Baahubali’s technical finesse is a vehicle for regressive socio-political values

Like so many other epics in the Subcontinent, and beyond, Baahubali takes place in and upholds a socio-religious order that serves a particular politics.

Written by Aakash Joshi | Updated: May 10, 2017 11:59 am
SS Rajamouli, Baahubali, Baahubali 2, Baahubali Rajamouli, Katappa, Baahubali story, Baahubali narrative, Baahubali visual effects, Baahubali review, Indian Express There is a breadth of vision, technical finesse and sheer grandeur to Baahubali: The Conclusion that is unprecedented in recent Indian cinema. (File Photo)

In mainstream cinema, a film can be path-breaking in two ways. It can have a genuinely moving, provoking narrative, or a kind of humour and insight that is, if not unprecedented, certainly rare. Such a film has to be superbly written, directed and acted and the chord it strikes with its audience stays with them long after the film is over. The sound, camera and editing come together to bring out a story in novel ways. Its themes will stay relevant after its context seems dated and its plot points become archetypes for generations of filmmakers and aficionados.

But there is another kind of greatness as well. When the craft of cinema is, for its time and place, elevated to an art. S.S. Rajumouli’s two-part epic comes close to films in this category. There is a breadth of vision, technical finesse and sheer grandeur to Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion that is unprecedented in recent Indian cinema. It reflects the confidence of the film-maker: His audience is going to watch the film on a big screen. The actors, while well-known, were not famous enough to guarantee the kind of revenues it has generated worldwide. Most of all, the film is able to transcend substantially the context of the language it was shot in.

There is, however, a problematic aspect to the film; in the vehicle for the special effects extravaganza — the actual plot.

Like James Cameron’s Avatar, The Baahubali films have a cliche story, one which is easy to relate to and lets the audience enjoy the images on screen while being led gently along a path that is as familiar and comfortable as the ratty T-shirt you’ve had since college. Also like Cameron’s masterpiece, they have an unmistakable social and political context. Avatar rehashed the Pocahontas (Disney version) story — a white man among the natives finds love and wisdom and turns against the tyranny of his own people. In the context of colonialism, discourses on global warming, ecology and land rights, the film had a progressive undertone. In his choice of cliche, Rajumouli went the other way.

Like so many other epics in the Subcontinent, and beyond, Baahubali takes place in and upholds a socio-religious order that serves a particular politics. While somewhat critical, if tangentially, of the indentured servitude of Katappa, one of the films’ main characters, it does nothing to actually free him. Even the genie in Disney’s Aladdin was liberated by the eponymous hero, but no such luck for (the elder) Baahubali’s self-proclaimed “mama”. In both films, the depiction of the “love interest” is also questionable: Strong, independent women become pativrata for life once they realise our hero is strong enough to protect them. There is the worrying, almost offensive depiction of the tribal villains — the Kalakeya — in Baahubali: The Beginning and the hero’s almost sadistic brutality masquerading as brilliant battle strategy, while those of his opponents is depicted as savagery.

The complex (especially to a north Indian viewer like this author) but blatantly “Hindu” and upper caste motif of the films, evolves in interesting ways. The main conflict in the sequel appears to be about “Kshatriya” values, which plays out in what can only be described as “vachan clash”. Protagonists are always driven by duty and honour — determined by their varnashramdharma — and competing promises, equally valid, separate right actions from wrong ones. Then there is the fact that the film clearly promotes the cult of a great leader, infallible and just, set in the (lost) grandeur of a Hindu empire — complete with a giant Ganesh and porcelain Krishna.

It is, of course, likely that film-makers, in setting up a fictional universe, had no socio-political intentions whatsoever. But given the influence of cinema, particularly films as wildly successful as the Baahubali franchise, it is important to locate them in the larger discourse of our times. Not even the most cursory analysis of mainstream Hindi cinema can ignore the relationship between Raj Kapoor’s work and the Nehruvian enterprise in the first decades after Independence, Amar Akbar Anthony and the unity in diversity motif or even the karva chauth modernity of Karan Johar and post-liberalisation India. At a theatre in a south Delhi mall, Baahubali: The Conclusion was met with the standing ovation it deserves. But the film was also greeted with chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram”.

A Ram-like Hindu king, amid massive structures and temples has an obvious symbolism. In fact, Minister for Information and Broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu has called Baahubali: The Conclusion a “shining example of Make in India” and, in a lighter moment, said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “the real Baahubali”. As we praise, and rightly so, the film’s masterful visual effect, there is some merit to looking at the effects of its story as well.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The Weakness of Baahubali’)

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  1. Ribhu Vashishtha
    May 11, 2017 at 10:28 am
    Writer of this article paid by some Bollywood biggies to discourage the traditional and noble southern people of India from making such films in future. Film should be seen purely as work of art and entertainment without having dhimmitude/inferiority complex of Hinduism in mind. Indian express should stop espousing dhimmitude in future.
    1. J
      John Joseph
      May 11, 2017 at 1:51 am
      I think all these commie anti-Hindu dividers of Hindustan have no medals to return. So they are using pen and keyboard and under freedom of speech producing daily anti India anti Hindu whatever garbage they can produce daily. Isn't they are misusing the same freedom of speech to write rhetoric hatred and spreading fear which they said is in danger? This author needs first to be mentally checked and then put on fasting so that he can detoxify his brain if he has any.
      1. A
        Amit Agarwal
        May 11, 2017 at 12:48 am
        What is wrong with not showing whether Kattappa was freed or not? And what is this bull of strong independent woman becoming pativatra after marriage. How do you expect them to be pativrata before they even had a pati? What in the movie suggested that they had become such even after it? Why would anyone who has a decent idea about making movies make the villains strategy more visible than the main protagonist? And where did you come up with the tribal connotation. You commies have either Muslims or tribals to run your shop. And lastly what is this motif of promoting Hindu culture and a strong leader wrong ? If you consider yourself a writer and have the balls , reply me on my email 70am07@gmail on what you really mean by this? Just coz you have a keyboard doesn't mean u type it with your feet. Did you even try reading yourself what you wrote . Even nonsense has sense in it . This doesn't
        1. V
          May 11, 2017 at 12:04 am
          Very though-provoking.
          1. C
            May 11, 2017 at 1:50 am
            Three cheers for a thorough comment like this. !00 years of foreign rule has made lot of Hindus the axxse leakers of Muslims and the west. This is Indian tragedy.
          2. bo Surator
            May 10, 2017 at 11:50 pm
            Denying history and rewriting it to vilify historic figures and native cultures is a weapon commonly used by communists in our country. Baahubali is not set in post-independedce India , to uphold Nehruvian values. It is set in ancient times, where ru cl existed all across the world, not only in India. Do you see anese denouncing historic movies with samurai caste heros? Besides there actually exists a code called Kshatriya dharma. It does not belittle any other cl or caste. The hero himself is bought up as a tribal man in a forest. Also, the Klakeyas are not a metaphor for dravidians or tribals. Almost entire cast/ direction of the movie is Dravidian. The Kalakeyas are modelled after orcs in LOTR. THEY ARE NOT DRAVIDIANS OR SOUTH INDIANS. Your point about leading ladies in the movies also makes no sense. Both hka and Ramya Krishnan were very strong actors/characters. Get out of your slave mentality and appreciate the movie and rise of southern cinema.
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