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SS Rajamouli retrospective: Baahubali 1 – a spectacle for ages

In the sixth edition of our retrospective series, we take a look at SS Rajamouli's epic fantasy Baahubali: The Beginning.

BaahubaliBaahubali: The Beginning was released in 2015.

Filmmaker SS Rajamouli set off a tectonic shift in the Indian film industry with Baahubali: The Beginning. And he changed the course of Indian cinema forever with Baahubali: The Conclusion, which we will discuss in the next edition. There was a lot at stake for Rajamouli and the producers, Shobu Yarlagadda and Prasad Devineni of Arka Media Works, when they made Baahubali 1. But, it turns out, it was the right time to make such a film. Otherwise, we might have been content with dull and unambitious iterations of old ideas.

Baahubali 1 is Rajamouli’s quantum leap in the way he visualised his stories. We had not seen such grandeur in an Indian film, which blurred the lines between the things that were shot for real and those that were added via CGI. This film was not just large but it was immersive. What made such a visual spectacle more pleasing is the way Rajamouli navigates us through the sprawling landscape of Baahubali.

At the time, SS Rajamouli received a lot of heat for the way he staged a duel between Avantika and Shiva, future Mahendra Baahubali. In the controversial scene, Shiva disrobes Avantika and puts makeup on her face to make her realise her full beauty. Even today, the scene feels a little intrusive and regressive. Could Rajamouli have handled it better? Of course, yes. Especially, because till that moment, he had shown great discipline building up to the actual introduction of Avantika.

The first time we see Avantika is through the impression that her lost mask makes on the sand. Shiva adds a few features to that impression on the sand revealing the face of a beautiful woman. That becomes Shiva’s muse and adds passion and determination to his hitherto aimless desire to climb the peak. The song “Dhivara” plays out as Baahubali makes the climb overcoming all the challenges. Avantika guides him through the toughest of the landscape like an angel.

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A still from Baahubali: The Beginning.

Shiva imagines Avantika as a celestial beauty, who is the paragon of femininity. And yes, thanks to our own biases, the audience also buys Shiva’s image of Avantika without giving much thought. Later, we see Avantika as a helpless woman running for her life as she is being chased by a group of men. And soon we find out she is not the prey, but the hunter.

SS Rajamouli first gives us an impression of a beautiful woman and lets us marinate in our idea of an angelic woman and then subverts all our expectations. Avantika is a very well-written movie character. One can’t help but wonder what Rajamouli was thinking when he wrote the duel scene between Avantika and Shiva.

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Did he think that the only way for Baahubali to quickly break through Avantika’s shields was by removing them? By disrobing Avantika’s armour, was Shiva trying to do away with her warrior persona and connect with her at a civilian level? Only Rajamouli could answer that.

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Avantika’s character demonstrates the symbiosis of Rajamouli’s visual sense with his storytelling skills. He makes these micro-improvements to each character leading to moments of great explosion. Especially, the scene before the interval that plays out without much dialogue. The way he makes Bhallaladeva feel so insignificant and small in front of the towering memory of Amarendra Baahubali may look simple, but it’s ingenious.

A still from Baahubali: The Beginning.

SS Rajamouli lets his fantasy fly in the final war sequence. It’s easily one of the best war sequences ever produced on Indian celluloid. The visuals are stunning. The idea of “carpet-bombing” acquired a new dimension with Baahubali: The Beginning. Bhallaladeva’s extending mace, his chariot with spinning blades at the front that cuts through his enemy camps, Bijjaladeva’s little reactions — he frowns at Baahubali’s achievements and brim with pride at Bhallaladeva’s victories — all add to our experience of watching something new and genius. Using the shot of Kattappa proudly raising Amarendra Baahubali’s name to cut to the present day in the story is one of the wonderful transitions in the movie, leading to the epic question, which became a pop-cultural phenomenon – Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 19:50 IST
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