Why the mega-success of ‘Baahubali 2’ will be difficult for other directors to replicate

Nandini Ramnath

An old Facebook post and a new way of treating Indian fantasy fiction are both necessary to understanding the gargantuan success of the Baahubali movies.

SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the sequel to Baahubali (2015), has dominated the box office since its April 28 release like no other Indian production. The movie was released on a reported 9,000 screens in Indian and overseas territories and mopped up an estimated Rs 124 crore in India over the opening weekend alone. The Telugu movie was dubbed in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. The Hindi version reportedly made Rs 128.5 crore between Friday and Sunday. At the end of the opening week, Baahubali 2’s net earnings in India is an alleged Rs 300 crore. The juggernaut has crushed the competition, just like the titular hero against whom no human being, animal or natural element can last.

Meanwhile, an old Facebook post by Rajamouli, one of Telugu cinema’s biggest hit-makers, has resurfaced. The October 4, 2012, entry reads like a Whatsapp forward from a Hindutva ideologue.

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Viewers looking for an idealised world in which the natural order of things is restored at the end and every individual returns to his or her karma-designated spot will find much to love in the films. One possible explanation, per this schema, of “Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali”, is that the loyal soldier is a Dalit.

Evidence of Rajamouli’s ready acceptance of the inherently discriminatory caste system as a consequence of “lifestyle” rather than an accident of birth abound in both Baahubali movies: the dark-skinned, wild-haired and savage Kalayeka tribe, the subservient general Kattappa (Sathyaraj) and the repeated assertion of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) and his wife Devasena (Anushka Shetty) of their Kshatriya status. While there are bad Kshatriyas (Amarendra Baahubali’s cousin Bhallaladeva) and confused Kshatriyas (the queen mother Sivagami), it’s the good Kshatriyas (Amarendra and his son, Mahendra) who save the day.

Both films create an immersive universe in which gods and demons take human form and perform 70-mm-sized feats of valour and villainy. The two Baahubalis appear to be avatars of Shiva, the god of destruction. Rajamouli’s triumphalist account of victory brings the comic book to life, with the bifs and bams translated into gory images and an unabashed bloodlust.

The franchise sends out another message for Bollywood. Producer Shobu Yarlagadda has created a pan-Indian production that transcends its Telugu origins. The first part overcame its perceived disadvantages – a cast and crew unknown to hardcore Hindi film audiences; a dubbed script and songs – to become wildly popular upon its release in 2015. When Karan Johar’s Dharma Films banner and leading Bollywood distributor AA Films attached themselves to the Hindi version, the rest of the trade took note. They didn’t dismiss Baahubali as a swords-and-dhoti epic in which the dialogue and the lip movements didn’t match.

The first movie’s trailers proved that Baahubali was eyeing a wider audience, and Rajamouli’s reputation as an imaginative entertainer with a proven ability to make familiar stories appear fresh and exciting carried over onto the national stage.

The literal-minded obsession with size and scale carried over from the hero to the storytelling. Rajamouli splashed Baahubali’s story – a mishmash of folk tales, Hindu mythologicals, Amar Chitra Katha comics, American superhero adventures, and fantasy fiction set in mythical worlds and featuring milk-white heroes and ink-black villains – on a canvas that has rarely been seen in Indian cinema.

Only Shankar’s Tamil-language Endhiran (2010), dubbed in Hindi as Robot, had previously attempted a big-budget spectacle meant for national audiences. Shankar took the trouble of casting a lead actor known to Bollywood (Rajinikanth), a heroine (Aishwarya Rai) and a villain (Danny Denzongpa) from the Hindi film industry, and a crossover music composer (AR Rahman).

Rajamouli didn’t bother with localisation, perhaps secure in the average viewer’s ability to feel at home in the fictional Mahishmati kingdom that Amarendra Baahubali loses and his son regains. Until Baahubali, lead actor Prabhas’s fame was restricted to Telugu cinema. With Baahuhali, he has proven himself to be a man among men, ever ready to defy gravity and charge towards peril – Superman in a dhoti, if you will.

The “Is that an arrow in your quiver or are you happy to see me” number might have been giggle-worthy in any other movie, but Rajamouli puts through the courtship sequence in which Amarendra woos Devasena through archery with confidence that can easily be mistaken for panache.

The Baahubali films are slicker and more lavishly produced updates of Telugu swords-and-sorcery films featuring kings, queens, ordinary characters with royal lineage, malevolent forces and magical elements. Such films as Keelu Gurram (1949), Pathala Bhairavi (1951), Mayabaazar (1957), Bhairava Dweepam (1994), Devi Putrudu (2001) and Rajamouli’s Magadheera (2009) have seamlessly integrated imaginatively filmed visual effects and themes of time travel, predestination and vengeance. The popularity of the Baahubali films point to the prevalence of an Indian superhero idiom that borrows from the immersive world of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with the fantastical feats of the Marvel men-in-tights films. Rajamouli has given Indians their own ubermensch to root for, one who is marked by overt deference to so-called Indian values (love for the family, piety, concern for the masses, unblinking valour, leadership skills and authoritarian tendencies).

The movies have raised the bar for visual effects and big-screen spectacle so high that Baahubali is unlikely to inspire me-toos. The filmmaker who is planning a period epic can only be pitied. When filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma tweeted that Indian cinema will now be classified as pre- and post-Baahubali, he was only half exaggerating.

For better or for worse, every subsequent swords-and-dhotis epic will be benchmarked against Baahubali. Rajamouli’s films may have opened the door for new audiences, but they may also foreclose other ways of imagining the mythic past.

Expectations are sky-high from Rajamouli too. Like his brawny hero, he has scaled peaks like no other director, and there are only two ways to get off those heights. The 43-year-old director has declared his intention to film the Mahabharata, but Baahubali indicates that he may not be the best person to tackle the epic’s complexities and moral ambiguities.

The Mahabharata’s numerous themes and its lack of a hero-villain dyad run counter to the inherent logic of the big-budget extravaganza. The climactic battle at Kurukshetra cannot be reduced to a prehistoric example of indigenous battleground skills and make-in-India sentiment. The Mahabharata is a cautionary tale about greed, expansionist tendencies and a simplistic view of human nature, and is everything Baahubali isn’t.

One of the enduring images from the first and superior movie is the sequence in which Mahendra Baahubali ruins his uncle’s attempt to build a gigantic statue in his likeness. Bhallaldeva has a nightmarish vision in which Baahubali’s statue is many feet higher than his – the battle of the phalluses with a foregone conclusion.

The first movie similarly towers over the sequel, and the franchise as a whole will cast long shadows over popular Indian cinema. Rajamouli’s ultra-macho storytelling is hard to replicate or imitate, and that is actually a blessing. There can be only one Baahubali, and, mercifully, only one Kattappa.