a film, set up two television shows, and finished another novel to be published next year. I also did an Audible original series on Ramayana, and it will be out around Dussehra. I laid the foundation for another two novels and finished a short-story series.
Your writing paints a visual picture for the reader — one can almost feel a film being played. Are there plans to adapt your words into a motion picture or a series?
I am a visual writer. Maybe that has helped me straddle the world of screenplays and novels with little difficulty. I have written more scripts than books. I believe the modern way of storytelling is making the stories very visual. A web series is on the anvil in Netflix, based on the trilogy. My previous book Vanara is also becoming a film.
What pressures do you have to write a prequel to an already loaded script?
Writing any book has its challenges and stress. I never allowed the fame of Baahubali to affect me, for I was creating my own Baahubali. I am grateful to the freedom given to me by the creators of Baahubali, and it helped me to explore a much deeper and complicated story world, something only a novel can do justice to. Every medium has its advantage and disadvantage, and I have tried to use all the benefits a book would have over a film while crafting this trilogy.
How does Chaturanga mirror the world’s reality today?
All my books are contemporary, not just Chaturanga. This book mirrors the society of today as it stays true to human nature, with all its flaws and glory. When I talk about Lanka in Asura, it is present-day India. When I speak about Hastinapura in my Ajaya series, Kishkindha in my Vanara series and Mahishmati in my Baahubali series, I have contemporary India in my mind. What remains the same over aeons is human nature. Fiction, I believe, is a mirror that reflects the society with all its warts and glory.
Chaturanga is available online at Amazon.in and in bookstores.