By now, writing about Baahubali risks getting mired in banalities, about the film's gargantuan scale, its grandeur, the sheer spectacle it offers the viewer, the whole often tinged with (Bollywood?) condescension ("The biggest movie in town is a southern film!") or, conversely, (Southern?) pride ("Hey we've shown them how movies are made"). And it's all completely true: Baahubali is a big big movie, with a compelling story, great velocity, and more fun in each half than most filmmakers can manage in an oeuvre. (And a specific kind of fun too: this is a film that revels in its bigness, the way Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments did.)
But none of that is sufficient to make the film epic, that is to say, not only pitched at a scale that is itself impressive, but with enough attention to spare for the day-to-day to make the world represented plausible. Homer is epic in a way the horrid Hollywood Troy isn't: the latter has all the ships and battles, but the former includes the taste of tears, the smell of rotting corpses, and pleasure in the way things work in that world (things that are, of course, being destroyed on the battlefield). That is to say, Troy is merely a spectacle (certainly not the worst or least entertaining one, not in a world that includes 300, a film that seemed so wretched from the trailer I never could bring myself to watch it), whereas The Iliad makes its world so real you actually care about what happens in it.
What makes Baahubali striking is precisely this "world-making", director S.S. Rajamouli's ability to imagine the particulars of every scene to such a degree that this make-believe world becomes real for the audience, even plausible. Plenty of other filmmakers can focus on the battle scenes and grand sets, but absent this eye for the little, it can all seem a bit lifeless (think Gladiator, with its emphasis on grand sets and action, as opposed to the HBO TV series Rome, which isn't short of action or amazing sets, but also helps you get a whiff of the streets, the religious ceremonies, the markets and ports; the former is airbrushed, the latter feels alive). In Baahubali, this eye is seen everywhere: think of the bales of straw the castle's defenders use to try and prevent Sivudu from riding out of Mahishmati's capital on a chariot; or of the hollow (wooden?) tube the hero uses to hold the green snake he's going to release on Avantika while she's taking aim atop a tree (utterly bereft of any vulgarity, a delightfully perverse scene in the way it highlights the tense warrior ready to unleash her arrow at the unknown man who's painted her hand, even as the same man hovers behind her with the snake slithering over her arm: poised to attack, Avantika is rendered immobile); or the way in which Mahishmati's rulers discuss the battle plan in the film's second half. At every step, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad seem to have thought long and hard about how such a world might work if it existed -- and because they have done so, that world comes alive for us. Compared to Baahubali, even the best of Bollywood's grand fables --think Lagaan -- seem airbrushed, most historicals -- Jodha-Akbar comes to mind, or Asoka -- superficial in the face of its thoroughness, and the less said about wannabe fantasies (like Krrish) the better. In this it is inspired by the best of contemporary American TV (and, much like Game of Thrones, ends with a sensational cliffhanger). Walking out of the cinema after the film I had a stupid grin on my face, the sort that meant: This too is possible. A derivative mush of all sorts of mythological tropes and archetypes, not to mention other movies and TV serials, a film with huge sets and not-always-seamless CGI (what Rajamouli would do with a Hollywood budget one can only dream of), a recognizably Telugu film yet like nothing else from the industry (not even the director's own Magadheera), that is to say, completely, utterly itself, Baahubali is a landmark. And if it isn’t as quirky or the action as imaginative as Shankar’s Enthiran is, it’s grander and more impressive: there has been no more spellbinding, more immersive cinematic experience in recent times.
A tale like this has to begin with a foundling. Baahubali opens with a landscape of striking waterfalls, and pretty soon we see the Rajmata (Ramya) trying to get a baby to safety. She manages to save the child from drowning, long enough to ensure he is found by the local village chief and his wife. The baby grows up to be Sivudu (Prabhas), a hulk of a man obsessed with the idea of climbing the height of the waterfalls to see what awaits him. When he finally makes it there, he lands smack in the middle of a love story (his own for Avantika (Tamannah Bhatia)) and an ongoing guerrilla rebellion, by the army Avantika serves in, against the royal court and kingdom of Mahishmati, usurped by Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggupati) and his father from... ah, but I can't say more without giving away a mild surprise. But if you can't guess by now that Sivudu is the messiah, the Baahubali the oppressed masses have been waiting for, you have wasted your life watching something other than masala movies. There are plenty of surprises left, though: in the second half, the film shifts gears, focusing on a flashback sequence culminating in what has to be the longest, most impressive battle scene in Indian film history, and a film-ending cliffhanger worthy of Game of Thrones. That's right, this film doesn't end -- it directly leads into the finale to be released next year.
The film's representation of women is striking. Both Ramya and Tamannah Bhatia play characters with great strength and agency (although Avantika does become more passive once she falls in love with Sivudu), and the Rajmata is just as impressive in the film's second half as any of the male characters she shares screen time with; easily one of the most memorable "kick-ass" female characters on an Indian screen in years. That this film has gotten called out for sexism in a few media articles, when every multiplex Bollywood film gets a free pass for similar sexism (and is bereft of any strong female characters to boot), speaks volumes about the role social class continues to play in Indian film criticism. Stated differently, Western-style sexism, imported from American pop culture as it were, and to the taste of the upwardly mobile, urban classes who increasingly dominate the Bollywood audience, does not even register as sexism; whereas representations in a more "vernacular" idiom are called out, even as those who do so pat themselves on the back for being progressive. Don't believe it. Is Baahubali sexist? Sure, a few scenes are -- but overall this fantasy world of battles and court intrigues, with its female warriors, armed guards, and matriarchs, is less sexist than the vast majority of Hindi and Telugu films I have seen. Perhaps no scene epitomizes this better than the real Avantika’s entry (you’ll see why I’ve used the adjective once you see the film): the warrior is pursued by a band of soldiers, and just when Sivudu – and the viewer – think he’ll have to jump out and rescue the damsel in distress, she and her fighters turn the tables and slaughter their enemies. This woman needs little rescuing.
The charge of racism is perhaps closer to the mark, given the long battle scene with hordes of black, demonic/sub-human enemies (inspired at least in part by the White Walkers from Game of Thrones). Even here, though, many of the film's critics miss the point: on the Mahishmati-side, the Rajmata camps out next to a statue of Durga, and I found the linkage of the opposing side with the asuras that goddess defeated in Hindu mythology unmistakeable. Baahubali represents the enemies as demonic precisely because it seeks to evoke the specter of Durga's forces in battle with the armies of Evil: there is certainly a broader discussion to be had about the metaphysics of blackness in Indian and Western cultures (why, that is to say, "black" stands for "evil" or "sin"), a metaphysics Baahubali uncritically perpetuates -- but this is a very far cry from the naked racism of Bollywood "blackface" in the 1970s, or the threatening African-Americans of the NRI films of the 1990s, or the crude mockery of East Asians in films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003).
A word on the cast: Prabhas is certainly the right physical fit for the part of Sivudu, but his pleasantly blank face is devoid of intensity, and I do consider him a weak link here; I certainly would have preferred the impish charm of NTR Jr. (admittedly he is too scrawny for this role). Rana Daggubati as Bhallal Dev is splendid, showing us how much fun a one-dimensional performance as a baddie can be (indeed, he looks so good here I was mildly irritated at the use of CGI to bulk him up in his entry scene), as does Ramya in her authoritative role (she isn’t the only woman here to dominate her husband, as she does Bijjaladeva (Nasser); even where Sivudu’s adoptive parents are concerned, it’s clear who runs the show). Tamannah Bhatia as Avantika made me eat my words: I’ve never been a fan of hers (a feeling reinforced by seeing her in the songs in Baahubali) but she is very good in her warrior get-up – I found myself missing that Avantika once she is somewhat “domesticated” by the relationship with Sivudu, and would have liked to see some more action involving her. Sathyaraj as Kathappa, the warrior-slave sworn to serve Mahishmati's royal family, even when he knows it’s rule is illegitimate, was another surprise: he has a lot of screen-time here, and creditably acquits himself in a role painted with broad brushstrokes.
Baahubali has other charms too, ranging from a superbly choreographed "item" song -- Manohari, deploying genuine, sensuous, dance moves, rather than the stripper shimmies that too many Hindi films have gotten addicted to -- to Sudeep's fun cameo as the Afghan Aslam Khan (the fleeting role will, I suspect, assume significance in the sequel). Indeed, nothing suggested the good ol' fun of something like Dharam Veer more than this figure, trying to hawk the ultimate sword to Kathappa. Aslam Khan is an adversary of sorts, ultimately bested in a sword-fight by Kathappa, but he is a certain type: the enemy who both gives and merits respect. It isn't a coincidence that Aslam Khan is from Afghanistan (the only real place-name in the film); that detail situates him within a specific Hindi film-tradition of noble Indo-Islamic warrior-types, "others" the audience is expected to esteem. (I consider Feroz Khan the patron saint of this sort of figure, both because of films like Dharmatma (1975) and the public persona he cultivated, reflected even in late – and degraded – offerings like Janasheen (2003) and Welcome (2007); the likes of Jackie Shroff (in Palay Khan (1986)) and of course Amitabh Bachchan as the Afghan Badshah Khan in Khuda Gawah (1992) offer other variants, as does Pran as Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973). One might even say that this figure's turn towards evil, beginning with Lotiya Pathan (Kiran Kumar) in Tezaab (1988), is a watershed moment, symptomatic of a turn in Hindi cinema towards the less capacious understanding of difference that so scarred the cinema of the 1990s.)
It’s all a sign that Baahubali is very Indian, with deep roots not just in Indian culture, but in Indian popular cinematic culture: you just don’t see filmi heroes anymore with a playful, even at times competitive relationship with their Gods, as Sivudu does here in a long sequence early on in the film vis-à-vis the village Shiv lingam (this sort of thing holds a special place in my heart, given that Hindi films served as my introduction to Hinduism as a child; Bachchan in Deewar had more to do with my excitement at first visiting a Hindu temple than anything else did); these days, the archetypes of the Mother; the Messiah/Prince; the Foundling; the Usurper, and the rich signification they enable are, at least in Hindi cinema, barely ever deployed in overt fashion (and are acceptable only under the cover of either a neo-Hollywood aesthetic, or the sort of consumption vehicle Bollywood has made its own where mainstream commercial films are concerned; under both, the sign of the Hero is perhaps the only one that is left. and not surprisingly, the feminine iconic mode has withered away). These sorts of tropes are used fantastically well in Baahubali. The commercial success of this film, including, most remarkably, the scale of the Hindi dubbed version’s success, surely owes something to the chord it has struck, by satisfying a craving for deeper, more resonant storytelling that many of us had forgotten. Baahubali is magnificent.