How Bahubali brings back the idea of cultural ownership in the popular culture of India
The word kshatriyatva in today’s context refers to selfless public service. In the days of yore it referred to the function of protecting society from the ravages of potential enemies and natural calamities. The Bahubali series of films is an unrestrained celebration of kshatriyatva where 3 generations of Bahubali are portrayed as being dedicated to the cause of heroic public service.
The film is successful in creating a parallel Universe that an Amar Chitra Katha fed mind immediately relishes. Featuring a lavish display of iconic architecture, ornate palaces and chambers with towering pillars rivaling the Egyptian courts of yesteryears, Bahubali’s Mahishmati is an imagined city (although Mahishmati as portrayed in the Ramayana on the banks of the Narmada was the capital of the thousand armed Kartavirya Arjuna). Characters whose facial features, physiques and attire resemble those of characters from Chandamama issues from the 1960s and 70s flash through the screen; plots and subplots that bear distinct similarities to themes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata move the story along briskly.
Bahubali’s characters recreate archetypes from the epics and from history and even bear echoes of 21st century leaders. The protagonist Amarendra Bahubali is the perfect Rama; he is adored by his subjects; he is invincible; the only thing missing is a sub story featuring a shraap that he would be killed from behind just like Vaali was in the Ramayana. Bahubali’s portrayal satisfies society’s yearning for untarnished, unselfish leadership that can only do good for humanity at large. The film’s audience quickly and seamlessly becomes an extension of the sea of humanity that weeps when Bahubali and his pregnant wife are banished from the palace just as the residents of Ayodhya and Hastinapura wept when Rama and the Pandavas were sent into exile respectively.
The tepid response to Bhallaladeva’s coronation that brings to light his lack of a popular mandate has modern day echoes. Bhallaladeva is Duryodana incarnate, an atatayi; he hatches sinister plots to get rid off his brother Bahubali (cousin in this case). He even goes one step further and remorselessly kills his mother. (Even the Auranagazebs and Ajatasatrus of the world had only imprisoned their fathers - they hadn’t killed them). His uncle is Shakuni incarnate. The manner in which Bhallaladeva’s son’s severed head lands in his own lap reminds one of Jayadratha’s death portrayed in the Mahabharata.
Bahubali II provides a strong crop of female characters that command instant respect. The women of the Bahubali era are not subservient second class citizens. They wield sword and bow power; they are respected by society. Raja Mata Sivagami Devi’s words are the law of the land. Even her husband has no say in Royal matters. Her word is the law of the land.
Bahubali’s queen Devasena is at once traditional, bold, outspoken, regal and at the same time ‘common’. Bahubali himself is the proverbial Rama who is the protector of the masses whether in power or whether out of power; he treats these transitory states with a sthithaprajna state of equanimity.
The movie has visual parallels with Disney flicks such as the Lion King and Mulan. Mahendra Bahubali’s birth is proclaimed by Rajmata Sivagami Devi in the same manner that Simba’s birth is in ‘The Lion King’. The messenger bird and the avalanche have uncanny similarities to those in Mulan. The Huns in Mulan resemble the barbarian Kalakeya (who have nothing to do with the Kalakeya descendants of Rishi Kashyapa) army. Mulan pins a villain to a roof where he is reduced to ashes right in the midst of a firework display. The evil Bhallala is pinned with a sword to the ‘chita’ pyre that consumes him in the final frames of the film.
It thrills the hearts of audiences; and they feel vindicated when Bhallala meets his poetic end in the hands of his nemesis Devasena. The injustice meted out to her and her family in the court of Mahishmati and her vow to torch him alive in his own palace bear stark parallels to Draupadi’s vow. And the fulfillment of this vow constitutes the finale. It is during this drama that the relevance of the first scene in Bahubali II rings loud and clear. This made up ritual symbolizes the power of the feminine Shakti that is revered as being capable of destroying evil and delivering justice. This power is to be wielded by the woman alone. A sense of exhilaration runs through the audience when Devasena bears the pot on her head this time with the intention of burning not an soulless effigy but a real villain in flesh and blood; not his corpse, but his livid screaming body.
The film is unabashedly Shivocentric, second only to A.P. Nagarajan’s Tamil films of the 1960s. The first film makes a powerful visual and contextual statement with a brilliantly tuned and recorded Shivatandava stotra. The film is littered with several scenes of Shiva Puja offered by the Royal family. Shiva is the tutelary deity of Mahishmati (and even the tribal fiefdoms) much like that of the Imperial Cholas.
The powerful fire ritual carried out by the all powerful Raj Matas is again in praise of Shiva. Shivocentrism appears again at the very end; even the vibhuti of Shiva even serves as a balm that heals the wounds of Bahubali as he engages in his final duel with the evil uncle. Per the ‘ashariri’ story teller who graces the concluding titles, even the fate of Bahubali’s successor is left to the will of Shiva. The film doesn’t stop with Shiva alone; the war cries hail Bhavani, the consort of Shiva. Kali, the fierce form of Shakti is also propitiated. Devasena’s Kuntala kingdom offers prayers to Krishna; even Ganesha is not spared as he makes an appearance in the fire ritual scene in Bahubali II.
The barbarian Pindari and Kalakeya tribes bear parallels to the Hunas that left a trail of destruction prior to their defeat by Samudragupta and various other rulers. The defeat of the Pindaris with a deluge of water has parallels in Dutch water management techniques (The Hollandic Water Line) that were used to defeat invading French armies during the Franco-Dutch war in the seventeenth century.
The Bahubali epic is a reflection of the Hindu ethos that constitutes a large chunk of the undercurrent of the Indic vernacular. It provides a visualization of what the left would refer to as the imagined glory of a Hindu past.
Bahubali however takes you beyond mirages. It creates visceral excitement and exhilaration of a kind never seen before. And its reach is huge. As one watches the film(s), the mind soaks in the grandeur of the story and the visuals; recollects legends from the epics; reimagines the rich architectural and sculptural heritage of the Indic architectural monuments of the past two millennia; invokes the mantras and poems that are associated with festivals and rituals as scene after scene unfolds in an unabashed celebration of a real (not imagined!) heritage that has long gone unnoticed in the tinsel world.
Needless to say, the movie itself performs the proverbial kshatriyatva function of public service simply by bringing to focus the idea of this celebration and cultural ownership in a manner never done before.