Indian Epics On Screen: What Did Baahubali Change?
When it comes to epics in Indian cinema, would their history be divided as ‘before-Baahubali’ and ‘after-Baahubali’?
As the sequel to the blockbuster, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) hits the screen next week, the producers have decided to make the most of the timing and release the original again. Like what fashionista Anna Wintour had once expressed – it’s always about timing – could easily describe the manner in which S S Rajamouli’s Baahubali transformed from being a mega-budget extravaganza to a milestone in the popular culture of India.
Wintour believed that if it is too soon, no one understands, and if it is too late, everyone forgets it. In a way, no one had expected much from Baahubali because the mythological genre in India rarely broke box office records. Not only did Baahubali break the hoodoo surrounding the genre, but the level at which it managed that also added to its reputation. It changed the perception attached to the mythological genre where it was automatically assumed that mythological was synonymous with tackiness.
If the first film created its own definition of greatness, the sequel, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (released on 27 April), is all set to rewrite the rules, as well as cement the franchise’s reputation, that in the years to come, could very well divide films as ‘before’ and ‘after’ Baahubali.
The year Baahubali: The Beginning had released also featured three other films whose budgets were worth of 100 crore. At Rs 180 crore, the first Baahubali film was then the most expensive Indian film and even though Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) had the same budget, and Dilwale (2015) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) close enough — with Rs 165 crore and Rs 145 crore respectively.
The reason why Baahubali: The Beginning stood out was clear. For once, you could see why a production needed that kind of budget. The lavish scale, the extent of the planning, right from conceptualisation till execution and the degree of the visual effects (VFX) not only made the film peerless, but also unique among the gamut of big productions.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of this film’s planning, there was a two-and-a-half-year gap between Rajamouli floating the idea of the project around early 2011 and the actual commencement of the film in Kurnool, in July 2013.
With over 90 per cent of the film comprising of shots that needed to be visually enhanced, the film had over 600 VFX artists working simultaneously across the world.
It did what many big-budget Indian films have been trying but not managed to conquer. Perhaps, for the very first time in an Indian context, Baahubali: The Beginning blended what the technology could achieve with what the mind could imagine.
When it comes to the imagination, there can hardly be a dearth for an Indian mind, fueling this vast imagination are the tales, mythologies and folklore. Yet, there had always been a sense of trepidation in translating words into visuals. The abysmal state of technology could be easily blamed for our mythological genre, not keeping up with the times, and like many things responsible for keeping Indian cinema trapped in a time wrap, this, too, after some introspection, could be attributed to the over-dependency on the star.
Think of any classic mythological film from any era across any Indian language and the chances of stars such as N T Rama Rao, Sivaji Ganesan, and Dara Singh would be high. N T R has played a host of gods and demigods, right from Rama to Karna, from Raavan to Bheem, and the name Dara Singh is practically tantamount to Hanuman for us.
Apart from the ‘talent’, a mythological film’s songs or dialogues that packed in a punch or two would be the only thing that mattered. Therefore, for the producer, things such as visual effects that could elevate the narrative to the next level, did not matter, because there was no need to visually convince anyone of anything as long as an N T R or a Dara Singh said it while in character.
It is intriguing that the mythological in the West or even the big budget costume dramas that featured stars never managed to have the same impact or enjoy the same degree of box office success as the ones that had comparatively lesser known actors.
At the same time, in India, the bigger a star, the greater the chances of the film being a success. Of course, one can always cite the example of a Jai Santoshi Maa (1975), one of the biggest hits ever, but that would be an exception and the standard. The same mindset percolated into two of the iconic television shows that set the standards for the genre in television and even today, both Ramayan (1987) and Mahabharat (1988) are recalled for their significance in popular culture rather than being a showcase of cutting-edge technology.
There is a misconception among most viewers, that in cinema, the so-called ‘vision’ often ends with execution, while the truth is something else.
The reason why we still talk about Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy with awe is not just the manner in which he created the film’s landscape, but also the ingredients he used; in a departure from the standard practice of the day, Nolan still famously shoots his movies on film and has refused to go digital. Like Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, too, believes in the photo-chemical process for the post-production because it delivers a better quality and even shot Master (2012) on slower, fine grain film stock with 65 mm lens, instead of the regular 35 mm to evoke the crispness, and shallow depth of field characteristic of iconic post-war still photography.
Similarly, Quentin Tarantino rose from the gimmicky intermission that he used to insert in his films to rekindle the past to use 65 mm lens for The Hateful Eight (2015) and even pushed theaters to gear up to project it in 70 mm. These are some of the details that make a difference between a master storytelling and an average filmmaker.
With Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Rajamouli could be taking an even greater stride.
With Baahubali: The Beginning, it was for the first time in Indian movies that 4K prints were rendered with an aspect ratio of 1:1.88 as compared to Cinemascope at 1:2.35 to get the best cinematic experience in screens that support the projection. Baahubali 2, whose estimated budget is Rs 250 crore will be the first Indian film to be released in 4K High Definition format, and thanks to it, close to 200 screens are being upgraded to 4K projectors before the release.
In the backdrop of the kind of relationship that Indian cinema has had with VFX, the fact that Baahubali, despite shortcomings, has been hailed across the world as the one that could be seen as a reboot of sorts for the blockbuster, is truly its biggest achievement.
The fact that Baahubali is a “principally homegrown feature produced by homegrown talent” is also somewhere a very big factor for the way it has become a part of the collective consciousness of the audiences.
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