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The sensational success of a strange movie that has a man reincarnated as a housefly

The villain enjoys firing his rifle to loud screechy guitar riffs instead of attending business conferences. Sometimes, to challenge himself, he spins himself while shooting at projectiles, and sometimes he holds the rifle with just a single hand. Occasionally, he uses the shooting range for another kind of target practice— seducing women. The heroine, a social worker with an NGO (what else), likes to create miniature artworks at night. Her hobby suffers power failures. So the hero brings the moon for her—he harnesses its light by using a dish antenna and some silver foil of a cereal packet.

What follows is familiar. Hero and heroine fall in love. Villain kills hero. And the hero, to avenge his death, takes rebirth. Another Southern action flick in this season of South-inspired cinema.

Except that the hero is reborn as a fly.

The film in question is Makkhi, the Hindi version of a film released earlier in Telugu as Eega, in Tamil as Naa Eee and in Malayalam as Eecha. It was one of the biggest crowdpullers of the south this year, having grossed over Rs 130 crore since hitting theatres in July. It was also a contender for India’s entry to the Oscars (that is, before Big Brother Bollywood flexed its muscle). Billed as one of the most ‘inventive’ and ‘entertaining’ films of the year, at least one interpretation suggests that it is an allegory on the superstar cult of South Indian cinema.

The film’s director, SS Rajamouli, who has made several successful Telugu films in the past, claims his desire to make a movie with a fly as its protagonist came from an urge to make an experimental film on a small budget. “Often in the past, I was recognised as just one more ‘masala’ film director,” he says, “After my last film [Maryada Ramanna, being remade in Hindi as Son of Sardar], I wanted to do a different project, something I could finish quickly.” He was always fascinated by a story his father, the Telugu film director V Vijayendra Prasad, had once told him in his youth, of a man being reborn as a fly to take revenge. And Rajamouli couldn’t think of a “weirder” idea to flesh out.

“My team of assistant directors and I started developing the story,” says the director, “But what turned out was so whacky that it would be impossible to do quickly or with a small budget.” The film was expected to be a quickie, but took two years to complete, a major portion of it spent designing the fly, and around Rs 30 crore in cost, making it one of Rajamouli’s most expensive films.

The challenge, according to him, lay not in the story’s premise, but in the technology that would have to support it. Rajamouli trawled the web for images of flies, but he could find none that could give him and his animators a good idea of how one looks in extreme close-up. “So,” he says, smiling at the anticipated absurdity of his words, “we arranged for a photo shoot.” Flies were caught and photographed, but they would escape too soon. The next batch was bottled up and put in a refrigerator to stun them unconscious. But within half a minute of the lights coming on for the photo shoot, their cold bodies now warmed, the winged insects would fly away. The team eventually had to make do with the few seconds they had before their flies escaped. It took several days to get the photographs needed.

But the early versions of the animated fly turned out horrendous. The image looked grotesque. “And I couldn’t have my hero look ugly,” Rajamouli says.

Various more versions were worked upon at Makuta Visual Effects, a studio in Hyderabad that was involved in the film’s special effects. Top international experts were flown in, and special training programmes—for instance, on how animation characters should act—were held for the team’s animators and visualisers. All this was crucial, as Rajamouli saw it. “My fly couldn’t use facial expressions to act. All the acting would have to be done through body language,” he says, “But this had to remain believable and not farfetched. Otherwise the film would fall flat on its face.” He says he even looked up some of Pixar’s early short films, like one about a lamp that comes to life (now used as part of Pixar’s logo), for inspiration.

While he was worried at first if actors would sign up for such a film, its plot proved appealing enough. Everyone readily agreed, including the lead actors, Sudeep, Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Nani. The actual acting, however, was not easy. Actors had to respond to nothing as it were, a fly of their imagination buzzing all over the place. “We had countless retakes for every scene,” says the director, “But we somehow managed.”

According to Rajamouli, the film has succeeded because apart from being an original idea, it is also entertaining. Many of his previous films have been remade in Hindi: Vikramarkudu as Rowdy Rathore, apart from Maryada Ramanna as Son of Sardar, with Magadheera rumoured to be up for an Anurag Kashyap remake. Now Makkhi marks his own foray into Hindi cinema.

Recently, at his first press conference for the film in Mumbai at a posh multiplex, he was introduced by a screen clip as a ‘talented and extraordinary director’, with the adjectives mangled out of shape by typographic emphasis. When the clip wasn’t zooming in to freeze-frame the director’s face, it had him at the helm of things, riding horses, issuing instructions, teaching actors how to perform action sequences. When Ajay Devgn walked in half way into the conference, wearing a denim shirt with buttons undone almost till his navel, murmurs of “Mr Ajay Devgn Sir” arose among the crew. Devgn, whose only contribution to the film is a short voiceover at the start, is helping promote it.

According to ‘Mr Ajay Devgn Sir’, the first time he heard of Rajamouli was when he learnt that Bol Bachchan (in which he stars along with the Bachchan father-son duo) had been a “super hit” everywhere in India except Hyderabad. “I asked what was this film that beat mine,” said the star, “And someone told me a film about a fly called Eega was a bigger hit there.” Devgn made Rajamouli’s acquaintance while working on Son of Sardar.

The inventiveness of Makkhi, however, is restricted to its absurd premise. While some cinegoers may be reminded of the 1986 Hollywood hit The Fly, about Jeff Goldblum’s slow metamorphosis into a fly once his genes get merged with a flapper’s in a teleportation mishap, there has never been a movie about someone reborn as one.

Otherwise, Makkhi is regular fare—a few comic scenes, some zany action pieces and plenty of melodrama. The hero doesn’t split bullets into two, he dodges them. But, like any good hero, he’s no pushover. After all, he uses ear buds for dumbbells to work out.