What do we mean by an ‘Indian movie’? Does the term ‘Indian movie’ deserve any kind of rigid definition? I am not sure about rigidity but I want to make some broad approximations that might at least help us get to some kind of a definition.
What comes to your mind the instant you hear the word ‘cinema’? Songs? Yes, we Indians are suckers for great music and grand displays of dance. Ask any random person walking across the street what his favourite pastime is – he will remove his earphones with a blank stare and say, “I like listening to songs.”
By songs, we rarely mean listening to professional music – Carnatic or proper western or even rural folk. All these genres of music are off-limits since our musical tastes aren’t accustomed to them. Instead, what we long for is ‘cinematic music’ where you map your musical sensations to cinematic images of dance and drama. Tomatoes are nice to eat only when they take the form of ‘thokku’ and not when they are raw. Indian cinema, not as a rule but as a precondition, must have songs.
Some months back, I saw a Hollywood film called “The Untouchables”. Kevin Costner plays an ordinary cop who takes on an all-powerful mafia drug lord played by Robert De Niro. The travails of the common man who nails the drug lord at a great personal cost form the crux of the movie. When I say ‘nails the drug lord’, as consumers of Indian cinema, we are accustomed to visualising an image of the hero taking away the life of the villain. A familiar image to all of us, in which the hero and the villain hang from the edge of a cliff in a climactic fight.
But the final scene here is inside a courtroom. The scene details a long court proceeding and ends with the judge declaring the accused ‘guilty’. I was waiting for the scene where DeNiro would pounce upon Costner in rage, leading to an ugly fight, culminating in the villain’s death. But it never came. Credits started rolling. I was like, “What the hell? He should have died.” The film felt totally incomplete for me. I wondered why.
I was someone who had grown up on Indian movies. In my town, the hero is not a man. The villain is not another bad guy. The conflict is not between individuals. The clash is between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. A fight between gods and demons. And we are drawn to them because our theatres are our laboratories. Movies are our experiments. We badly want to know which one of them finally prevails.
If God wins, we leave home sanguine, feeling assured and peaceful about our daily lives. If the demon wins, we are tinged with despair, drowned in doubt and suspicion about the big, bad world. And when the conflict is on such a grand scale, where something as big as our beliefs are at stake, shouldn’t the ending also befit the overall intensity?
Should our hero hand over the bad guy to some so-called ‘dispensers of justice’ and wash his hands away? Isn’t our hero himself a custodian of law and an instant dispenser of justice? Haven’t we entrusted him with the authority that empowers him to kill a person, without having to wait for the mind-numbing opinions of legal experts or human rights advocates? Why should God hesitate to slay the demon?
Yes. All this is a way of reflecting on how much we love what our civilised minds have been trained to hate – the myth. I have seen a lot of questions on social media about the ‘illogical’ fight scenes in the climax of “Baahubali 2”. Let me clarify that nobody has more rights to set the standards of logic for any film than the film itself. And once the film sets the standard, it must live up to it.
Rajamouli sets the standard in the first scene itself when he shows us a half-dead woman with a newborn in one hand wading through the overpowering currents of a sprawling waterfall to take the infant alive to safety. The film sincerely adheres to this logic throughout and I found no complaints with it. When Arjuna’s volley of arrows can prevent droplets of rain from extinguishing the fires of Khandava forest, palm trees can surely be bent to catapult soldiers over the high walls into the impenetrable fort of Mahishmati. All that matters in mythical storytelling is the quality of imagination.
Not only in terms of imagination but also in terms of storytelling, “Baahubali” remains faithful to Indian myths and the ways they unfold. By splitting a quite straightforward story into two, so that both parts keep referencing each other, Rajamouli reminds us of the way Mahabharata and Ramayana’s threads intertwine frequently to become one full-fledged linear story.
A character behaves in a peculiar way when we first get introduced to them. We are forced to accept the peculiarity so as to move on with the story. As various threads unfold in the narrative, we tend to forget the first one altogether. After a point, when the narrative thrust is at quite a different place, the backstory of the character is revealed, the peculiarity is resolved and the story moves forward.
Compare this method with the way the stories of our demons unfold in our great epics. The demons which threaten the hero initially soon reveal themselves to be the victims of a very old curse. The curse many a time appears in a totally different story. Rajamouli uses the same method in many parts of the film – the rebel group and their origins, the mysterious death of Sivagami and needless to say, in the case of Kattappa and Amarendra.
Looking from another way, it can also be posited that our cinema, by adhering to mythical tropes, remains inextricable from our religious roots as well. Didn’t we feel overjoyed instead of getting offended, when Devasena breaks into a Janmashtami dance, singing paeans to her injured Krishna – the superhuman Amarendra?
This detour brings us to the next must-have of Indian cinema. The love angle. I have not seen even one movie from any other country that has a romantic thread just because it needs to have one. And the romance in Indian movies, in nine out of ten cases, never originates from an already existing thread. For example, it does not begin with an already married couple.
It is always the case. A boy meets a girl, the girl refuses the boy’s advances, the boy waits and keeps wooing her, the boy gets hurt in pursuit and the girl confuses sympathy with love till the point where sympathy becomes love. A traditionally rigid society like ours, which has many taboos, probably fulfils its unfulfilled desires through art. A society in which love marriages are still not the order of the day might like to satisfy its desire for romantic exploits vicariously through its movie’s protagonists.
And the mandatory hero introduction scenes followed by comedy tracks. Aren’t these aspects genuine Indian contributions to world cinema? I might disagree strongly if someone views them with snobbish contempt. Cinema of every country should reflect its heritage, psyche and the diverse aspects of its local culture. Going by the definition I have set up here, the recent “Baahubali” franchise is not just another typical Indian movie but a wholesome celebration of the genre. Yes, I said celebration. After all, don’t our Indian movies resemble our own typical festival celebrations? On a fine Diwali morning, when I am asked to choose between watching a “Pather Panchali” and a “Padayappa”, wouldn’t I gladly choose the latter?
When we have a “Basha” and a “Sholay”, also fine offsprings from the famed cinema-mythology marriage, why should I call “Baahubali”, the greatest among them? Firstly, for its vision and its magnitude. Having being conceived on such a grand scale, “Baahubali” competes with the greatest of our Indian epics. Secondly and most importantly, the realisation of its vision. The epics, in so far as they exist, reside only inside our heads as fantastical images or as text inside the pages of a book. They have never been so befittingly realised.