There is a scene in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi where Shriram Lagoo playing Gopal Krishna Gokhale prevails upon the South Africa-returned barrister Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley) to travel all over India. As an astute observer, Gokhale’s character knows that Gandhi has both the product as well as the potential to recreate the South Africa magic in India. He just needs to understand the pulse of the people.
Gandhi takes the plunge, and eventually, the Kathiawadi barrister becomes the Father of the nation. Something similar happened in the Indian movie industry recently. One of the sharpest minds of the movie business, Karan Johar not only did a Gokhale on SS Rajamouli but also became his partner to land Baahubali 2: The Conclusion into theatres as a Hindi release. Suddenly, Rajamouli has become the savior that the Indian film industry needs and deserves. The Hindi version alone has already raked in Rs 500 crore plus based on conservative estimates. The whirring rhythms of the Baahubali juggernaut has cast an envelope of dust over Bollywood which is getting trolled, again. Was this expected? No one knows. Seeing parallels between films and politics, a film producer friend compared Amarendra Baahubali’s thunder at box office to Narendra Baahubali’s might in the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh elections.
Sociologists are anyway calling it Hindu cinema. A movie which is been in making since 1,000 years brought to the earth by the personae of an ever-smiling, humble, idealistic filmmaker cast in the mould of Bhagirath. These sort of optics are too much for Bollywood to handle. Apart from the PR launch-pad, the most beautiful and best thing about Baahubali 2 is that it is actually a great film, unlike umpteen big budget Bollywood films which are watched by all but liked by none.
Pursuant to this experience, a new narrative has emerged. Bollywood suddenly seems like the evil underserving uncle Bhallaladeva, who has enjoyed the fruits of privilege and power which Baahubali is all set to overthrow. It’s merely incidental that Prabhas’s nickname down south is Rebel Star. The gist of coffee house conversations in Versova, the film hub in Mumbai, is a confusion between fight and flight.
Rightly so, the liberal and very articulate left wing elitist posturing (matched by right wing posturing) which Bollywood employs to wash its poor filmmaking sins, or as a diversion tactics for its own exploitative practices, has been cracking under the weight of box office numbers of this Dravidian assault.
Actor Neha Dhupia once summed up the movie business in Bollywood by saying, “Only Shah Rukh and sex sells.” She has been corrected — it’s Shah Rukh, sex and VFX (visual effects). However, it will be wrong to dismiss Baahubali films just as a VFX shindig. Baahubali works because of strong story-telling and shockingly strong characters who are totally unapologetic about their motivations in an unadulterated dose of Tretayuga (Ramayana) and Dwaparyug (Mahabharata) in a two-hour span.
Baahubali movies are set to bring more focus and integration in the movie business in India. These also made us aware of the power of the medium in the hands of an uncompromising filmmaker. In fact, when I saw Makkhi (Eega), I knew this fly was headed to set Bollywood-ki-Lanka on fire. So how will Baahubali impact masala Bollywood? In the same way as it will impact masala Tollywood or Kollywood, or any film industry missing the wood for the trees.
However, to be more specific, I strongly expect more Hindi films on: Mythological subjects; revivalist Hindu historicals (without beef, horse-meat, and ox meat, of course) and military-based jingoistic films. Also expected is a matured reaction to Baahubali films — films that package and celebrate modern India’s civil society dealing with complex legal and constitutional framework and concept of justice. The question is who will make these, and how? Our stars are ageing. Hence the nuances, the storytelling woof and warp needs to get better. Studios have found a unique solution to this: Replace old-school star filmmakers with technically sound directors from the world of advertising.
But who would provide the mindsets and an enabling ecosystems to these filmmakers and writers? Baahubali has come as a blessing just when Bollywood was almost about to be controlled by accountants, agents and business school alumni. Problem is that Bollywood is obsessed about fighting about freedom of expression but it has nothing new to express both in form and content. So much so that biopics on India’s two biggest icons — Gandhi and Sachin — have been made by foreigners. So if you can’t tell your own story, someone else will.
I faced this problem when I was pitching my film Poorna to producers in Mumbai. They found the subject too Madrasi. Hopefully, with the Baahubali twins having toured the Hindi heartland, Bollywood will be less racist and less condescending, even in its praise of South Indian film icons or narratives.