Director: S.S Rajamouli
Cast: Prabhas, Anushka Shetty, Rana Daggubati, Ramya Krishnan, Sathyaraj
The war is over. Mahishmati awaits the coronation of its new king, Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas). But while peace may be good for the country, it's bad news for the screenwriter. For a while Baahubali 2: The Conclusion plods along a predictable path. It's never boring. S.S. Rajamouli always finds something fanciful to tuck away into the narrative – like the old world's equivalent of the girl's photograph presented to the boy's family in an arranged-marriage scenario. But we're stuck with a rather generic romance/comedy mix. Amarendra falls for the sword-wielding princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty, who's very good), while a cowardly royal (Subbaraju) clowns around. Even Kattappa (Sathyaraj) is found hamming it up, as he awaits the "nation wants to know" page in the script.
Part II suffers from a unique disadvantage. In most masala movies, some waffling around with romance and comedy is par for the course in the first half, till things start accelerating around the interval point. But then, most masala movies aren't breathlessly anticipated sequels either.
The sequel is more straightforward – it's one long flashback for the most part – and at least some of my impatience during the early portions was from wanting to know the answer to the whys.
Part I hit the ground running – there was no setup, just the sight of a queen (Ramya Krishnan's Sivagami) with an arrow sticking out of her back, a newborn in her hand. It kept us wondering. Who's this queen? Who's this girl covered with butterflies? Who are these cave-dwelling warriors bound by grim purpose? Why does Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati) intuit that the loyal Kattappa wants to kill him? And finally, that cliffhanger
The sequel is more straightforward – it's one long flashback for the most part – and at least some of my impatience during the early portions was from wanting to know the answer to the whys. And this is where we see the kind of filmmaker Rajamouli is. We tend to lump all our larger-than-life entertainers into the 'masala' category, but Rajamouli sees masala not just as a style but as a legitimate genre, derived from myth.
There's none of that 'leave your brains at the door, just go have fun' condescension, and there's no star-pandering. Rajamouli takes the genre seriously – he doesn't pander to the audience either. Another filmmaker would have surely broken the flashback, returned to the present day, and inserted a song sequence between Shivu (Prabhas) and Avanthika (Tamannaah). One might complain that the latter, after playing a significant part in the earlier film, is practically absent in this one – but she could not have been given more to do without breaking the integrity of the story.
Or take the big reveal about Kattappa. It left me a bit underwhelmed (in the sense that it's not slap-on-the-forehead exciting) – but it could not have been any other way, because it's completely true to who the man is. His core trait is loyalty. You cannot violate that just because you want to goose your audience. The stretch, therefore, is far more muted than I thought it would be. There's a great moment towards the end when Bhallala's father (Nasser) reminds Kattappa where his loyalties lie, and he freezes as though hypnotised. Looking back, the reveal makes complete sense.
Bit by painstaking bit, the grand story comes together, with memories from earlier myths. The conceit about gods disguising themselves as commoners to pursue love. The sibling rivalry from The Ten Commandments, along with the prince who wants the throne versus the prince who's wanted by the people. The banishment of the loyal-to-a-fault son from the Ramayana.
Rajamouli keeps tweaking these tropes. Amarendra may be Rama, but Devasena is no docile Sita. In an early scene, she uses his shoulders as a stepping stone – she coolly walks over him. Some of the film's juiciest scenes occur when she locks horns with Sivagami. Even off the battlefield, she isn't giving up without a fight.
Devasena also precipitates the film's most interesting psychological angle – Bhallala's lust for her, an emotion so potent it drives him to sniff the chains that bound her – though this isn't explored. The necessities of corralling a number of memorable characters into a compact screenplay result in a few gaps. I wished that, say, Sivagami's conflicted feelings about Amarendra had been fleshed out more, or that a villainous character had had a less obvious change of heart.
But it's with Bhallala that we truly feel the loss. When he is crowned king, he rubs his golden arm rest as though convincing himself it's actually happened. He senses, rightly, that he may wear the crown, but the throne isn't really his – at least, not according to the people. Rana Daggubati imbues the part with monstrous vitality. With all the decision-making powers in Sivagami's hands, he makes us feel the frustration of a Great Dane locked up in a Mumbai apartment. (In comparison, Prabhas comes across as genial and somewhat colourless.)
The film picks up with a huge war scene, and it never looks back. Rajamouli gives us one memorable moment after another – it's not just about grandeur in the sets and visuals, it's about grandeur of the imagination. It's the way Amarendra's commoner-robes are swallowed up by fire to reveal the armour beneath. It's about Amarendra and Devasena fighting in perfect sync, as though performing a mating dance. He teaches her how to shoot three arrows simultaneously from her bow. In most masala movies, the only thing the hero would teach the heroine is a lesson.
The echoes, a staple of the genre, are beautifully worked out. Marauders who drown their victims meet their end in a flood. If Part I showed us a baby held aloft amidst swirling waters, Part II shows us a baby held aloft in front of a fire. Even a festival scene from the beginning finds resonance in the end. I thought it was just a hero-introduction scene. It actually has to do with the heroine.
In other words, the story comes first for Rajamouli. He exposes the hero-worshipping masala movies we usually get for what they really are, the equivalent of dirty mags under a teenager's mattress, a quick-release mechanism for fans and little else. It's not that he doesn't care about wolf-whistles. Oh, he does. It's just that he doesn't want to get them by simply showing a star strutting in slow motion.