It’s more than two years since the nonstop, deafening noise-hype over the two-part Telugu film Baahubali has finally died out. Fresh in the wake of the release of both parts, I found all that hoopla amusing, ridiculous and completely overblown, given that it’s only a movie. But the blame for this rather lamentable state of affairs must squarely rest at the doorstep of the Communists who were the original progenitors of politicising art forms: primarily, literature, theatre, and cinema.
More than six decades ago, Kannada literary stalwarts like D.V. Gundappa and Masti Venkatesha Iyengar remarked that the Communists/Progressives, armed with prosaic skill, and media and political clout distorted these art forms by sacrificing them at the altar of ideology. DV Gundappa’s classic January 26 1950 essay Moses to Marx: Two Worldviews published in Deccan Herald is a highly recommended read on the subject. Equally, Masti’s numerous essays on contemporary literary criticism are worth an independent study in their own right. In our own time, Padmashri Dr SL Bhyrappa has remarked on numerous occasions that creative works must be critiqued using only the yardstick of Rasa or Aesthetics, and not by superimposing ideological or other standards upon them.
Therefore, on the one hand when one reads infantile “reviews” which try to only detect misogyny and “closeted conservatism” in the movie, and on the other, absurd parallels being drawn to Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam, it’s clear that Baahubali as a cinematic art form got buried somewhere in this wide spectrum of craziness that passed off as film reviews. While the former camp-followers try to forcibly retrofit modern notions of feminism and patriarchy onto a movie set in an imaginary historical context, the latter camp-followers mirror-image this by stretching comparisons between the post-industrialised West’s conceptions of constitutionalism and nationalism with the Mahabharata, concepts such Dharma, Vidhi and so on.
To put it bluntly, Baahubali the movie has merely become a tool and a weapon in the hands of aesthetic philistines of both camps, who have little or no notion of the conception of Rasa. Or if they do have it, have subsumed it under various garbs to achieve some random and extraneous aims unrelated to art.
Rasa is the Only Guide
Purely from the perspective of Rasa, Baahubali as a whole cinematic experience offers the viewer or connoisseur two primary Rasas: Adbhuta (wonder, marvel) and Veera (heroic).
The wondrous viewing experience of the movie has primarily to do with the canvas, scale, scope and sweep of the narrative as it unfolds scene by scene in spectacular visual grandeur. This experience is also the translation of S.S. Rajamouli’s audacious cinematic vision to reintroduce epic and fantasy narratives based purely on native Indian themes, which gave Telugu cinema enduring classics like Maya Bazar, Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam, Narthanashala, Lava Kusha and so on.
While the heroic element is quite obvious from both the movie’s promos and assorted marketing arsenal, it is the elevation of said heroism that delivers the actual Rasa experience. In other words, the audience already knows that it is in for sledgehammer-like climaxes, but is still hooked to the seat for the sheer thrill of watching how this action is convincingly accomplished.
This essay isn’t the place to explore all the other Rasas or aesthetic elements in Baahubali, but a few words need to be said about Shringara (love, erotics), the other important Rasa. The scenes related to the amorous dalliances that both Baahubali Senior and Junior have with their respective leading ladies embody this Rasa. Both father and son engage at some length in the persistent wooing of the women who’ve stolen their heart. The scenes have been designed and executed lushly and artistically, consistent with the overall grandeur of the film. But to detect “rape” and “patriarchy” and such other gender-based political theorising in imaginative depictions of man-woos-woman calls for a stupendous leap of logic.
The same leap of logic applies to those who view Baahubali as some sort of cinematic resurrection of Hinduism simply because it liberally uses Hindu rituals and other symbolism. A significant majority of such “reviewers” don’t have enough exposure to or understanding of the Telugu cinema tradition, where even social dramas routinely use several aspects of Hindu culture and traditions throughout the history of Telugu cinema. One can list the selfsame Rajamouli’s Yama Donga and Magadheera as earlier examples of the mythological-historical-fantasy drama genre.
But to pinpoint the specifics, Baahubali is an unabashed cinematic celebration of the spirit of Kshatra (the warrior spirit, celebrated across all ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome), which is what preserved Hinduism in India against prolonged and repeated alien invasions. As history testifies, this Kshatra tradition dates all the way back to the Vedic and the epic eras, and the centuries-old royal tradition where every kingdom had a flag, a presiding deity, every great warrior had his own signature arrow, and so on.
Baahubali tries to recapture this ancient tradition quite magnificently in the sequences where Prabhas climbs the royal elephant, as well as the elaborate coronation ceremonies.
Yet, Baahubali is not without flaws.
First, it is not a historical movie in the sense that the time-space element in the movie isn’t clearly delineated.
From the movie, it appears that the kingdom of Mahishmati can exist anywhere in India, except that there was actually a historical city named Mahishmati located on the banks of the Narmada to the south of Ujjaini and north of Pratishthana (today’s Paithan) in Madhya Pradesh. It was a major city of the Avanti kingdom and finds mention in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Raghuvamsha, Digha Nikaya, Sutta Nipata and a 13th century inscription of king Devapala of the Paramara dynasty.
In the movie, the princess Devasena hails from the Kuntala country, which is shown to be a lush, mountainous region, the kind seen in say Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh. However, various inscriptions and copperplates show that the historical Kuntala region lay in the Deccan and was ruled variously by the Nagas, Yadavas, Vakatakas, Chalukyas, and Rashtrakutas.
The action in the film also takes place in an unspecified period. In the first part, actor Sudeep dons the role of Aslam Khan, a Persian Muslim arms dealer. This means the period can be set in any era after the Arab invasion of Sindh, but when one observes the architecture of Mahishmati and the costumes worn by the royalty and the laity, it’s hard to determine even an approximate historical context for the movie. This same element of period-confusion occurs in Rajamouli’s Magadheera as well.
Then there’s the question of names, which heightens the aforementioned confusion. Sivagami is a typically Tamil name, Bijjaladeva is a Kannada name (after the Southern Kalachuri king of the same name whose reign witnessed the flourishing of the saint Basavanna), Ballaladeva is a Kannada name (after the Hoysala kings Vira Ballala I, II and III), Kattappa can be Kannada, Tamil, or Telugu names, while Sanskritised names like Avantika and Devasena can hail from any region in India. Indeed, the name of the title character, Baahubali, can hark back to the celebrated Jain monk, Baahubali in honour of whose renunciation stands the imposingly tranquil Gomateshwara statue at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka.
We are then introduced to the Kalakeyas, derived from the Puranic and Buddhist lore, in which they are termed Kalakanjakas, the “terrible-faced asuras.” The Puranic story has it that sage Agastya drained the ocean of water in one sip so that the Kalakeyas would be exposed and annihilated by the Devatas.
Next, we have the Pindaris in the second part. Pindaris are of relatively recent origin. They were the 18th Century irregular Muslim marauders based out of the Malwa region, whose primary business was plundering regions occupied by the British.
And so it’s a tad confusing when expectations are set with such nomenclature of both place and characters, but result in a panoramic and confounding mix of time, place, and characters.
It can be argued that director Rajamouli has full creative freedom to name the characters as such, but in a country like India which still retains strong historical, legendary, folk, and native cultural roots, this confusion could’ve been avoided without marring the narrative. Given these glaring flaws, the inescapable conclusion is that Vijayendra Prasad, the story writer was either lazy or sloppy or both in his research. The least he could have done was to consult authoritative histories or history scholars hailing from the non-Romila Thapar school.
The other drawback of Baahubali is the near-total absence of the rich classicism that was an integral part of vintage Telugu mythologicals (mentioned earlier). This is clearly evident in two aspects: body language and dialogue.
While both Prabhas and Rana Daggubatti have sweated hard to develop formidable physiques, they fail to utilise it in sequences involving intense drama. Equally, their voices lack the royal gravitas, which can be accomplished only by an effective use of tonality, diction, modulation and what is known as the typical male baritone or deep or even rough voice. Part of this shortcoming also has much to do with the actual dialogue, which sounds rather tepid.
The following clips best illustrate this yawning contrast.
The extraordinary classicism we witness in these video clips was accomplished by stalwarts like Samudrala Raghavacharya, K Kameshwara Rao, KV Reddy and others with nonchalant ease. As an illustrative example, one can cite the sheer artistry of capturing Lord Krishna’s entire childhood in just one song of seven minutes, the classic ‘Jaya Krishna Mukunda Murare’ or the Kannada song ‘Ramana Avatara’ narrating the full Ramayana in six minutes.
Or to state the obvious, this classicism is inseparable from Sanatana Culture, whose mythology, epics, art, sculpture, temple tradition, music and dance offer an inexhaustible treasure chest for creative artists of all fields. So is it with cinema.
Portraying Sanatana Culture in Cinema
Indeed, to portray Sanatana Culture artistically on screen, the writer, director and other creative crew must live its languages, customs, traditions, dresses, lifestyle and so on. Mere “research” and an intellectual appreciation — even when it is compassionate and sympathetic — will take a filmmaker only so far. How does it become art when it lacks that mandatory element: Bhava or Feeling? In other words, the filmmaker must reflect the universal spirit of Sanatana Dharma set in the backdrop of his or her script and characters.
It’s for this reason that Baahubali cannot be fully regarded as a film that reflects this classicism, mythology, or other core elements of Sanatana Culture.
To put it bluntly, S.S. Rajamouli seems to have been handicapped by this lack of lived and experiential understanding of the classical Sanatana social milieu. While it’s not a mistake on his part, it is a reflection of a largely deracinated urban Hindu society and the artists and filmmakers who emerge from it. Rajamouli’s craft, creativity, imagination, and narration are certainly superlative, but his lack of the aforementioned lived experience of his own native culture and traditions is glaringly evident in Baahubali. For instance, the sequence showing Jallikattu and Kambala are clearly added as an afterthought in the wake of the recent protests. Its absence wouldn’t have made a difference to the story.
On the other hand, such Sanatana social and cultural traditions are beautifully enmeshed in the films of Dadasaheb Phalke Award Winner K Viswanath. One can cite the creative and nuanced depictions of the Gangireddu, Haridasa, and Rama Katha traditions in his movies like Sutrdharulu and Swati Muthyam. (The interested reader might wish to peruse a six-part appreciation of Viswanath’s body of work.) All of these are integral to the story itself and are not introduced as showcase elements.
And so, unless we have filmmakers of such, or even a comparable caliber, the ongoing noise over the “politics” and “ideology” of Baahubali and similar movies will continue.
If this critique of Baahubali sounds harsh, it isn’t meant to be.
S.S. Rajamouli has clearly made a winner with an extraordinary narration of a very simple and familiar tale of a youth destined for greatness and glory and how he triumphs over the various obstacles of intrigue, murder, and evil. But despite its sweep, the movie falters and at points, fails to flesh out subtleties in character and detail. It’s this that makes it stop short from becoming a classic, and merely remains at grand.
Indeed, Baahubali is perhaps the first Indian film in the millennial decade to defy the dogma of the craft of modern filmmaking derived for example, from the Syd Field school and still create an extraordinary visual feast based entirely on a native Indian theme. And it has succeeded with aplomb.
Rajamouli must also be credited for his guts to rewrite the grammar of Indian cinema in an attempt to resurrect the mythological-fantasy genre that gave Telugu cinema its enduring masterpieces. This in an age of so-called realistic cinema with largely contemporary themes or the inane fare dished out from the soul-killing factories of Karan Johar and Yashraj Films.
And with Baahubali’s stupendous success, one can perhaps hope for more refined films in this genre from Rajamouli’s stable. Or to inspire other filmmakers to attempt this genre.
But it’s unarguable that Baahubali has certainly earned its place in Indian cinematic history.