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SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2 — The Conclusion, described as the “greatest Indian blockbuster of all time”, is creating history in Indian cinema in terms of the commercial success and frenzied curiosity it has triggered in the country. Within a fortnight, the film broke all records, pushing behind Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014/Rs 792 crore), Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal (2016/Rs 867 crore) and Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015/Rs 626 crore), and his own Baahubali — The Beginning (2015/Rs 650 crore). This series of huge successes in a short span of three years has triggered announcements about films with even bigger budgets [Mahabharata based on Malayalam novel Randamuzham (Second Term) by MT Vasudevan Nair anticipates a budget of Rs 1,000 crore, for instance]. It seems like the beginning of a definitive trend in Indian cinema: firstly, these films phenomenally succeeded in creating a pan-Indian market across states, languages and vernacular film industries. Second, these films prove that this huge market — one of the biggest in the world in terms of numbers — could be swamped and swept clean at one go, with widest possible releases one could imagine.
Among these superhits, Baahubali is an exception both in terms of its commercial sweep as well as narrative imagination. If the other films dealt with contemporary themes and the “real” world, and drew upon historical incidents, personalities, concerns, experiences and events, Baahubali throws all such realistic, naturalist pretences to the bin. Unlike others, it is a two-part sequel starring actors who were not very well-known outside Telugu cinema. Prabhas, who plays Baahubali, is not as big a star like Aamir Khan or Salman Khan; in his pre-Baahubali career of 12 years, he had acted only in less than 20 films. Though we have witnessed similar frenzies nurtured and built around stars like Rajinikanth or Shah Rukh Khan, never before had such fan fervour been created around a film’s narrative. The question “Why Kattappa killed baahubali?” became a rage even before the film was released, travelling across the world through various forms of social as well as conventional media. Tantalisingly, the question could never have had a “spoiler” answer — the film’s narrative is poised in such a way that the respondent will necessarily be drawn into its tangles and have to recount the whole story.
This VFX-magnified Amar Chitra Katha kind of narrative is set in a fantasy kingdom which is the epitome of “civilisation” with towering structures, public fountains and gardens that are protected by huge forts, ramparts, and armed soldiers. The reference to the epics are many: the eviction of the prince and wife from their kingdom, the brother taking the reins, the fraternal jealousies, the hero wandering in cognito in alien lands, the Shakuni-like conspiracies against the rightful descendants to the throne etc.
The film’s narrative is strung between several binary oppositions; the ultimate slave Kattappa ever ready to sacrifice his life for the royal family on the one end, and Sivagami the Queen Mother whose word is the law at the other; the dharmic warrior Amarendra Baahubali opposite the wily, cunning Pingaladeva, the power-hungry and greedy Bhallaladeva who would go to any lengths to grab power and possess what he desires vis-a-vis the noble Mahendra Baahubali who would sacrifice everything to keep his word and to protect his land. These superhumans are the only characters in the film, the rest are faceless masses — of marching and fighting soldiers, crowds of suffering people, mobs bowing and cheering the leader, the rebel group of Prithviraj in hiding and the marauders from outside, like the Kalakeya, Pindaris etc. There is nothing or no classes of people in between these two extremes. Beyond the high-pitched drama of the rulers, the presence of people is only in the form of crowds in royal festivities and ceremonies like coronation or as human ballast for the wars between kings. This binary setting does not permit any kind of ambiguities, subtleties or dharmic dilemmas like in the epics — it is a land where the only dharma is the vigilante Kshatriya kind, in which people are always a mere collateral. No wonder the film, without being explicit about the contemporary, breathes it, in and out. Interestingly, the film has very valiant and independent female characters, like the matriarch Sivagami, who repeats the dictum: “this is my decision, and it is the rule”. Devasena and Avantika too are valorous, fighting women, though both are eventually tamed and domesticated by love for the male-hero, like in any other Indian film narrative.
It is a narrative that does not rely on or draw upon any lived or recorded past or any kind of memory — historical, mythological or folkloric. Instead, it creates and inhabits an ethereal narrative space and time of its own, a spectacle that adds fuel to and feeds upon the dreams, anxieties and ambitions of the contemporary, such as the yearning for a strong, incorruptible ruler, fairness in public affairs, respect for women, fidelity to promises etc. All these dreams coalesce into the body and persona of Baahubali — Amarendra and Mahendra, father and son — who are defined by their unflinching commitment to a Kshatriya dharma which is the only dharma that exits there. While digital technology liberates the characters from the rules of physical gravity, its narrative is freed of the gravitational pulls of rationality or ethical conflicts of any kind. Everything here ominously resonates in and of the present, of a post-truth age that has no use for personal memories, historical truth or justice of the epic kind.
Here, the space and time within the narrative, the montage and mise en scene, all meld together to form an awe-inspiring spectacle. Here, gravity can be defied, and anything and everything is possible; the whole world becomes infinitely pliable and elastic to the will of the hero, who can fly and soar and wields superhuman powers. Ironically, the narrative is memorised and recounted not by the masters but by Kattappa, the slave who has no rights even to his own body or mind. What is legitimised through a narration that is at the same time a confession and homage is the devotion and subservience of this “self”-less witness and chronicler from below, which gradually transforms into our own. For, as Guy Debord says, spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images. It cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified.
What will be the long term impact of releases of this kind upon regional cinemas and industries that work within low economies of scale and churn out local narratives? Baahubali signifies the rise of a pan-Indian language pattern in its dialogues that is designed for dubbing and lip sync, and not to any vernacular flows and flights. The dialogues in Baahubali are more like pronouncements addressing the audience-subjects rather than verbal exchanges between characters; designed to reach out to the last film viewer, they are delivered slowly and deliberately, using words that are generic and melodramatic rather than conversational. Even the names of the characters are designed to suit local variations. This leads us to the disturbing question whether such mega narratives will eventually endanger the plurality of Indian cinema by turning it into dubbed local versions? This is something that has already happened to television serials here.
That a Telugu film like Baahubali was released in 9,000 screens across the world and grossed over 1,000 crore in a month is definitely something to be proud of and cheer about. It is Indian cinema industry’s proclamation to the world that it can take on even Hollywood on its own terms. But what are such mega nation-wide releases doing to its own regional cinemas? The high intensity hype in social and other media dump such films and its folklores on to the local markets and media spheres, swamping its theatre networks and forcing out local productions. This month, in all the small towns in the country, all the theatres were playing Baahubali, leaving no space for local cinemas and no choice for the viewers. It is a national version of what Hollywood has been doing to national cinemas all over the world. What this new imaginary world that is devoid of any vestige of reality, and this revenue model that usurps the last screen in the country, will do to Indian cinemas (which has always remained plural) in the short and long term is a question that should bother any cineaste.
CS Venkiteswaran is a filmmaker and a National Award-winning critic.