(Some spoilers – not the big one. But if you haven’t watched the Baahubali films yet, do you really care?)
Uneasy lies, not the head, but, the crown. A coronation ceremony in progress after devious machinations to capture the throne. For an epic fantasy, the means were hardly violent. It was accomplished just by controlling the message. The people’s champion, the man who can do no wrong, gives it all up in an instant. The new king takes his oath and there are only murmurs of allegiance. Only whispers of fealty. His family and his cohorts shriek the loudest. The old king takes the oath as the new commander-in-chief. The commoners outrage in unison. It is in fact part-outrage, part-celebration of their hero and every quality he stands for – loyalty, intelligence, kindness. The queen mother is shaken but not surprised. The ground trembles. The army too make note of the people’s choice. Hands, feet,weapons and armory unite in quaking the earth. Chalices and silverware are knocked off their place even as the throne itself loses its balance. The crown develops cracks and threatens to topple. Magizhmati gets its first taste of democracy.
Allow me to channel my inner TM Krishna (not the one that makes Nalinakanthi dance to his will but the version that broached this subject during the first film’s release) for a moment. Because Baahubali: The Conclusion is a post-truth world’s pop culture artifact, if you watched the above sequence and Donald Trump’s inauguration (the turnout controversy, more specifically) did not flash in your mind even for a second, do you belong to the third rock from the sun? The whole sequence stems from an appeal to Sivagami’s emotional instincts rather than basing her decisions purely on facts. But then this is also the appeal of Baahubali, its myth and its maker SS Rajamouli. Not that he intended any of it to be received exactly this way but Baahubali having a resonance in the present times despite taking all of its cues from known myths (and some actual real world facts!) around the world, is unmissable. None of this is entirely new. Two brothers, one a fascist, and the other, loved by the people. Rajamouli makes a huge effort to contrast this even if it is all black and white (the gray is reserved for the inimitable Sivagami). Bhallaladeva is menacing even in non-violent ways, his calculations for us to see. The evilness in how he controls his own father on when to speak and when not to speak. Amarendra Baahubali is not just a warrior famed for his strength, battle prowess and loyalty, therefore good. He is also empathetic in ways kings of Magizhmati are not. It is in his ability to adapt to living with the commoners and engineer solutions for them. Or in his embrace of the champion and the timid alike. Baahubali is a liberal tragic.
Or is he? There are repeated mentions of the pride of the Kshatriya warrior. Baahubali advises the timid prince to look within and find that Kshatriya. It is not a time and period detail anymore when once again something finds resonance in the present, as only few months ago an IT company’s CEO indulged in some caste based chest-beating (Kshatriya again) over an executives’ war of words. It is not all. There is the problematic depiction of the Kalakeyas, in the first film, who live in the forests (tribals and blackface?). Though Qalandar here makes a case for them as asuras because Sivagami camps next to a huge idol of Durga. Another – possibly unintended but who can tell – instance from the first film is the use of word pagadai for which Madan Karky had to issue an apology after some violence broke out in a theatre. The Baahubali films are unabashed in their drawing of the caste hierarchy. They are not even undertones anymore. There is a throwaway shot of Kuntala kingdom’s rich cattle and when war rages on, the cowherds are asked to regroup to play their part. They wonder what they can do, after all they only work with cattle. Kattappa gives them a pep talk and soon we see bulls rampaging with their horns on fire. With the Baahubali makers making clear their distinctions, and a variety of gau-rakshaks assuming sovereign power in our streets, it doesn’t come across as just another innovative battle choreography. The cows and cowherds in Baahubali are less of happenstance and more of a target practice. This is not to say that none of this has ever happened in cinema before, intentionally or otherwise. But all of a sudden, this brand of all too familiar brazenness seems to have profound implications during these times. They appeal to a larger demographic that seems to exactly believe in this value system, more than ever before. It will be a fascinating to study how much of Baahubali’s rousing reception is informed by this sort of majoritarian’s political consensus.
This is also the problem with art and its reception. I enjoyed the Baahubali films. But the not so difficult concept to understand here is that one can like a piece of work for different reasons and at the same time acknowledge the problems with it. Baahubali concocts joys that have universal appeal, the backbone of mainstream cinema. The special effects (that fluctuate between passable and grand) are almost an afterthought. Baahubali is held up by its ability to hit you at your most visceral self. It’s in Rajamouli’s world building of Devasena’s Kuntala kingdom, that seems to enjoy a year long spring season – gardens on hill tops, majestic views, rich paddy fields with men and bulls indulging in Kambala – where it is only a surprise if love does not blossom. It is in the thought behind those catapults, made of men holding shields morphing into human canon balls. Has there ever been a better idea for an ambush? The whistle worthy scenes don’t exist in vacuum despite the fact that they keep coming at you in relentless fashion. A reintroduction scene is a set up that foreshadows the climactic events. The astounding fact is in how literal Rajamouli can be and yet fascinate you with his filmmaking. The coronation sequence for one and then there is another instance where Kattappa literally transfers blood in his hands to Sivagami’s. How does a director get away with that? He comes up with familiar tropes that too have profound emotional impacts. Like the Shakespearean influence in an accidental Lady Macbeth with Oedipal tendencies – a Sivagami as Queen Mother is replaced by the new Queen Mother, Devasena. Extended action sequences that culminate in richly imaginative comeuppance – like the bridge made of the head, which too is foreshadowed earlier. Or the blaze of war put out by breached dams causing immense flood that will remind you of Isengard (another work of art with universal appeal and problematic depictions).
Baahubali’s politics, like in the all too familiar present day world, is a different beast that is always up to some amount of posturing (or packaging?). Even its stray liberalism is the kind that is cushy and self assuring. If the woman is not objectified then she is written as a sword wielding warrior, like the other men in the film. Only the two ends of the spectrum matter, the complexity in between is lost elsewhere. But I won’t lie, the Devasena vs Sivagami wars of attrition form some of the most delightful portions of Baahubali 2. Just like the liberalism hoax, Magizhmati’s democracy too is a hoax. Once again, Rajamouli reflects the real world by ending a dictatorship by the pulling down of a statue. What does it achieve? The Queen Mother doesn’t bat an eyelid when she comes out to the podium and announces that Amarendra Baahubali is dead, and the new king would be Mahendra Baahubali, the infant. Democracy in Magizhmati is a pipe dream. In place of fascism, people settle for dynastic politics.