After the national anthem was played in the theatre in which I watched Baahubali: The Conclusion, a man shouted "Bharath Mata ki Jai". As the crowd echoed him, another shouted "Jai Mahismati!" and the response was just as loud. A small inkling of the immersive universe that SS Rajamouli has managed to create with the Baahubali series.
Sequels are always hard to pull off, especially when the first film has an unimaginable cult following like Baahubali does. But Rajamouli not only gives us a worthy sequel, he knocks it out of the park.
We've already met these characters, powerful people with powerful emotions. The just Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) who does not differentiate between the baby who took root in her womb and the one who held her finger in an iron grasp. Bijjaladeva (Nasser), her husband, denied his legacy because of his disability, frustrated by his wife's authority. Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubatti), their son, forever in the shadow of his more popular cousin, jealousy burning behind his outwardly calm eyes. Baahubali (Prabhas), the majestic, the beloved of his people and every bit a legendary hero that an epic calls for.
Then there's Devasena (Anushka Shetty), finally a female character who reminds one of Draupadi in her pride, rage, and thirst for vengeance. In the first film, we see her chained, her face leathery from the assault of the elements, clad in a torn saree with only revenge in her mind. In the second, she comes to us as Amarendra's love, the woman he'd do anything for.
And what a fantastic romance Rajamouli works up! There's none of the cringe-worthy rapey sequences that led to love blossoming between Shivudu (Prabhas) and the woman warrior Avantika (Tamannaah) in the first film. Instead we get a hero and a heroine who share crackling chemistry and mutual respect (really, when was the last time you saw an Indian film in which a hero is willing to disobey mummyji?). When the plank she is to step on to get into a boat falls, Amarendra helps her. Without wasting a moment, Devasena steps on his broad shoulders, the shoulders of the soon to be crowned king, and into the boat, her head held high.
Rajamouli's script is a winner because he gives us these characters we grow to love without merely pitting them against each other like gladiators. There is, of course, plenty of fighting and bloodshed, but the reason we care about who is dying and who is winning is the strong character arcs that we're given to experience.
Kattappa, perhaps the most loved character from the first film after Baahubali himself, is more than just a slave to the throne. Here, we see him joking around, playing Amarendra's sidekick and occasional cupid. Why does Kattappa kill him then? I've just watched a film about the pain of betrayals and I will not betray my readers by revealing the answer. But I can say that Rajamouli is confident about his characters and keeps them true to their nature without complicating the storyline unnecessarily. The answer might be disappointing to some, but I bought it.
Prabhas turns into Amarendra with so much conviction that you cannot help but root for him. Virtuous heroes are passe in cinema these days - we want more shades to a character, we want a bad boy within the good. However, even though Amarendra is full of goodness, he is not a boring character by any stretch of imagination. Prabhas is splendid whether he's romancing Devasena or wielding a sword to kill an enemy. He's grown so comfortable in the skin of Baahubali that it's difficult to believe that he's from this era. Perhaps that sounds too praise-y, but he succeeds so well in getting you to suspend your disbelief and watch open-mouthed as he performs superhuman deeds, epic style. As Amarendra, he's several notches above Shivudu, who is still not quite the man his father was. Though played by the same actor, the two characters emerge with distinction.
And move over the Hrithik Roshans of Bollywood, the competition is clearly between Rana Dagubatti's sculpted form and Prabhas's. Rana fires up an effective performance, although I did wish that we could have seen more of him. Avantika (Tamannaah) barely exists in the second film but Sivagami and Devasena get enough screen time to keep the balance. Needless to say, Ramya Krishnan holds her own and proves why she's the only actor who could have played the complex Sivagami.
Given the budget and time constraints, the VFX in Baahubali: The Conclusion is pretty great. There are a few scenes where you do feel that some fine-tuning could have been done - particularly towards the end, but that's a minor gripe. The fight scenes are superbly choreographed and you buy into the fantasy completely - at least, the audience I was watching the film with couldn't stop screaming for every blow that the mighty Baahubali landed on his enemies.
MM Keeravani's background score complements the pace of the film, whipping up emotions and keeping up the fever pitch. The songs appear organically and despite the film's length, you don't get restless because of the visual spectacle in front of you.
And no, there are no "item" numbers in this one unlike the first film. Indeed, Rajamouli seems to have set aside what many filmmakers call "commercial compulsions" and made a film that he wanted to make, knowing that the audience was with him.
Is this the end of the Baahubali franchise? One hopes there's more coming. Jai Mahismati!