I read somewhere that the Baahubali (Bb) films will be hard to forget anytime soon. This is true for a number of reasons, both good and bad. One of the better reasons, in my opinion, is that the film’s director S.S. Rajamouli has got the attention of the “Non-South” through sheer force of will and some interesting creative choices. As advertising types like to say, Rajamouli has us by the eyeballs. Love them or hate them, the films tell a yarn, and do not apologize for how they tell it. And of course, while the rest of us have just gotten acquainted with the Telugu folklore genre thanks to its new, slick avatar, Rajamouli and his producers have laughed their way to the bank and back. It’s a great coup. Rajamouli and crew have been more than polite in thanking Dharma Productions for the worldwide reach of Bb, but they need thank nobody but themselves for the product. If you don’t see yourself as a lover (or promoter) of kitsch, you can still be moved by Bb to a point where you begin to question your aesthetic presuppositions. That in my view is a bigger coup.
I was slow to warm up to the Bb franchise, and that might be because I watched the films backwards, Bb 2 before Bb 1. Since then, I have watched each one thrice, the first time kicking, screaming, and eventually succumbing to an odd sense of obligation; the second time with curiosity and the growing warmth of a secret, guilty pleasure. The third time around I just soaked up the heavy metal background score while Rana sneered down at me and gathered up his hair into a ponytail in preparation for the next round of the final fight. (That Rana! How the camera loves to focus our gaze on him.) So when I say “question one’s presuppositions”, I really do mean it. Without being facetious, I want to say that my brush with Bb has been nothing short of educational. I humbly admit to being a slow Northerner.
So in this piece I am not about to bash up Bb. I have done that in the past before various friends. I am also not going to talk about “formal” stuff, such as Rajamouli’s and Sabu Cyril’s storyboarding and visualization, or Senthil Kumar’s shots, or even the mayhem of the romantic number bridging Kunthala and Mahishmathi. I am going to focus on a bit of content, and see what can be made of it. One of the fun things about a genre such as this is that it encourages analysis of multiple kinds, and doesn’t constrain one’s creative imagination in arriving at a reading.
Much has been written about the superficialities of Bb, and its abandoning of depth for smooth storytelling. But there are things that the narrative handles pretty well. One of these is portrayals of love. Let us look at three loving pairs: Sivagami and Amarendra, Amarendra and Devasena, and Devasena and Bhallaladeva. The last needs some detailing, since Devasena has nothing but contempt and hatred for Bhallala. But Bhallala loves her as much as he hates her—an angle that is suggested by things that Bhallala says, but which Rajamouli does not do justice to. To use a Mahabharata simile (which I am pretty sure was running in the background) Bhallala is as Duryodhana and Karna to Devasena’s Draupadi. I think Rajamouli truly blows it when that love dissolves into farce. Come onto my pyre Devasena, says Bhallala, but at this point we are only laughing at him. We shouldn’t be, given the slow-burning that he has endured for twenty-five years since the death of her husband—his enemy. Unlike his awful son Bhadra, he doesn’t kick or punch her when he has her captive, but he cannot bear not having her in chains inside his palace-compound. An unfortunate sacrifice in the face of narrative compulsion, perhaps?
Sivagami and Amarendra are another matter. The deeply Freudian tones of the smiles that pass between adoptive mother and son in the opening agniprasthan scene in Bb 2, the wounded, jilted look that Sivagami fixes on Amarendra when he honours his own word over hers, the queen mother’s joyride in a chariot driven by the resplendent crown-prince—all these speak of that poignant and often destructive love that Indian wives know so well. These add character to Sivagami and depth to Amarendra’s personality. Here is a queen and a mother who is also a woman with insecurities. She likes Devasena’s guts, perhaps seeing something of her younger self in Amarendra’s new bride, but resents “losing” Amarendra to her. On the other hand, Amarendra is man enough to face up to his mother when necessary, and walk away from her with his arm around his wife’s shoulder—more an ally than a protective husband concerned about his pregnant wife. Yet his long looks towards Mahishmati palace during his exile immediately conjure up images in the sympathetic viewer’s mind of his feisty, suffering mother. That he understands her agony of separation from him, her peculiar viraha, is reflected in his words to Kattappa as he lies dying in his arms. His forgiveness brims with love for his poor deluded mother.
Sivagami is instrumental in ending her son’s life, but her subsequent attempt to redeem herself before his departed soul, and to set things right by Devasena and her baby, reminded me of the old man’s suicide in Tagore’s long poem Debatar Gras. In that poem, there is a party of people making their pilgrimage to Gangasagar. Their boat is caught in a storm—a sure sign that the debata are dissatisfied with something or someone. An old man decides to address the problem. He catches hold of a terrified little boy and throws him in the water. For earlier in the poem the hassled young mother of the boy had threatened to throw him in the water for being such an imp. Horrified at what he has done, the old man cries into the wind “I will bring you back”, and dives into the storm, never to be seen again. Now that is a dark and emotionally scarring story as only a great literary mind could devise, and Rajamouli’s story is upbeat by comparison. But the comparison suggests itself if you care to think about it. At any rate, Rajamouli sketches this love-story with great economy, and I think it really is the best of three “cases” we are examining here.
Finally there is the grand amour of the warrior prince and the tough-as-nails princess. Well, I think it may be a tad overlong, but I really did not mind seeing Anushka and Prabhas together in their enviable roles as Devasena and Amarendra. Once you get past the romance of the boar-hunt with the dreadful pink and blue arrows and the hymn that is also a lullaby—Krishna makes so much possible—and cut through the humour around Kattappa and Kumar Varma, you get a few glimpses of truly great cinematic romance. Unfortunately, you have to revisit those scenes for yourself. I cannot quite do justice to the madness that is “Hamsa Naava”, in which Rajamouli gives you everything that your heart could possibly desire. A boat that turns into a swan and makes off with you and your beloved in the sky, clouds that morph into horses (or unicorns minus their horns: I don’t see why not), a Titanic moment, a stairway to heaven, a sampan, a Roman galley-ship—name it, and you get it. I fear that my analytical disposition has always prevented me from taking such a flight of fancy. This segment of the film invariably makes me wonder what Rajamouli was smoking, etc. But others who are romantics have responded with great enthusiasm to the song, and thanks to them I too have developed a “perspective” on it by now. Instead of feelings about it, you might say.
But there is an image that I want to leave you with. Remember how Amarendra comes to fight alongside Devasena in her palace? Prabhas Raju is an attractive man in his own right, but in this scene he seems to grow more beautiful by the second. When, as Amarendra, he strides past Devasena shooting three arrows at a time, we see the back of Devasena’s head as she stares at him in wonder. That is a moment of pure fairy-tale romance. The lovers’ eyes do not meet. There is an assurance there, a guarantee of camaraderie that earthly love may never yield—more the reason to render it as lovingly on screen as Rajamouli does. The all-too-brief electricity between the two figures decked out in vivid red burns itself into the mind. In that moment, we are all Devasena.
In a reading such as this, no doubt one ends up projecting feelings and thoughts onto the characters on screen. But projection isn’t possible unless the storyteller gives us materials to play with. Needless to say, one must look past a lot of fantastical goings-on to arrive at a reading, but that is worth doing. The “cases” we have talked about give rise to trains of thought that we would otherwise not experience, unless we do so by means other than fiction. The epic themes in Bb makes it possible for one to transcend the limitations of the fantasy genre in which it is heavily invested. Love is one such theme, and Rajamouli says much that is interesting about it.