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’)