The Problem With Baahubali’s Casteist, Supremacist Logic

Baahubali is a path breaking film in many ways. In a country that is home to the culturally hegemonic behemoth known as Bollywood, it’s rare that so-called “regional” (as if Bollywood and Hindi don’t have a “region”) cinema can stand up and proclaim boldly to be a pan-Indian phenomenon. The cinema of the south is often relegated to either poor imitations of Rajinikanth’s antics or is used as some token in film schools because, for some reason, you can’t be considered a real film connoisseur in India unless you can pronounce the names of three obscure Malayalam films.

Baahubali, when it first released, seemed to be a challenge to all this. In a country in which caste and region very fundamentally determine what gets to constitute the mainstream narrative, a Telugu movie stubbornly insisting on being so larger-than-life, is certainly rare. It was with this hope that I went to see Baahubali the first time; and despite my angst against that version, the reason I returned to watch the sequel this past weekend.

Whatever myths one may have about Baahubali being a subversive film, because it hails from the south, they are almost immediately dispelled by the ominous, foreboding and quintessentially Bollywood Kuch Kuch Hota Hai jingle of Karan Johar’s production house, that precedes the film. From there on in, it is nothing but a downward spiral – a cinematic hodgepodge with way too much muscle for such little brain. But I may be getting a little ahead of myself.

The first Baahubali was rife with offensive symbolism. It asserted natural orders to hierarchy and played on stereotypical tropes. But more than anything, there was something deeply pernicious about the fact that the film was originally made in Telugu and had wide releases in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

From the fair-skinned heroes and heroines glorifying the hierarchy and rigidity of their country and defending it from the dark-skinned tribal savages, the entire film reeked of Aryan supremacy. The Kalakeyas, the villains of the film, were portrayed as dark, ugly monsters; savages who did not understand the beautiful civility of the caste system.

The Kalakeyas, the villains of the film, were portrayed as dark, ugly monsters; savages who did not understand the beautiful civility of the caste system. (Photo courtesy: Dharma Productions)

If anyone doubted that this was supposed to mirror the imagined version of Dravidian ancestors, then all such doubts were put to rest in a bizarre interview with the creator of the Kalakeyas’ language ‘Killikili’, in which he states that the harsh-sounding, brutish language was modeled on Tamil. The film oozes out racism, with a clear racial gradient from the most to the least ‘civilized’ members of the world.

The first film also had very poor depictions of otherwise strong female characters. In violation of even the most commonsensical understanding of consent, the hero strips down a fierce warrior heroine and puts makeshift make up on her to “reveal” her own womanhood to her, following which she obviously falls in love with him.

Sivagami, the queen mother, might be a strong ruler, but she is shown to have the responsibility of handling two children. (Photo courtesy: Dharma Productions)

Even when characters like Sivagami, the queen mother, are shown to be strong and able rulers, it is done with the reinforcement that – surprise, surprise! – she also takes on the responsibility of handling two children. In some narrow respects, the sequel attempts to correct this, with less focus on the heroine’s body and more on her fighting skills. Of course, cometh the hour, she has to obviously back down to the big masculine hero. And while Rajamouli endows his female characters with power – he chooses unsurprisingly to locate that power not in their womanhood, but in their caste.

The films are both massive glorifications of the caste system. Back in 2012, the director the films SS Rajamouli posted his thoughts on the caste system in a rather offensive Facebook post.

His thoughts serve as a precursor to the dialogue and symbolism that run through both films. When the female character Devasena makes her boldest move in front of the royal court, it’s only through emphasizing that as a Kshatriya she has the right to do so. The second film in particular constantly reinforces the theme of ‘kshatriya dharma’ – or the code of honour and ethics that supposedly only Kshatriyas are capable of following. A code of honour that involves punishing any minor transgression with swift beheading and with maintaining rigid hierarchies all around them.

To release such a film in Telugu and Tamil is nothing but a cultural Trojan horse of Hindi and Hindu nationalism, perhaps reasons for its wide success and critical acclaim across the ‘Indian’ media and the Hindi-belt.

It is an attempt to teach the cultural values of some mythical Vedic paradise to the ‘barbaric’ indigenous people, symbolized in the opening scene of the sequel when the hero sits on a Ganesha statue and uses a bow and arrow to destroy an indigenous deity depicted as a demon. It is an attempt to push the Aryan supremacist logic of devas versus rakshasas, and fair and good versus dark and evil, on a group of people that are inherent outsiders to this entire worldview.

Indeed, having watched Baahubali in Tamil and Baahubali 2 in Hindi, it is clear that the latter was much more consistent, as the logic of Aryan supremacy and kshatriya dharma found all its truest nuances in Hindi. It was strange to watch such a film in Tamil, especially since Tamil is too close a language to that of the dark-skinned (and casteless!) savages they depict so courteously.

The most tragic of ironies of course, was that the film gained most of its publicity through a spat between the Tamil actor Sathyaraj and groups in Karnataka over the Cauveri issue. In the process, a film that should have been challenged by both linguistic groups as being a fundamental insult to their cultures, became the cause of a further rift between them.

Also Read: ‘Baahubali 2’ Row: Sathyaraj Apologises for Anti-Kannadiga Remark

Baahubali 2 is a cultural phenomenon – not watching it is almost impossible given the level to which it has dominated and will dominate film discourse for some time to come. Ignoring something so massive is only at the peril of allowing such values to go unchallenged, and so a critical engagement becomes a crucial need of the hour. The film can be watched for its scale – to appreciate that Indian (and particularly Telugu) cinema can produce a level of human effort that has few parallels across the world.

It can also be watched for moments of pure poetic irony, such as when in the middle of a casteist, sexist ode to some imagined Vedic India, the hero uses a group of stone pelters to take on the army of a narcissistic, hypermasculine tyrant king. But no amount of VFX or money can save Baahubali from going down as a regressive film, one whose values should not have a place in any modern country.

(Pranav Kuttaiah is a writer and researcher from Karnataka, currently based in New Delhi.)