Director: S.S. Rajamouli
Cast: Prabhas, Anushka Shetty, Rana Daggubati, Ramya Krishnan, Sathyaraj
The opening credits of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion appear over static snapshots of all the famous moments from the first film: an unerring hand protruding out of a river as it clutches onto a wailing baby, 'commoner' Shiva (Prabhas) single-handedly aborting the fall of a 100-feet tall gold statue, an old Devasena (Anushka Shetty) chained in the palace courtyard, the funeral pyre she has been building stick by stick, and so on. It ends, of course, with that iconic image: a silhouette of loyal servant Kattappa (Sathyaraj) against a flaming background, piercing a sword into the back of the mighty Amarendra Baahubali's invincible body.
We see each of these shots from different dimensions, and every conceivable angle, almost as if S.S. Rajamouli were daring us to find the invisible strings upholding his daring magic tricks. But more interestingly, every face in these frames looks nothing like the actors playing them. They look like clay idols, graphic novel figurines, participating in a universe beyond our reach – the way a human mind is unable to lend precise texture and an exact physicality to its thoughts while narrating an original fairytale.
There's an air of divinity about this technique: an acknowledgment that this story, in hindsight, has transcended the identity of its individual players. That, to truly flip through these pages of history, it's time to look between the lines – and finally lend these junctures some motion, perspective, personality and contours, so that by the end these faces achieve distinct, recognizable forms in our memories.
And so it unfurls. We're given answers that, deep inside, we already know, yet we want to experience the way Rajamouli envisions it. We want to admire the innate Indian-ness of the way Scar contrives to kill Mufasa. Or the curious mix of traditionalism and liberalism marking Baahubali's choices.
We want to be shown the fiery youth of captive Maharani Devasena so that we can think beyond her current "mera beta aayega" syndrome. We want to see if there's truth to the maker's obsessive attention to detail: the littler things, like if evil King Bhallala Deva's (Rana Daggubati) ominous face-scar has an origin, if the flames punctuating Kattappa's betrayal were more than just a visual prop, or if there is any context to particular haggard villagers the cameras focus on, the ones that recognized Shiva as their beloved long-lost 'People's King'.
Needless to say, nothing we saw was merely for effect, lending credence to the practice of conceiving the story as one big committed film, instead of making the sequel as a reaction to the predecessor's success. The flashback that began in the second half of Baahubali: The Beginning continues, without any fuss, from where it left off.
Baahubali, the King-elect of Mahishmati, is shown as an accessible leader without any airs. In the first hour, he subdues an elephant, wins a (flashy) pig-hunt and is mauled by a bull – further reiterating his 'superhuman' legacy, as one whose extraordinary strength only rivals that of the beasts. His mother-like aunt, Queen Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), who demoted her own son Bhallala to the bridesmaid role of an Army Commander, is seen enjoying the fruits of her noble decision. Bhallala is shown snarling away with his cackling, differently-abled father (Nassar) from a distance.
In a way, Bhallala is a failed indie film to his cousin's big-budget entertainer – bitter, angsty and resentful of Baahubali's adoration by the masses. In fact, before the crowning ceremony, Sivagami even instructs Baahubali to explore and scout the single-screen culture across the nation – that is, travel with Kattappa to the edges of civilization in disguise, and see what it is that the ordinary person needs and thinks like. Only critics will find cheeky film-centric allegories, even if there are none.
In the process, much like the exiled, banished or adventurous Gods and Kings of folklore (Santosh Sivan's Asoka), it is here that 'simple' Baahubali's love story with Devasena – the young Queen of a distant sub-kingdom – takes flight. It's usually during this autopilot, disruptive comic-romance phase of a multilayered plot that most South Indian filmmakers switch off, and build indulgent, extravagant castles of what pure love should look like.
These offshoots become corny films of their own; the real drama (enemy plotting, Mahishmati politics) checks out and waits patiently while the tonal equivalent of elaborate dream sequences takes center-stage.
Here, we see the couple admiring each other in a Disney-like pirate ship floating from the ocean into the clouds, with angel-like white horses galloping in the shape of the air with them. This is all very lovely to see, but it's still quite the commercial departure – the extreme "white" to the "black" that awaits them.
But what perhaps identifies this film's particular escapist portion, as a consequential device, is the 'status' of the heroine it accommodates. As Devasena, Anushka Shetty's presence here is a manifestation of the environment she represents: a beautiful, strong and proud palace that has no business existing in the throes of green nature, at the foothills of snowy mountains. In other words: a clutter-breaking woman in a man's cozy world. She comes across as Ancient India's first feminist. She is brought up, rather unusually for her time, to believe in the principles of consent, and a girl's right to independently reject the voice of elders.
One could argue that even Princess Avanthika (Tamannah, as junior Baahubali's love interest) was a warrior, and therefore, no different. But as a lover, Avanthika became like any other damsel in distress. She seemed to exist, eventually, for a few songs and a waterfall. She allowed her man to hijack her motive, and faded into the background. Maybe the best part about this sequel is that Rajamouli seems intent on correcting the few mistakes he had made in the first part.
We hear conscious, constant reminders that patriarchy, as the accepted way of life, and not the struggle for power and glory, was the era's biggest threat. At one point, a young minister – a minnow in the scheme of matters – reminds Bhallala that a woman isn't a toy that he can just "want her". Similarly, an important character's fingers are chopped off by a lady he tries to molest. This, before he is abruptly beheaded ("You cut off the head, not the digits, of a man who disrespects a woman"). Devasena, too, becomes a lover, and even the crux of the sibling rivalry that follows, but there's far more to her than her expert archery and training.
She doesn't hesitate to remind her husband of what she expects from him, and questions the sacrosanct ways of not only Baahubali's home, but also an entire culture, repeatedly taunting a shocked Queen Sivagami in front of a court of male subjects. These verbal showdowns between the two women – both of the same making, one liberated by circumstances, and the other shackled by responsibility – make for the film's most crowd-pleasing moments.
I found myself gasping at Devasena's gall, oddly thrilled by her spunk, thereby proving how immersive and authoritative the Queen's rule was to begin with. The traditional saas-bahu theme is reversed, with the boy, too, much more than a conflicted pawn. Even the Queen reluctantly recognizes that she has met her match; her intimidating eyes betray a glimpse of aspiration and envy every time she seethes at her 'rebellious' daughter-in-law.
Devasena (Anushka Shetty) comes across as Ancient India's first feminist. She is brought up, rather unusually for her time, to believe in the principles of consent, and a girl's right to independently reject the voice of elders
As a result, the stakes feel worth it. She creates an aura that enables the storytelling to go down conventional paths – and still feel like it matters. Every phenomenally choreographed battle sequence makes us care for more than its mechanics, because we know that her husband, and later her son, is fighting for her sense of purpose, and her ideologies. The overwhelmingly heroic score that punctuates Prabhas' strides and gait feels appropriate because all the 'good' men in the film are defined by their loyalty to women – Kattappa to his Queen, Baahubali to his wife, and Shiva to his mother. One can almost hear Rajamouli apologizing for that song in the prequel: where Shiva aesthetically woos Avanthika by simultaneously undressing and transforming her from a warrior into a feminine 'bride' of sorts.
The reason I've spent so long writing about Devasena is because she is everything that separates this film from its predecessor. Everything else is more or less as astounding and cheesy as earlier, as breathtaking and basic as before. It isn't as if we haven't seen this saga in other countries, and other mediums, before. It has been countlessly retold in various good-versus-evil templates, over several scales.
However, she is the reason I didn't feel like sarcastically chuckling at the clichés – the overly mythological roots, the quasi-reincarnation formula, the King-in-disguise mischievousness, the fatally caricatured villain, the Karan-Arjun revenge model, the Ramayana-like exile conflict and the Magadheera-ish war set pieces.
Instead, I found myself taking in these visuals and plot points as if this film were the 'founding father' – the original, like a piece of old-school literature, from which all the new-age clichés originate. The first mover, the 'Adam and Eve' of fantasy adventures, if you may. All the other films, even the ones before Baahubali, feel like direct descendants.
Perhaps that's the sign of a truly good movie – it feels new, even if it's not. It resets our mental clock of adulthood. Growing up is accompanied by a breakdown of innocence, often reflected in the way we consume cinema and other arts. We start to snigger at convention, and mourn the repetitiveness of the very things that had once captured our infantile imaginations.
Rarely will a film transport us back to that first time, because we're too jaded by the reality – that every story is just a reconstruction of the same words and a reinterpretation of the same images. Yet, some films, like this one, feel like the first story ever told, the first sentence ever written, the first swarm of arrows descending upon an unsuspecting army, or the first herd of bulls with burning horns distracting the enemies.
For all its derivativeness, Baahubali reminds me of what it is to feel like a child again. To look up at the giant screen, all gooey-eyed, waiting to feel small and overawed – by weapons, trumpets, blood, gore, timing, Gods, warriors, pixelated skies and victory. To anticipate something, and feel vindicated for being right about it. To second-guess the writers. To be overwhelmed and underwhelmed, and forget to remember which was when. And as always, it's a woman who did it.