Friday, July 17, 2015
Since its release, SS Rajamouli’s Telugu film ‘Bahubali’ has been making news, for being the highest grossing Indian film ever, and that too, a film, which has managed to woo the critics as well. Even foreign publications like The Hollywood Reporter and The Guardian reviewed the movie and gave brawny points for the film’s use of special effects, among other things. It has been hailed as a true-blue blockbuster, even when the film ends at the mid-point, a veritable cliffhanger, between telling of two stories of a king murdered and a son who must get his inheritance back.
The major reason why Bahubali is making news is its use of state-of-the-art CGI imagery, Made in India. It is being hailed as India’s answer to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Ring trilogy and James Cameron’s technology wonder Avatar. It is also being hailed as the best sword-and-dhoti epic India has ever produced (I rather like the epithet, sword-and-dhoti epic), as India’s answer to Gladiator and 300.
Elsewhere, fans are also claiming that the film is a worthy descendant of quintessentially Indian epics like The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, and are saying that it is a ‘Hindu’ epic. The liberals, on the other hand, are a little uncomfortable with the poster of the hero in the movie, carrying a giant shiv linga on his shoulder. There is also a giant statue of Goddess Kali overlooking a giant battlefield.
Anyway, after hearing the constant chatter for three days, I went to see the film in a theatre. It was the first time since Avatar that I went to see a film looking for a spectacle. It was also the first time since Ravanan that I went to see a south India film dubbed into Hindi (though strictly speaking Ravanan was not a dubbed film). Anyway, the film was not as satisfying as Avartar (which I loved as a spectacle, despite its flaws) and it was not as maudlin as Ravanan.
Yet, I don’t understand this hype.
The film begins with a series of water-soaked scenes which is the best in Indian cinema I have ever seen since the aforementioned Ravanan (the ‘behne de behne de’ song). The scenes of our hero jumping from cliff to cliff were spectacular. But these early scenes have a problem which in turn informs the problem of the entire film. We are told that the huge waterfall is unscalable, and we are shown the hero, since his childhood, trying to climb up the fall. And then, one day, he finds the wooden mask of a girl, he becomes obsessed with her and two months later, climbs the fall, as he imagines the girl, in a fancy dress, singing to him, goading him to jump from one cliff to another. This is a disorienting scene to enjoy with a straight face. You admire the photography and the aerobics done by the stunt person, the stand-in for the hero, and yet you are distracted by the sexy posturing of the heroine, singing a not-really-a-hummable song (the music is by MM Kreem, of ‘tu miley dil khiley’ fame). Again, as the camera is more interested in showing the beauty of the landscape within the given frame, we do not really get a feel of the actual geography of the huge waterfall (unlike say, the Halleluiah mountain scene from Avatar). I wish if they would skip the song and show us some more action.
This is, of course, not possible. Even with its extraordinary technical prowess, Bahubali is a Telugu film and it cannot escape from the tropes of a Telugu film, which must feature a superhuman hero who can make 50 villains scatter with a single punch, who can jump and somersault in slow-motion and who can stalk and almost rape the object of his affection before she falls in love with him, almost immediately (I was particularly squeamish about the wooing scene. She is a warrior woman and our hero begins to undress her, a la Draupadi, before re-dressing her, making her a beautiful woman, as if the only role of a woman is to remain beautiful so that the hero can fall in love with her. Is the scene misogynistic? I thought so, but in the world of Telugu cinema, or Indian cinema for that matter, this is how love blooms). There are also scenes of rousing speeches by various characters, and the cheering of the assorted crowd of extras, a staple of all South India films. But, a good south India film can take all these elements and can make a loud, rousing film that tugs at your heart. This Bahubali does, more or less successfully (For example, the sequence of a shirtless Prabhas carrying the huge siva linga was particularly good, with thumping music, Kailash Kher singing in the background and extras reacting appropriately. The same was case with the scene involving a huge statue.).
Yet, it is a Telugu film that wants to be a blockbuster Hollywood film. It not only wants to emulate the blockbuster formula (turning one film into two, among other things), it also wants to emulate other films, starting with the ‘Cliffhanger’ beginning. It was fun to spot the inspirations. The seduction scene is from ‘The Mask of Zorro’, the running from avalanche scene is from ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, the imprisoned royal mother channels Rakhi from Karan Arjun, the blackface villains in the end are inspired by LOTR’s Orcs, down to their invented language (I am not sure if the invented language was successful. In the theatre when the villain spoke, by clicking his tongue, there were bouts of laughter; anthropologically speaking, however, clicking of the tongue is a part of many tribal languages.).
There are two things that stand out. One, the creation of the kingdom of Mahishmati. Indian cinema is not really good at world creation. Thus, you must praise Rajamouli and his team for this superb accomplishment. In a combination of set and CGI, they create sequences which are breathtakingly beautiful. It may not be in the same league as Peter Jackson’s creation of Minas Tirith, but Mahishmati inches closer. There is a shot in the middle of the movie where we see the entire kingdom like an architect’s diorama and it is spectacular. (Though I am not sure about the geography. In the same territory, we see a mighty river, snowcapped mountain and dry rugged hills. What kind of terrain are these?)
Second, the reason why the film is raking mullah at the box office is the climactic battle scene, which runs for more than 30 minutes and the entire sequence is meticulously constructed, and this scene can complete with anything from Peter Jackson. Unlike the major Hollywood films where most high-octane action sequences are incomprehensible, Rajamouli gives us the details of the war. It’s really the edge of the seat stuff.
Before you make up your mind about Bahubali, however, the concluding part is coming next year, which will give you more or less the same story, a love triangle, a betrayal, and a huge climatic battle scene.
Hold your breath!