At the beginning of Baahubali – The Beginning, we’re shown the lay of the land. This kingdom lies here, that one there. It’s nothing new as an idea – we saw this in Lagaan, for instance. But look what the director, SS Rajamouli, does. He renders the map in three dimensions and follows it all the way to a waterfall, which morphs into an actual waterfall – there’s always a little tweak, a little twist. We see the Ramya Krishnan character (she’s good, but can’t anyone think of anything she can play other than The Glowering Woman) running towards us clutching an infant – but as she moves past us, we see the arrow sticking out of her back. We see Palvaalthevan (Rana Daggubati) preparing for a fight with a bison-like animal – but it’s only when man and beast are in the same frame that we register how big the animal is, what a monster it is.
The small problem with Baahubali is that these visual twists aren’t complemented by narrative ones. There’s a wonderful revelation at the end involving Kattappa (Sathyaraj, who has the most moving part and aces it), and it sets up Part II of the film (expected next year) wonderfully – but otherwise, this is not the kind of movie you watch for the plot. As he did in Naan Ee, Rajamouli proves here that the story doesn’t really matter – for what is Naan Ee but your average revenge saga? But the minute you make that man a housefly, everything changes. Suddenly, it’s a brand new experience.
Baahubali, seen as just a story, is as old as the hill that Sivu (Prabhas) wants to climb. The film takes us back to an era of palace intrigues and deliverer myths, when royals spoke formal Tamil (“Mudiyai mudippavan mudi”) and commoners a more colloquial tongue. It’s the kind of cheerfully manipulative film where, after a war, a wounded man raises himself painfully on a stick as he cheers the newly crowned king. But Rajamouli makes us feel we’ve never seen anything like it. It’s part AP Nagarajan. It’s part Cecil B DeMille. Even Tolkien is in here somewhere. Along with a kitchen sink full of masala tropes: the long-suffering mother, brothers-turned-enemies, flashbacks and double roles. All updated with six-pack abs, computer-generated effects and eye-popping visuals. (Cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar and production designer Sabu Cyril are practically co-directors.)
The emotional beats take a while to cohere, so the first half is a bit of a drag – but even so, there’s much to enjoy. Take the romance between Sivu and Avantika (Tamannaah). If you’ve seen the trailer, you may have thought (as I did) that the actress was cast because she looks pretty in that gold bustier and those diaphanous white robes. But she’s actually some sort of – are you ready for this? –guerrilla warrior. One of Rajamouli’s achievements is that he makes us buy Tamannaah as this warrior. For once, her face shows character. And the mandatory love scenes are delightfully reimagined. There’s a bit that has to do with underwater calligraphy. And later, we see the classic taming-of-the-shrew construct depicted through choreography. Of course, there’s also a song sequence where the camera lights lovingly on Tamannaah’s navel. Some conventions are sacrosanct – you don’t mess around with them even if you’re SS Rajamouli.
I couldn’t quite buy Prabhas as this saviour. He has the physicality, all right. As the film’s title suggests, he’s strong. He keeps lifting things – a giant lingam, a giant boulder on a mountain, a giant statue. (In the Marvel universe, he’d be called Hoist Man.) And he acquits himself well in the action scenes – the one where he grabs a sword from its scabbard, in midair, is why wolf whistles were invented. (The battle manoeuvres are brilliantly imagined.) But Prabhas looks like a soft romantic lead, especially when compared to the oak-like Daggubati, who looks like he was nursed by a dragon. When Sivu delivers this movie’s equivalent of the rousing speech Henry V gave before leading his men to the Battle of Agincourt, we don’t feel the fire.
Then again, one way to experience Baahubali is to simply block out the sound (Maragatha Mani’s tunes aren’t very memorable) and imagine you’re watching the most spectacular silent movie of all time. In the midst of filmmakers who think they’re giving us spectacle by going to virgin foreign locations and shooting mountains and flowers, Rajamouli gives us more.. and more. This isn’t just about grandeur in visuals. It’s about grandeur in ideas. If DeMille’s saviour, in The Ten Commandments, was transported in a basket as a baby, Rajamouli has the child held aloft by a hand amidst swirling waters. There’s a superb romantic scene whose centrepiece is a snake twined around an arrow. I laughed out loud at the sheer audacity on display. Rajamouli proves that it’s possible to reinvent even the “TASMAC song” – here, the dancers emerge from a pyramid of ropes, as alcohol flows from pitchers overhead. But the best sight of all is that of a filmmaker not, for a second, taking his audience for granted.
- baahubali = strong of arm
- Mudiyai mudippavan mudi= (loosely) to the victor, goes the crown
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