Starring: Sathyaraj, Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty, Nassar, Ramya Krishnan
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
S. P. O. I. L. E. R. S.
For two whole years, the nation has wanted to know. The reason why Sathyaraj’s Kattappa drove a sword through his idol’s torso, both of them silhouetted against a wall of blazing fire, have successfully wrung Indian curiosity like few other movies can boast of, Bollywood, Kollywood or any other wood. Baahubali: The Beginning riveted me with its sheer enormity of ambition. Rajamouli’s venture into an original historic saga was boldly conceived and confidently executed, the sheer charisma of its intention outshining most, if not all, of the budget and storyline tussles. Prabhas came across as a younger, more effervescent avatar of Rajnikanth, Tammannah made the most of her lazily tangential role and both Sathyaraj and Rana Daggubati formed opposite beams against an Amar Chitra Katha-esque backdrop of raging waterfalls, prancing dupattas and exposition-spewing villains. With a cliffhanger promptly on cue, Baahubali One promised what few Bollywood movies have been able to- a sequel that stands as a pre-planned offspring instead of a drunken mistake.
Which brings me to an odd problem with this extravagant successor: with all of its set-pieces and slow-motions and extreme close-ups intact, Baahubali 2 reminds one not of a drunken mistake, but a lovingly conceived child that strayed. The conclusion, even as it ties up all the ends, does so with a sluggish languor in the first three-quarters of its time, builds up to a slow, dramatic crescendo, and suddenly realising that it has overshot its welcome, scuttles through the climax like a wild boar chased by its protagonist. The mentioned query was tantalising enough to drive us into theatres, but it is this sleepwalking execution, most of all, that prevents me from revisiting.
Let us start with the meatiest hinge of the franchise- why Brutus killed Caesar. Maybe it wasn’t so obvious for a majority of the Indian audiences, but I, for one, could easily glean from the information provided in Part 1 that Kattappa’s assassination had to stem from a dilemma between following royal orders and keeping the interests of his lord. Of course, there was the slight pang of curiosity that hoped I was proven wrong- that Rajamouli somehow managed to dish out an unexpected but believable payoff; that one of the many crazy fan theories patrolling the Internet received at least a respectful nod, if not a victorious bouquet. Alas, the film is firmly depressed in its own conservative era, with any possibility of an innovative storyline chucked over a CGI rampart right from its opening frame. Yes, Kattappa faces a dilemma between following the orders of the fuming Sivagami and saving the life of Baahubali, and he has to take the kill lest the Queen Mother murders her own child out of ego and rigidity towards Maahishmati ke niyam.
Agreed; the revelation is confidently handled and injected with feisty visual and musical drama, but none of that distracts me from the fact that the entire duology sits on this overused backbone.
Throughout the three-odd hours of his venture, Rajamouli remains blissfully ignorant of the clichés that perforate his saga. Watered-down cutouts of Duryodhan, Shakuni, Ram, Sita, and Pushpak Viman all are honoured within this series, and not in a wholly respectful way. Indeed, it seems more like the average Rahul’s loss of touch with Hindu mythology is being exploited to sell these ideas as original. Wider plot devices, like a romantic caper, a straight-backed female lead, a saas-bahu tussle and a scheming relative are obviously familiar to most of India and yet are not left out of the movie.
The romance is grating. The film is desperate to show Devasena in a progressive light, and yet she smoothly falls back into cliched oblivion once she is outshined by Perfect Prabhas. I have to hand it to Anushka Shetty, however, for portraying cardboard with conviction. Her well-written dialogues and fearless delivery, coupled with adequate action and a dazzling smile, kept me on my Cinépolis seat for as long as she stayed. The film also attempted to kill two Ptarmigans with one stone by cranking up the chemistry between Baahubali and Kattappa to inflate the looming tragedy, with a completely unnecessary comic thread running parallel to the romance subplot. For me, this only succeeded in bringing the motives of the movie to painful relief. But I gathered a laugh or two.
Computer-Generated Imagery, a.k.a. the most forcefully realised ambition of the director of this franchise. Even though Rajamouli had admitted that ninety per cent of the movie was CGI, and probably even because, I was hoping for at least an infinitesimally more nuanced use of the tool in this movie than in its two-year old father. Nope noppity nope. The director still ogles at graphics with the unabashed enamour of an infant, never hesitating to blow up a perfectly ordinary moment with cartloads of virtual embroidery that jars just as often as it enthrals. This is admittedly what I had come to see the movie for, but the upshot of such a liberal and insensible expenditure is a cocktail of creative corniness that nullifies awesome battle sequences with blasphemous romantic hovercrafts. Slow-motion is used like a recently found trend in cinema, every flex, every throw, every zoomed-in ripple of muscle dissipating most of the tension the scene had collected till that point.
Mr. Rajamouli has amazing vision. There is hardly a sliver of doubt about that. I’m also more than willing to forgive the film for making allowances in favour of its wallet. What I find harder to ignore is a sloppy visual presentation where visuals really matter, and tapestries of superimposed beauty where they serve no purpose. Enough playing around, sir. Use the tool wisely and more importantly, don’t unless absolutely necessary.
The music considerably elevates the story, and Hamsa Naava singularly becomes my favourite song and my least favourite scene. The score gets predictably overdone. None of the makers leaves any scrap of reliance on the audience’s intelligence in identifying an important moment without the roaring drums relentlessly trying to shock them into emotion. I closed my ears when Kattappa killed Baahubali. If I hadn’t, maybe I’d be shedding tears of lament for a lost eardrum more than a lost hero.
Now the acting. I seem to be one of the few people fairly unimpressed with Prabhas’ goofy smile and sure-footed strut. The man didn’t have much to do except pose in every single entry and generally look perfect. He doesn’t disappoint, but he doesn’t break path either. His role was already meticulously brewed to perfection. Anyone with a presentable face and a ripped torso could have pulled it off.
If Prabhas needs a little more emotion on his features, everyone else with the possible exception of Shetty needs a bucket of tranquilisers. Ramya Krishnan tries to replace her acting skill with the whites of her eyeballs, Nassar is reduced to an exaggerated farce, and Rana, while physically awesome and relatively reliable, eventually succumbs to this dance of hyperbole. I wonder if it was a conspiracy from the director to make everyone ham so much that Prabhasa’s sleepwalking seemed like an oasis of understatement.
The supporting cast is predictably exaggerated. Everything is streamlined for Armoured Amarendra to save multiple days and Magnificent Mahendra to avenge his father.
Which brings me to the final blunder of this movie- the identical father and son. I can handle doppelgänger offsprings, but to have your progeny so intricately crafted that he copies you in strut, smile and spirit makes you wonder if the other set of chromosomes have any say whatsoever in determining your child. Mahendra Baahubali simply could not have been played by anyone other than Prabhas, for no one else would have accepted a role so strained and diluted of all distinguishability. He is virtually congruent to his father in all aspects, which conveniently saves the actor from any prospect of nuance as he basically gets to reprise the same sleepwalk all over again. I know this isn’t a majority opinion, but I wanted to see a different man wield the reins of Maahishmati at the end- not a biological Xerox.
In the end, however, Baahubali 2, with all its excess, left me most dissatisfied with its alarming brevity. Again, I completely understand this from a producer’s point of view, but as a viewer, I could so easily spot entire chapters in the storyline that were reduced to clunky montages to fit the saga into two, and no more than two, movies. Mahendra’s story arc, Baahubali’s exile into the common people, Devsena’s background were all captivating slingshots the movie whizzed past in its attempt to get to Brutus Stabs Caesar. And once that was wrapped up, too little was left of its runtime to incorporate anything other than a visually orgasmic climax.
I fervently hope this franchise is given another glance with a bigger budget. Someone needs to split this imaginative story into a proper trilogy, and do justice to all the tangents that can create a much wider, a much richer, a much more satisfying realm even without a plethora of unreality to lean on.
If not, I hold no qualms in saying that I’m happy to see the end of this enjoyable and ambitious saga here and now. It is, more than anything, a pre-conceived franchise that has met its due finale with Mahendra’s coronation. Call me pessimistic, call me unimaginative, but don’t call me if they make a Baahubali 3.