For some time now, the most exciting and innovative offerings from Indian cinema have consistently come from outside its most recognisable global face. As mainstream Bollywood failed to free itself from the clutches of formulaic narrative templates and continued to peddle unimaginative products, films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Court (2014), Kaaka Muttai (2014), Talvar (2015), Sairat (2016) and Aligarh (2016) have given global audiences a glimpse into the breadth and diversity of what Indian cinema has to offer.
Interestingly, the dominance of Bollywood in the public consciousness is not a phenomenon unique to western audiences. Indian audiences themselves have been guilty of perpetuating this skewed representation, readily lapping up mediocre offerings from the mainstream, not showing as much love to the cinematic outputs of other regional film industries that operate in the country. The majority of regional cinematic content finds its audience limited by culture and geography. For example, a Tamil film might do well with a Tamil speaking audience in South India but will struggle to penetrate and connect with the North Indian market.1 Hence, when the Baahubali franchise – a product from the Telugu film industry from the south of the nation – opened to thunderous box office success within India and overseas, it destabilised the status quo of Indian cinema.
Director S.S. Rajamouli has achieved something few Indian directors have managed in their careers: he has tapped into the pulse of the Indian sensibility and made a truly pan-Indian film, irrespective of linguistic, cultural and cinematic differences. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of this achievement. It will have a lasting impact on how Indian distributors, producers and directors look at creating content in the near future, but it will also leave an indelible mark on how those who have consumed Indian cinema thus far – under the implicit dichotomy between Bollywood and regional cinematic content – look to engage with it moving forward.
Baahubali: The Conclusion continues where the first part left us. Where Baahubali: The Beginning largely revolved around Shivu finding his true identity, this second part centres around the backstory of his real father (Prabhas appearing in a dual role as both the son and father) – a messiah of the people who is the rightful heir to the kingdom of Mahishmati. This is a classic two-part revenge narrative: the son, reincarnated as the spirit of his father, has to right past wrongs and fulfill his destiny. To do this, he must overthrow the tyrant on the throne and claim his place as the rightful heir, and leader of his people. The cyclical nature of the narrative and how each character’s narrative arc is realised on screen – with a clear beginning, middle and an end – creates a wonderful symmetry for the viewer to savour.
The two films together were made with a budget of around 400-450cr INR (84-94 million AUD). This currently places them as the most expensive project made in Indian cinema to date – and it shows. The fictional, fantasy kingdom of Mahishmati is shown in exquisite detail, aided by an expansive set-design. The imaginatively choreographed fight scenes and battle sequences reinforce the mythology and the rules within which the characters operate. The action sequences exist not only as cinematic spectacle, but strengthen the characterisation throughout. For example, the audience has an understanding of the close relationship that Kattappa and Baahubali have due to the near-telepathic link they share whenever they step out to fight together. This isn’t just mind-numbing action of a Hollywood summer blockbuster variety at play, however, there is a specific purpose in when and how these action sequences take place. We know that Amarendra Baahubali (Shivu’s father) is a demi-god, with different rules applying to him regarding physical pain and affliction. Rajamouli carefully mythologises the figure very early on, and when he does accomplish seemingly impossible feats, we don’t lose our suspension of disbelief.
One might think that in a film where everything is turned up to eleven, there’s little room left for subtlety and nuance. This isn’t the case at all. Whilst the kingdom of Mahishmati is a depiction of fantasy and Baahubali a kind of demi-god figure, the values and morals he embodies are an essential signifier of expectations of what an ‘ideal’ person ought to be like in Indian society. Baahubali sacrifices individual ambitions – despite having popular public support – because he has given his word to his mother, the queen. He loves his mother to the point of reverence, like a ‘good’ son ought to. He uses his creative mindset to out-think his opponents, as opposed to the trickery and unfair tactics of his brother. Rajamouli is making an implicit comment here about the ideal Indian: a person who obeys their parents to the point of reverence; a person who makes a sacrifice by putting his family before his own ambitions, still managing to find a way to be successful – through an inherent goodness and some creative thinking.
One of the major drawbacks of the first film was how it handled the characterisation of Shivu’s love interest, the leader of the rebel group Avanthika (Tamannaah), who purely functioned as someone to be objectified by the male gaze and eventually be ‘won over’ by the charms of our male protagonist. Despite being part of a franchise that ostensibly revolves around glorifying its male lead, the second film thankfully does not make the same mistake; Baahubali’s mother and Queen of Mahishmati, Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and his love interest, Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty) are seen as strong and individualistic figures who are given space to grow and evolve over the film’s runtime. Krishnan, as the older matriarch and queen, is intimidating in scenes where she needs to appear firm in front of the kingdom’s general public, yet her inner turmoil remains visible when she has to make choices affecting her own family. Shetty instills in Devasena the kind of self-confidence that shows she is truly Baahubali’s equal in every regard: be it strength of will, skill in battle or creativity in finding solutions to problems. The repercussions of her display of agency and the price she has to pay for standing up for herself prove to be a stark mirror image of how India currently sees its relationship with its women. This darker and deeper undertone which underpins the film highlights the breadth of Rajamouli’s interest as a filmmaker: presenting a more layered story wrapped-up in the commercial garb of a mythological fantasy epic.
The way Prabhas carries himself with a certain aura around him solidifies the mythology around the character of Baahubali. He flexes not just his physical muscles but his acting muscles through the character as well – appearing slick in the fight choreography and vulnerable when dealing with his family members, particularly his mother. Rana Daggubati’s performance as Baahubali’s younger brother shows incredible restraint in his portrayal, avoiding simply playing to the galleries despite ample chances to do so. Meanwhile, Sathyaraj as the loyal Kattappa continues his decidedly one-note performance from the first part.
Clocking in around 170-odd minutes, the film packs a lot in. Baahubali: The Conclusion is a triumph of Rajamouli’s ambitious vision. He introduces us to a fantasy kingdom – with ethereal figures of incredible strength and yet decidedly human flaws – that in many respects holds up a mirror to modern Indian sensibilities and its societal problems. The sheer scale of the spectacle is itself worth the price of admission, but the film is more than just pure visual extravaganza, blending social commentary with the genre conventions of fantasy that have changed the Indian cinematic expectations forever.