By Apoorva Sripathi
It’s a pity no one wants to discuss Rana Daggubati’s gloriously tied back hair, his salt-and-pepper beard and his powerful presence on screen. Even if he doesn’t have much to say during the first half of Baahubali 2.
There’s no doubt that Baahubali 2 is a hit in terms of popularity and the money it’s making (as of writing this, it had amassed Rs 792 crore in six days). Karan Johar, a producer of the film, said that this decade belonged to Rajamouli. Venkaiah Naidu pronounced the movie a “shining example of Make in India”, and person suffering from constant foot-in-mouth disease Ram Gopal Varma said those who disliked Baahubali 2 needed “psychiatric help”.
Varma’s hyperbole aside though, audiences either love Baahubali 2 or they hate it. And reviewers seem to be split among extremes themselves — some extol it as a great piece of art, others consider it mythological, casteist fluff. There seems to be no lukewarm middle. Which makes it so fascinating — why is it that reviewers are themselves split down the middle? What is it about the film that evokes such strong reactions? After all, the story is itself quite simple: man fights enemy to take control of kingdom and save his mother.
However, it’s also true that Baahubali 2 is deeply preoccupied (which is not to say it is thoughtful) with the caste system, especially given how its director Rajamouli’s Facebook post (that resurfaced after five years, just in time for the second installment) stands testimony to how much importance he places on caste and religion.
Rajamouli’s thoughts on why the caste system is what it is today gives us a little inkling into why Baahubali 2 celebrates so-called Kshatriya pride. “We [sic] learnt The Caste system from Manusmrithi was based on our lifestyle and not by birth. Mr.Prasad, A gentleman whom I play tennis with, told me a better expansion. Panchama Jaathi (Untouchables) One who depends on others for his living. (Parasite) Sudra One who lives for himself and his family. Vysya One who makes profit for himself as well as for the person with whom he is trading with. Kshatriya One who eats after the people under him have eaten. Brahmin One who first learns and then teaches…”
Rajamouli calls shudras parasites — is he earnestly passing on much knowledge that Mr Prasad gave him? Is this what he believes? Certainly he was convinced enough to share it on Facebook. If you feel befuddled by the ridiculousness of his post, all you need to do is watch Bahubali 2 and you’ll learn that Rajamouli has some strange, strange ideas about the world.
For one thing, in his head the Kshatriyas are rocking. They rule. In one scene in the movie, Devasena’s (Anushka) cowardly cousin refuses to fight an army of Pindaris to protect the Kuntala kingdom. Amarendra Baahubali, in a bid to invoke his courage and light his fire, sings the praises of Kshatriyas and their duty, which is to fight and protect. In minutes, Kumara Varma puts up a brave fight and helps Amarendra in protecting his kingdom. Even female protagonists aren’t spared from upholding Kshatriya virtue — Devasena proudly declares her right as a Kshatriya woman to choose whom she can get married to.
Some critics like Apoorva Pathak and Pranav Kuttaiah have pointed out the casteist overtones of this second film. In Baahubali 1, the theme everyone decried was was racism and sexism and misogyny. In contrast, Charmy Harikrishnan calls Baahubali 2 “Amar Chitra Katha at its exaggerated worst,” glorifying “rich powerful Kshatriyas in silk ruling over poor voiceless people”.
Meanwhile, several other critics have counter-argued that this film is a good example of historical fiction and should be viewed for what it is — colossal garish grandeur — and not be dissected to see if it fits the many ‘inconvenient’ boxes of feminism or patriarchy or nationalism. (Meanwhile, Sahil Rizwan points to how people keep comparing it to The Lion King, which was itself adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.)
Is the staggering amount of noise surrounding this film ridiculous? Perhaps. After all, the underlying theme of Baahubali is universal — a youngster destined for greatness must overcome obstacles like murder, treachery and evil to reach his goal. It’s what we saw in Harry Potter and it’s what we see in Baahubali.
It’s also what Kalyani Prasher refers to in her review: “Questioning Baahubali on political correctness is like questioning why Harry Potter is a white male.” And the epic fantasy film should not be analysed simply because it’s not set in this time; it’s an epic set in an indefinite era — that expecting such a movie “to depict women and people’s empowerment as it would be in 2017… would be odd”.
Okay, so Baahubali doesn’t have to be historically accurate, and that he is free to speculate that this was what men and women were like at a certain time period, but what gets me is why create a make-believe civilisation to be this way? If this fantasy world is casteist and if that’s what audiences are going to take home — you might call it realistic, but hey, surely it’s okay for us to notice and point it out?
For a film that took two years and Rs 250 crore to make, Baahubali 2 has invested in a surprisingly poor script that is full of logical holes. We’re led to believe that a bunch of untrained skirmishers can take on a massive army and win… and all the while celebrating the virtues of Hinduism. Deepanjana Pal drives home this point in her review, that despite “enough moments of insanity, visual effects and slow-motion fight moves” the film disappoints because it’s far from original. Rajyasree Sen says it’s a holy trinity of feminism, flaming cows and mutants — “one of those films that is so bad, that it’s good”. Sen agrees with Pal that Baahubali 2 is quite nonsensical, but nevertheless urges us all to watch it for the sake of Prabhas, Rana and their man buns. I like the endorsement.
My favourite review so far has been by Premankur Biswas, who called the film “three excruciating hours of Prabhas porn”, which I found to be accurate. The rest of the review is equally acerbic and funny.
The thumbs up camp seems to be people who deign the film a “cinematic celebration”. Notably, The Guardian’s Mike McCahill is in full awe – he believes its jaw-dropping action plus heart is what had made it a blockbuster. Among these positive folk, there is the occasional biting advance-defence, such as Sandeep Balakrishna’s, that “the movie has merely become a tool and a weapon in the hands of aesthetic philistines of both camps”. So one camp of our critics looks for misogyny while the opposing camp draws parallels to classics and concepts like dharma. Balakrishna adds that looking for “gender-based political theorising in imaginative depictions of man-woos-woman” is “a stretched leap of logic”. But is it?
Baahubali 2 isn’t a historical movie because the “time-space element in the movie isn’t clearly delineated” — that is, we can’t put a sure finger on its time period. And, this argument continues: a portrayal of history is not necessarily an endorsement of it. Should we or shouldn’t we ignore the conclusion that the director might be advocating the caste system and fervent Hinduism in a film he’s made?
Here’s the thing, though. Portraying characters as true to the time they inhabit is one thing. But when we’re considering a movie as confused as Baahubali 2 is about its story and its characters — their location, their language, their way of life — we must conclude that it isn’t really taken from lived reality. It’s fiction. And surely the beauty of fiction is that it allows for adjustments, counter-views and, what’s the word… fantasy?