Dir. S.S. Rajamouli
When I first started watching Hindi movies, ten years ago, it took me a while to adjust to its storytelling idioms. Its styles, archetypes, and antecedents were all unfamiliar to me. With respect to the masala films of the 70s, some of which I watched quite early on in my studies, I have called this learning process "surrendering to the aesthetic." But the process applies beyond masala, as the same narrative traditions that inform masala storytelling also influence other types of films.
Obviously, Southern films draw on their own set of narrative traditions, their own idioms and archetypes. These are not entirely disjoint from those of Hindi films, but are nevertheless different. And I think at least a part of why the very evident craft of Baahubali is wasted on me is that I don't have sufficient familiarity with them to fully surrender to its aesthetic.
I don't mean the visual aesthetic; the visuals of Baahubali are undeniably breathtaking, especially the towering and splendid waterfall scenes early on in the film. The sweeping renderings of the palace complex where much of the film takes place are grand and impressive, of enormous scale and spectacle. What takes adjustment for me is the narrative aesthetic of Baahubali, not the visual.
The film's title character has two incarnations, both played by a curly-locked, barrel-chested, golden-smiled Prabhas: Shivu, a gentle giant of a young man who lives at the base of the waterfall and dreams of reaching its summit, and in flashback, as Shivu's biological father, a warrior prince of the mountain kingdom that Shivu eventually finds there. In either avatar, Baahubali is a flawless superhero, spending most of the film Heroing Around Heroically.
There is a gulf between the ordinary suspension of disbelief that movies require, and the complete dispensing with any nominal ties to physical reality that happens in a movie where a single man can support the weight of a hundred-foot-tall solid-gold statue. Baahubali's demi-divine feats surely have a mythological resonance, drawn from classical epic episodes. When Shivu, falling from a cliff, fires a precise, improbable arrow at a small stump of a tree, it recollects Arjun's feat of marksmanship at Draupadi's swayamvar. Baahubali's superhuman strength recalls that of Bheema in the Mahabharata, or of Hanuman. Perhaps it is this cultural fabric that lends appeal and entertainment value to a character like Baahubali and his extra-physical exploits, and makes them a hallmark of a certain South Indian cinematic style.
If all of this sounds very intellectual, it is. There is yet a lot for me to learn from watching movies like Baahubali, but there is more of intellectual pleasure in it than emotional engagement. Superheroes bore me. Baahubali is so powerful that nothing much challenges him. Throw one enemy or four or twenty at him, he will overcome them with identical violence. And as if his physical strength isn't superhuman enough, he is so relentlessly good that he never makes mistakes, either tactically or morally. His every decision is noble, his every word is truthful, his every obligation is honored. That the narrative centralizes on such a preternaturally gifted - and hence, to me, preternaturally dull - character just highlights the ways in which I do not have the right cultural calibration to be enthralled by a movie such as Baahubali.
The warrior with whom Shivu falls in love, Avantika (Tamannah) begins with more narrative potential, but Baahubali, frustratingly, quashes it in short order. Avantika is a serious badass; she lives with a band of rebel warriors, dedicated to rescuing the queen who has been held in captive humiliation for a quarter century by the usurper of Baahubali's throne. And while this mission drives Avantika, she also shows some hints of longing, or at least wondering, whether there is more to life. The film assigns an infuriating interpretation to this longing: As Shivu divines and then imposes on Avantika, all this fierce warrior girl really wants is to be pretty, adorn herself with makeup and jewelry, and twirl about in diaphanous skirts. And as Shivu tears off Avantika's warrior clothes and decorates her to his liking, Avantika's indignation melts into desire, invoking that timeless idea that a woman's objection to being tossed about and disrobed is really just an invitation.
This is not merely a matter of balancing Avantika's warrior impulse with something more socially feminine; rather, the film is rather literal in declaring the warrior persona a mask, and the soft-and-pretty persona Avantika's "true self", and the only expression of her womanhood that could truly satisfy her. This disrespect for Avantika's drive culminates in Shivu's unilateral usurpation of her mission. Though Shivu admits he knows nothing about the quest for which Avantika has trained her whole life, he announces that he will save the queen for her, and she need not worry her pretty little head about it any longer. Shivu doesn't offer to join Avantika's quest; rather, he shoves her aside and takes her place in it. In short, Avantika exists as a device, merely to give purpose to the hero's superhuman masculinity. It's Shivu's job to Be The Hero, and Avantika's job, as a woman, to supply him opportunities for heroism. And so her own opportunity for heroism becomes his to claim away from her.
It was somewhere around here that I tweeted, "This is all so wasted on me." But I am not completely without capacity to be entertained by spectacle, and there are parts of the film that I do find quite enjoyable. The early sequences with the backdrop of the massive waterfall are spectacular. And the sequence in which the young barrel-chested hero hoists the shivlingam and trudges it across the rapids and down the slope is delightful. He does this to save his beloved mother a thousand and one treacherous trips to the Shiva shrine and back, as she prays for his safety. Te sequence is, of course, an illustration of Shivu's superhuman strength - the shivlingam presumably weighs several tons. But it is also a clever way to show the young man's love for his mother, such a staple quality of Indian heroes that a new and sweet way to demonstrate it is always welcome. More than that, it reveals a streak of playfulness and even irreverence in the strong-armed one, and is one of the more sparkling moments of character that he gets in the film, as contrasted with superheroic heroism.
There are other characters who, unburdened by a shivlingam's weight in heroic requirements, get to have more character throughout, and these are enjoyable as well. The bodyguard-armsmaster-slave Kattappa (Sathyaraj) is the film's most interesting character, with his ever-shifting obligations yet never-wavering loyalty. (That the film's cliffhanger centers on him may be enough for me to watch the sequel, despite being underwhelmed by this first installment.) He is introduced in a delightfully filmi encounter with a Pathan arms dealer, who, having challenged Kattappa to a duel and been defeated at it, becomes his friend for life, Sher Khan style.
The other women who, like Avantika, provide heroic opportunities for our uber-man are also fun to watch, despite their ancillary standing. The captive queen Devasena (Anushka) constantly sports a mad expression of defiance that is delightfully over-the-top. And the previous queen Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), the adoptive mother of the warrior-prince version of Baahubali, is magnificently fierce, making her statecraft decisions in a rational, considered manner, yet not shrinking from violence when it is necessary. When Sivagami draws a knife and cuts and armed man's throat with one hand while cradling a tiny baby with the other, it is every bit as improbable as any of Baahubali's feats. Yet it is tremendously more satisfying, somehow, both for its emotion and for what it conveys about Sivagami, as a character and as an archetype.
And so there are points of engagement for me that prick through the otherwise stifling fabric of this movie, woven as it is with a warp of Baahubali's relentless flawlessness and a weft of interminable melee and battle scenes. (I feel caught up in one of Baahubali's clever tentcloth-and-catapult-stone contrivances, before he sets it on fire.) I know this is the stuff of entertaining movies for lots of folks but I just find the endless fight scenes oppressive. I can't bear the violence for its own sake, and the film makes a crucial error in failing to assign any narrative importance to the enemy, the Kalakeyas, apart from being convenient landing points for maces and spears. Even leaving aside the racist caricatures that they embody, the Kalakeyas are an unforgivably lazy plot device, an enemy manufactured from air when the film wants to provide a large-scale battle, rather than a foe woven organically into the backstory. In a film that wants to be an epic there is room to give the battle some emotional heft, to create an enemy that matters in some way, but Baahubali cannot be bothered with this, and it's both a wasted opportunity, and an insult to the audience.
To pass the time in the insufferable final half hour of the film, I forced myself to ponder the impressive technical craft that must have gone in to creating these battle scenes. They are surely a marvel, especially the sweeping long shots with tens of thousands of soldiers. Narratively, though, they are unbearably dull. The story screeches to a halt while swords clash, bones crunch, blood spurts. How many blackfaced enemy skulls must we watch getting clocked with maces, before we get the point?
Given the huge success of Baahubali, the vast number of people of many perspectives and backgrounds who are enthralled by its scope and story, I do feel I've missed the boat, in that the best enjoyment I have got from it came not from watching it, but from pondering why it's so crushingly dull for me and so brilliantly compelling for others. There are certain films I wouldn't watch if they weren't Indian, and Baahubali is one of these. The corollary is that what interests me about Baahubali is primarily what is especially Indian about it. And so I don't regret having seen it, for what it's given me to think about.