In this (if nothing else) Baahubali 1 & 2 resemble the first two Godfather movies. The narrative power of Godfather and Godfather 2 as a unit hinged on the way in which the second film was both sequel and prequel. To create a larger-than-life world, then to tell its backstory where scarred old protagonists become young heroes and heroines in their own right, and then finally to move the story forward to a conclusion grandly foretold by this past, this is what epics do. Like it or not the Baahubali saga is a blockbuster because it is, in this sense, an epic tale; it understands the story-telling conventions of the genre. To dismiss it as Amar Chitra Katha on steroids is both true and besides the point, not least because its director acknowledges those epics-made-easy comic books as his inspiration.
For those who haven't seen the films, the Baahubali story is a three-generation saga about the ruling family of a kingdom called Mahishmati. The resentment of one branch of the dynasty at being passed over twice for kingship drives the story. The villainy this rancour inspires leads to the good royals being variously dethroned, murdered, exiled and imprisoned. The dramatic tension of the film is maintained by gradually revealing the iniquities heaped upon the virtuous and then detailing the deferred but total demolition of the wicked.
If these are the bare bones of the story, its connective tissue is of two sorts. This is an action film and the story is moved forward by a relay of action sequences. Amarendra Baahubali and his son, Mahendra Baahubali, aren't supermen (they can't fly, for example) but allowing for the laws of physics, they can run faster, jump further and aim truer than anyone else. The film goes to great lengths to make heroic combat plausible.
Plausible here doesn't mean realistic. It means using special effects to make an impossible physical manoeuvre like lancing a man in mid-air, then, still mid-leap, catching a tossed sword without looking at it, reverse stabbing an enemy behind you and landing en garde, seem doable without apparent fudging or sleight of hand. This is no different from watching bullets being dodged in The Matrix; you know it's absurd, but watched in slow motion, seeing is believing. CGI wizardry combined with medieval ingenuity keeps us marvelling. For example, towards the end of the second film, Baahubali's army of townspeople breach a fort's defences by using supple palm trees to catapult them over the fort walls eight at a time. The killer detail is that in flight, they close ranks, sky-diver fashion, and fly safely over the fort's archers like octagonal sputniks protected by shield panels.
But this isn't just an action film. The action sequences add up to more than entertaining mayhem; the whole is a tribute to the way of the desi warrior, to Kshatriya valour. The Baahubali story sets out a code made up of cod-feudal virtues and makes its characters live by it. Central to this code is the inviolability of sworn oaths, the sacred udder bond between mothers and sons, the unswerving fealty of slaves, and above all, the ideal of the absolute yet benevolent king.
Throw in male primogeniture, obedient and adoring subjects, spirited female consorts who eventually know their place, and you have the all-India Kshatriya epic produced in Telugu in Hyderabad. This is not as strange as it sounds; it's no stranger than north Indian love stories in Hindi being produced by Gujaratis, Punjabis and Bengalis in Mumbai. Still, why is a film like this be so massively successful?
One possible answer is that honour-and-armour is a time-tested genre that has consistently had a broad audience. Whether it's Ben Hur or 300 or Braveheart, the heroism and derring-do of period warriors fighting for a patriotic or civilizational cause always has box office potential. Perhaps citizens of modern nation states, unsettled by the transactional morality of bourgeois society, admire the certainty and hierarchy and machismo of a chivalric time.
There's a rousing moment in the saga when Katappa, the royal family's slave bodyguard or janissary, abases himself before his young master Mahendra Baahubali and acknowledges him as the true king by placing his foot on his head. Baahubali's followers, including his girl friend Avanthika, who didn't know till then that he was the rightful heir to Mahishmati's throne, sink to their knees as loyal subjects and pledge themselves to him with a fist on chest salute. This archaic salutation is vaguely Roman and wholly hokum in the context of the Indian past, but it does its job: we choke up, our eyes prickle as Baahubali's birthright is dramatically endorsed by collective submission.
Submission to dynastic birthright is one of the great themes of this saga. The subjects of Mahishmati are our representatives, because they are spectators in their own right. They aren't mute - they can voice enthusiasm for a good king, in this case Mahendra Baahubali - but they aren't agents either; their dharma is obedience.
There's a splendid scene where Bhallaladeva, the wicked cousin is enthroned and his commander-in-chief, the unjustly set-aside but stoic Amarendra Baahubali, leads the enthronement ritual. It's rather like the Republic Day parade, all marching and chorused salutes and eyes-right commands and you half expect a drum major to toss up a mace and catch it. The gathered subjects adore Baahubali but they dutifully accept Bhallaladeva's anointment by the dowager queen. In this sense, Katappa, the dynasty's 'dog', its sworn slave, is the ultimate subject and the true protagonist of this film, because he takes the feudal ethic of loyalty to its natural conclusion.
Bound to the dynastic family by ancestral oaths, Katappa's dharma is obedience and he accepts the arbitrary order he serves without question. The film makes it clear that he is an honorable man because he is loyal. He kills Amarendra Baahubali because his sovereign commanded him to, and the dying hero doesn't reproach him for doing his duty. Katappa ends the film on the right side not because Baahubali Jr is a good man (though he is). Baahubali's goodness is incidental; Katappa's support and the support of Mahishmati's subjects stem not from Mahendra Baahubali's virtue, but his claim to be the rightful heir.
In this sense, the moral pivot of this film is the moment where Sivagami, the dowager queen, holds up the infant Mahendra Baahubali in the palace balcony and announces to her assembled subjects that he is their king. This is his claim to legitimacy: not his goodness, nor his valour, just a proclamation by an overwrought dowager. One reason for the film's success is the rigour and consistency with which it creates its world. Beyond the digital confection of an fantasy period setting, it is the invention and strict implementation of a quasi-medieval political morality that gives the films their emotional, populist power.
It is a conservative populism: the audience experiences the joys of being heroically led and the consolations of submission through Mahishmati's praja, its proxy. Mahishmati is, for what it's worth, a visibly Hindu kingdom; more precisely, a Saivite kingdom. Sivalingams are significant props in both films, the younger Baahubali is called Sivudu by his foster mother and his quest begins with his irresistible urge to climb a mountain where Shiva beckons. The temptation to read this as an advertisement for a Hindu Rashtra should be resisted. Telugu film-makers have a long history of mining the pantheon for ore. Sometimes, as Rajamouli has done here, they smelt it into box office gold.
The reason Baahubali 1 and 2 carry off their forelock-tugging populism with such brio is in large part due to Prabhas who plays both Baahubalis, Amarendra and Mahendra. Prabhas brings to his role (there's no real attempt to create different personas for the father and son) a lumbering innocence that relieves the blood feuds and solemnity of his feudal world. He runs like a galloping heifer, and for an action hero, he is endearingly clumsy. Like all successful protagonists, he makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Do the two films pander to prejudice? In their choice of marauding enemies, the answer is a qualified 'maybe'. Amarendra Baahubali saves his lover's kingdom from the depredations of the Pindaris. Pindari is a late seventeenth-century term for bands of mercenaries led by Muslim chiefs, troops for hire who were paid in plunder. It's an anachronistic historical reference in an otherwise happily ahistorical film because Mahishmati inhabits a pre-gunpowder world - no guns or cannon are used in any of its many battle sequences and the Pindaris emphatically belong to a post-gunpowder world. But this isn't a serious objection; the mythological fantasy (and the Baahubali films are charter members of that genre), is allowed historical license. If I was its director, SS Rajamouli, I might reasonably argue that the Pindaris are used not for their Muslim association, but because they became a byword for predatory looting in colonial times.
The less defensible rendering of an enemy in these films is the ravening horde of invaders helpfully called the Kalakeyas. These are black gibbering savages who speak an invented language dense with clicking sounds. It is as grotesque a representation of animalistic hubshis as you'll ever see, a depressing reminder of the racism that disfigures desi society and the cinema it creates.
The uncomfortable question that Rajamouli's films leave you with is this: if mythicized olden times can be so successfully mobilized to conservative ends, where are the great retellings that offer a more generous, less deferential view of our past? Why should the citizens of a democratic republic turn to Kshatriya swagger for their entertainment and not to more fraternal tales of derring-do? Having diligently chronicled history, progressives have, in their po-faced way, evacuated it. It's not enough to footnote the past; the point is to re-animate it. Because others will.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).
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