It’s been five years since the first of the franchise of the magnum opus Baahubali got released. It was an ambitious project and a lot of hard work and money that went into its making paid off, perhaps more than what was bargained for. Baahubali went on to become a national sensation. The movie admittedly appealed to the masses and regular moviegoers who were on a lookout for a paisa vasool experience.
It have ticked every box when it comes to watching a typical Tollywood masala movie with the success formula of a macho hero, a beautiful heroine, a villain, a sidekick and a wronged mother to avenge for. Taking a cue from the immensely popular Game of Thrones, director S S Rajamouli also created a whole new language in the movie.
Rather ironically for the same reason, the movie held little appeal for a niche kind of movie lovers — the Ayushmann Khurrana-Irrfan Khan ones. For them, Baahubali was loud, dramatic, unoriginal and sexist, with belief-in-hierarchy overtones, not to mention an unendurable show of masculinity porn (a term coined by feminist online magazine Ladies Finger to define hyper-masculine portrayal of heroes to gratify the crowd) of its leading star Prabhas.
Considering myself to be a part of the same self-proclaimed liberal and feminist social circles, I nevertheless fell head over heels in love with the film. I don’t (and can’t) disagree with the criticism levelled against the movie, especially the first part. Indeed, it was difficult to forgive Mahendra Baahubali when he practically steals the crown from the warrior Avantika (Tamanna), decreeing that her mission of overthrowing the tyrannical King Bhalladeva is now his life’s mission.
A little before this, he ‘tames her aggression down’ with the display of his all-powerful machismo. The Ladies Finger captures it in the following words:
And then – and fucking then – as Avantika struggles with him, Baahubali proceeds to tear her clothes off, and he has this goofy my-mother-loved-me-too-much smile on his face while the flirty, lighthearted score continues in the background. Baahubali strips Avantika, a kickass warrior, down to her red underwear, and paints her face (in lieu of makeup) with some berries and coal. She fights back until he pushes her towards a waterfall, where she sees her reflection (plus Prabhas’s creepy leer in the background) and has an epiphany: she never knew how beautiful she was until he stripped her of agency and painted her face with makeup.
The message here is clear: Dudes, if you harass a woman long enough, she will fall in love with you, and you will probably get laid; and ladies, if you choose to deviate from traditional female roles, you’ll always be inherently unhappy, and secretly, you’ll be waiting for a hero to save you from empowerment.
Later in the movie, we have our beloved Kattappa, declaring how he has vowed to remain bound as a slave to the throne as part of a promise his forefathers had made to the Kings. In a country like India, where caste-based hierarchy and discrimination is a living reality, where some people are made to believe that they are not ‘entitled’ to certain privileges, the glorification of Kattappa’s loyalty to his benefactors, more so as they are oppressive to him, leaves you uncomfortable.
I don’t know if this criticism reached Rajmouli in the process of making Baahubali: The Conclusion, because an attempt was made to rework on a lot of character portrayals. Let us take the example of the female protagonists. The failure to give justice to Avantika was rectified up to a certain extent in the portrayal of the other two leading ladies in the movie — Queen Mother Shivgami (Ramya) and Devasena (Anushka Shetty).
Shivgami refuses to be the Queen of the Mahishmati Kingdom, even when her subjects desired it at a point of political vacuum in the Kingdom, choosing instead to govern as the de-facto ruler till her sons come of age. As a ‘woman’, she wants to abide by the state policy of allowing only male heirs to inherit the throne. However, just because she doesn’t sit on the throne legally doesn’t make her any less powerful. Till her sons can claim the throne, it is her choice and decision, sometimes taken for misjudgment and ego, that determines the destiny of the Kingdom.
Nobody is able to stop her from taking her decisions — not her husband, not her sons, and certainly not her loyal servant Kattappa. Her relationship with her husband is also one of its kind to be portrayed in Indian movies. It’s uneasy because she doesn’t share even a minuscule of her power, and is totally unapologetic; if not unmindful of it.
Neither her motherhood nor her status as a wife could come in the way of her position as a Queen. When her son, Bhalladeva, plots to kill Amarendra Bahubali, he still needs her validation and fears unleashing her wrath if he takes direct steps against his brother. And this is after he was crowned the King of Mahismati. Clearly, she held a lot of power even after her son became the King.
Devasena is a princess in her own right, but belonging to a less powerful kingdom, she is slightly less powerful when it comes to her sphere of influence. This does not stop her from asserting the little agency she has. She wants to remain in control of her fate when it comes to the man she wants to marry, and on various occasions, speaks her mind on consent and sexual harassment, even at the cost of dire consequences. She loves her husband, but does not worship him and does not expect to be saved by him when she takes on the mighty Queen Shivgami on these occasions.
Both these women, thus, have a strength of character that is their very own, and not necessarily drawn from the royal families they were born into. However, because of their ‘high born’ status, it is relatively easier for them to normalise holding power even as women, something which Avantika was not able to do.
Strong as she was, Avantika also had to suffer from the ‘ruling class’ complex and had to subjugate herself to the ‘true rulers’, the male heirs of Mahishmati, at the end of the first film. It is thus a movie with strong female characters, and not feminist ones.
Why does Kattappa kill Bahubali? A million-dollar question answered in the second movie, and we realise how deeply our caste fault line runs in the film. He was a slave, tied down to the throne. When Shivgami commands him to kill Baahubali, he had to comply. However, here, it should also be noted that he is willing to overthrow his vows and stand by the side of truth when Shivgami first asks him to kill Baahubali.
It was only when she emotionally beleaguers him with ‘You kill or I will’ that he takes the step. His loyalty for the throne flinches for a moment, but his love for Baahubali and Shivgami does make him commit the act. Kattappa may have been weighed down by oppressive systems, he may have been dominated by powerful personalities such as Shivgami, but he is not a flat character. He has an understanding of what is right and wrong. He has opinions. And for the very same reasons, he ends up becoming more than a loyal sidekick.
Finally, let us talk about Amarendra and Mahendra Baahubali (the father-son duo who are the rightful heirs of the kingdom, both played by Prabhas).
Both are strong, muscular, talented warriors and blue-eyed boys with blue blood, a typical case of hegemonic masculinity. Naturally, everybody around them was hell-bent on making them kings — their mothers, girlfriends, wives, friends as well as the masses of Mashimati. And then there are some who are equally hell-bent on removing them from their inheritance.
But what do they want? The truth is that neither of them ever desired power and the throne in the first place. Or any power for that matter. Patriarchy certainly does not ask women, but also does not ask men before chalking out their roles for them.
Amarendra Bahubali gambles with his love, with his life, for something he did want, and the saddest part is that his fans still glorify his dying as heroic, rather than questioning whether this could have been avoided had he been simply left alone with his own choices.
The movie, thus, unknowingly, makes interesting case studies for gender and caste representations, vis-a-vis their application in real life. All the characters have so many sides to them that it is a critic’s delight to study and analyse them. And this is when I began to like the movie, seeing its myriad and thought-provoking dynamics that fitted in the gamut of a regular revenge tale.
Also, it has some awe-inspiring cinematography — just think of Mahendra Baahubali lifting the shivlinga on his shoulders and placing it under the waterfall, the first big war with the Kalkeya dynasty that sealed the fate of the Kingdom, the three arrow trick that Amarendra teaches Devasena, Kattappa dragging the blood-stained sword to Shivgami after killing Baahubali, and the ‘lion king’ moment when Shivgami holds the baby high above her head in the balcony. These are such priceless scenes!
And yes, I also like the movie because of the delicacy with which the filmmaker created the character Amarendra Bahubali, who goes so much deeper than his warrior moves and royal status. I remember the way he did not hate his rival (Kumar Verma) for trying to woo his love interest Devasena, and for humiliating him many times. Also, for the way he stood for his wife twice before his mother, and sided with the truth after hearing both of them out. “
How did you make this match without knowing what lies in the heart of the woman,” he questions his mother, a simple gesture of how consent matters without making a fuss. I like his easy camaraderie with Kattappa (it is not condescending) and his love for his wife and mother that is all-encompassing and yet, not blind. He is genuine, open-minded, simple and trusting, devoid of cunning, and anti-war really, created as if from a ‘female gaze’ in a hyper-masculine movie.
I know I have a tendency to lose my objectivity and go overboard when building an argument for the things I feel passionately about, and maybe this is just one of those things. I would thus recommend everyone to watch and decide for themselves, if it is even worth writing a three and half piece article on it. What I guarantee though, is entertainment and Prabhas.