A Complacent Bollywood Needs to Wake Up to Baahubali’s Success

As the country flocks to theatres in huge numbers, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, has become the first Indian film to cross the Rs 100 crore milestone on its first day, after the widest release in the history of Indian cinema. SS Rajamouli’s fantasy epic originally made in Telugu and dubbed in multiple languages has generated a pan-Indian response. The mass hysteria is unprecedented and compels us to think whether we are witnessing the first Indian film breaking all barriers of language and region.

Baahubali with its two parts is also a fitting rejoinder to the notions that the Hindi film industry has built up over the years. Not only in its success, Rajamouli’s film is also a wake-up call for complacent creative folks in Bollywood that the status-quo is not the gospel truth, but a myth that can be broken.

To begin with, Bollywood is an industry driven purely by the star system. More than content, it’s the stars who decide the fate of a film, from script to screen. Most big budget films emerging out of Mumbai spend heavily on toplining stars, so much so that sometimes the stars’ remunerations outweigh the budget. If the film in question is period or epic in scale, star fees coupled with production costs hit the budget out of the purview of feasibility. Baahubali 2 despite its mega budget gave little to its director and its lead actor, reportedly offering them monthly salaries. The money was instead spent on production, which resulted in eye-popping visuals – one of the key factors that makes Baahubali so attractive for the audience in the first place.

Director SS Rajamouli with Prabhas and Anushka Shetty on the sets of Baahubali: The Conclusion. (Photo courtesy: Arka Mediaworks)

Baahubali also breaks the myth borne out of conventional Bollywood wisdom that you require a big star to lend credence to an epic saga. Rajamouli’s thinking is actually on the lines of Hollywood where big budget franchises create stars out of nobodies. Look at Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Twilight or superhero franchises by Marvel and DC, and how they’re turning new or relatively unknown faces into stars overnight.

The cast of Baahubali might have been stars down south, but its success is a telling fact that the actors have moved beyond the confines of their state to become popular icons of national stature.

Also, the Hindi film industry despite its glossy outfit is not really known for focusing strongly on stories. It rather prefers to work around its stars’ key appeals and serve a serviceable plate. For Rajamouli, the story seems to be of paramount importance. After the massive success of Baahubali: The Beginning, he could have become smug about the sequel which has been so eagerly anticipated.

But Baahubali: The Conclusion is stronger in its plotting than its predecessor, and as the story unfolds, it tells us how every single element in the first film was cogently tied to its sequel. Neither does he indulge his stars, nor does he pander to his audience. From the characters, their motivations to the action sequences, everything is in coherence with the story. The story that he wants to tell.

Do you remember the last Hindi film that had astonishing action sequences? Rajamouli could do well to start a coaching class for some of our directors on the nuances of action. The kind of attention to detail Baahubali displays, it’s impossible not to be in awe of this film. If the war sequence in part one demonstrated an inventive planning, the sequel amps it up even further. The most dazzling moment in Baahubali 2 emerges when Amarendra teaches Devasena how to throw three arrows at one go while the enemy charges in, turning a combat lesson into a synchronised romantic ballet. To add more, there are cows with flaming horns and palm trees that turns into catapults for attacking strategy. As always, the armours clash like musical notes, blood pours out in poetic fashion, like a lyrical trance.

Prabhas as Baahubali lives up to the larger than life image that the film creates for him.

Even the hero’s entry, something that Bollywood imagines as grand, grander, grandest, Rajamouli beats everyone again. Prabhas, playing the dual role of father and son, walks countless times in slow motion, but the film gives him a certain larger-than-life grace that no leading man has ever managed in our country. With his muscular frame and towering height, Prabhas could easily be intimidating, but Rajamouli captures his face in such a way that we are privy to the gentleness he is capable of. In the flashing of his incalculable smiles, we are convinced that he possesses a certain tenderness. Despite resorting to violence and bloodshed, Rajamouli conceives Prabhas as the modern day version of Maryada Purushottam Ram, albeit with a superhero twist.

When basking in success and critical acclaim, most filmmakers tend to be blind to sparse criticisms coming their way. But Rajamouli seems to possess a pair of ears that are not only open to criticism, but also learn something out of it. Baahubali 1 had the problematic scene of Tamannaah’s Avantika being disrobed without consent, as the hero ‘made’ a woman out of her.

Princess Avanthika’s disrobing and seduction sequence was problematic in Baahubali: The Beginning.

But watch Baahubali 2, and it appears as if Rajamouli is atoning for his sins. The character of Devasena (Anushka Shetty) in Baahubali 2 is a feminist firebrand, and the main conflict emerges when her consent is not sought before a decision is made regarding her life. She walks over her lover’s body, fights like a pro, and challenges the system minus any fear. Devasena becomes the antithesis of Avantika, telling us Rajamouli is accepting of logical reproaches. This willingness to learn despite success is something we don’t see much in our successful filmmakers in Bollywood. Here, they prefer referring to their own myths and legends.

But the universe of Baahubali is not without faults. It is deeply entrenched into our caste system, it has problematic politics of valour, justice, religion and race, and has accumulated foreign inspirations aplenty, from Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth trilogy, wuxia genre to The Lion King.

But if we manage to look past these minor quibbles, we can safely say that Baahubali has brought a watershed moment in Indian cinema, demolishing established myths about stars and success.

The familiar story of palace intrigue has finally come out of Amar Chitra Katha’s pages to lend itself on screen with an inventiveness so vivid, you know there’s a charmed halo behind all of it. We bow to Rajamouli’s uninhibited imagination which has led us the creation of our very own desi Star Wars. Baahubali is our first pan-Indian pop culture phenomenon. May the Force continue to be with him.

(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder.)