Film review: Baahubali

When we talk about S.S. Rajamouli’s latest, Baahubali: The Beginning, it is crucial to clarify which Baahubali we are talking about. Because the film, which released last week to more than 4,000 theatres worldwide, has been made in two languages, Tamil and Telugu (Rajamouli’s native language), and dubbed in another two, Hindi and Malayalam. I watched Baahubali’s Hindi dubbed version, and couldn’t help notice how some of the dubbed dialogues, especially in the first half, ended up tainting several fine sequences—an annoyance that could have been avoided by watching, had such an option existed, the original Telugu version with English subtitles. At one point, the film’s hero, Shivudu (Prabhas), declares his love to the warrior Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia) thus: “Tum ek ladki ho. Main ek ladka. Main tumhein pyaar karne aaya hun (You are a girl; I am a boy. I have come to love you).” His old hysterical mother wails, more than once, “Mera beta ayega,” and that oft-parodied line from Karan Arjun (1994)—“Mere Karan Arjun ayenge”—prods you to break into soft chuckles. Denizens of Shivudu’s village talk in a faux Bihari accent and the contrivance of this device feels both off-putting and jarring. Even for a dubbed film, these slip-ups are confounding—especially because Baahubali, in any case, doesn’t thrum with memorable dialogues—but maybe this movie doesn’t care as much: it’s more interested in underscoring what we are watching, less in what we are hearing.

There’s no doubt, though, that Rajamouli knows how to make his visuals talk. The three separate settings of Baahubali—Shivudu’s village, Avantika and her cohorts’ hideout, the kingdom of the Mahishmati Empire—are not only painstakingly detailed and exhibit distinct geographies but also complement, at various stages, the film’s changing moods. So Shivudu’s years of adolescence and early adulthood—restless, untrammelled, unbound—play out at the backdrop of a ginormous waterfall, as if challenging him to be a little more reckless, to be a little more heroic. Avantika’s clashes with the Mahishmati army and her cold indifference to Shivudu are locked in a landscape as frigid as her: a snow-laden forest. The tyranny of Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati), the Mahismati Empire’s king, finds an apt representation in his kingdom’s architectural language—marked by sky-high statues and imposing structures, towering over and intimidating the hapless subjects, reminding them that they are being watched. In a filmmaking climate—largely bereft of visual ambition—where an unusual locale is merely characterised by its ‘quirky’ argot, it’s nearly impossible not to acknowledge and applaud Rajamouli’s world building in Baahubali.

So it’s perplexing when someone like him, whose film soars just by dint of its visual language—thereby bucking the trend of lazy and formulaic filmmaking—conforms to, mainly in the film’s first half, the diktats of commercial cinema. A violent confrontation between Shivudu and Avantika transforms into an awkward erotic sequence, where the hero manages to simultaneously strip and prettify the heroine with the help of fruits culled from the forest. And as if this bit wasn’t already superfluous and ludicrous, Rajamouli next cuts to a romantic number so uninspired and overlong that it makes you question the inherent inability of most Indian filmmakers to intelligently utilize songs in their narrative. This forced romantic subplot also leads to an odd plot point: Shivudu, at this point, assures Avantika, who was introduced to us as a fiery and driven warrior, that since he’s in Love with her now, it’s his responsibility to take care of her troubles. “Tum meri ho, Avantika. Aur tumse judi har cheez meri. Tumhara lakshya bhi mera hai (You are mine, Avantika, and so is everything connected to you, even your goal),” says the earnest and patronising Shivudu, reminiscent of every Indian film hero who’s typically found it difficult to clear the Gender Equality 101 midterm paper. But even more baffling is Avantika’s quick acceptance to this preposterous proposal. That’s also the last that we see of her in the film. Baahubali’s first half is quite evidently uneven: promising intent marred by shoddy execution.

Baahubali poster
But Baahubali emerges a changed film post-interval. It’s not surprising why: Unlike the first half, the second half contains only one song; the dialogues don’t drive the story here, the action sequences do; the half-baked romantic subplot, too, is completely absent and, hence, doesn’t impinge on the film’s rhythm; and a long flashback finally sets the narrative wheels in motion. In this segment, almost an hour long, the film goes back 50 years, introducing major characters—the eponymous hero, Baahubali (also played by Prabhas); his cousin, Bhallala Deva (the film’s antagonist); his cunning and handicapped father, Bijjala Deva (Nasser); their loyal slave Kattappa (Sathyaraj)—and setting up stakes: Baahubali and Bhallala vying for Mahishmati Empire’s throne. Baahubali’s story, however, offers nothing new: it revolves around characters who can be slotted into either Good or Evil; their motivations, devoid of complexities, can be summarised in terse one-liners; and its thematic underpinnings appear neither profound nor enduring.

And, yet, when Baahubali comes into its own—nearly for the entire second half—it leaves you astonished and enraptured. Rajamouli eventually gets to the crux of his film and doesn’t turn back: He throws the pretense of telling a sweeping story out of the window and instead allows individual scenes to deliver moments of tension and exhilaration. Consider, for instance, the bit in the film, where Mahishmati warriors fling sea of arrows into Kalakeya’s army (a rival kingdom): the camera faithfully follows one particular arrow, let loose by Baahubali, steadily ascending and tearing through the air; however when, midway through its trajectory, due to its increased momentum and gravity’s call, the said arrow suddenly increases its velocity, the camera continues mimicking its motion, swooping on a Kalakeya soldier with new astonishing acceleration. The impact of this cinematographic ingenuity continues to linger for some time, moments after the scene gets over. Or when Shivudu and Kattappa charge towards a running horse, without a rider, carrying a sword tucked to its saddle. Rajamouli doesn’t immediately spell out this scene’s ultimate payoff, but as Baahubali outruns Kattappa and grabs the sword, he flips midway in the air, and severs the head of Bhallala’s son, who appeared in the frame running only moments ago. His chopped head flies many feet away, and his headless body keeps walking for a good few seconds before succumbing to the ground. The grey skies soon turn pitch black, and they bathe our hero in a torrential downpour. Or, for that matter, the scene where Baahubali sends a tent cloth flying, flanked by two boulders, into Kalakeya’s marching soldiers, drowning them in gigantic fabric and suffocating them for breath. A soldier manages to break out of the scuffle, comes out in the open, smells his fingertip and understands something’s fishy. Rajamouli next cuts to an arrow, burning at its tip, setting the cloth aflame that held the captive soldiers. Not a word’s been exchanged in any of these scenes, and it’s not required. These bits have Rajamouli—expertly showing, never telling—comfortably ensconced in one of his finest filmmaking hours. Moreover, these moments—unfettered, kinetic and, at times, even indulgent—are not borrowed; they reverberate with stunning original visual imagination. This is also old-fashioned masala filmmaking, completely rooted in an Indian milieu, stretched to its most maddening and satisfying conclusion, supremely confident and controlled.

Having said that, Baahubali is a marked departure from regular south Indian actioners—and their poorly remade Bollywood avatars—where the definition of melodrama is simplistically reduced to a hero pummeling the antagonists and making them fly all around. This film earns its melodramatic tone, by first carefully setting the world, laying out its rules, and then being consistent within that sphere. Rajamouli shows us that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Indian filmmaking idiom, and that melodrama need not necessarily be frowned upon.

But the astounding achievement of Baahubali does prompt this question to be asked: Should the film’s form be an excuse for its lack of a compelling story? However, this eternal debate—between form and content, as if they are two completely separate entities—takes us away from the real power of films like Baahubali, where form, in scenes aplenty, consummately substitutes content. And, anyway, do we turn to movies just for the stories? Would we be not, in that case, better off by just reading their screenplays? Films should not beholden to our preconceived checklists (ones where a good ‘story’ ranks somewhere near the top); they should be free to refashion themselves in newer ways if they so desire.

Mainstream Indian filmmaking, for long, has been stuck in the confines of staid three-act structures, where every alternate film looks, sounds and feels like a photocopy of a photocopy. Baahubali, albeit armed with a banal plot, still manages to play around with conventional storytelling techniques; unlike most two-part movies, its first half isn’t even a standalone film—it’s devoid of a third act. If you have seen enough mainstream Indian films, you already know “what” is going to happen in the film’s sequel, Baahubali—The Conclusion, but if only that dissuades you from looking forward to its next installment, then your expectations are misplaced, a bit like calling up Dominos and feeling miffed that it doesn’t deliver dosas.

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