Why Baahubali worked, and what lesson the Indic Right must learn from that.
It’s been close to two weeks since the release of S.S.Rajamouli’s monster hit Baahubali whose box office collections are reportedly racing towards INR 400 Crores and are shattering multiple records in the process. Although numbers give us an idea of the scale of the movie’s success, they don’t tell us the reasons for its massive acceptance, especially for the continuing and scintillating run of its Hindi-dubbed version in northern India.
Apart from the exposure to Hindi-dubbed versions of larger-than-life Telugu potboilers on Hindi movie channels, which may have laid the foundation for Baahubali’s acceptance in the North, the average movie goer in the Hindi heartland may not relate to the cultural and attitudinal reasons for the template a typical Telugu movie follows and may not be aware of the crazy following enjoyed by movie stars from the Telugu film industry (“Tollywood”). And yet, the dubbed version of Baahubali has set the cash registers afire in the National Capital Region (Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon).
Based on my observation of the audience’s reactions in my two viewings of the dubbed Hindi version in the National Capital Region, I think the movie’s biggest draw has been its ability to connect with the audience at a fundamental level in a very powerful way. To be honest, the script of the movie isn’t particularly out-of-the-box. In fact, its skeleton is similar to any number of stories from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and tales immortalized by Amar Chitra Katha. Perhaps, the script’s ability to tap into the nostalgia of the readers of these epics and comic book series is one of the reasons for its national appeal.
The other reason, which may be banal to point out, is the sheer magnitude and quality of Rajamouli’s execution of the movie. Without a doubt the first half of the movie is a bit of a drag, comes across as amateurish at times and could have done with better editing. It is the engaging visuals, the background score (except for the romantic duet between the lead pair) and the screen presence of its cast, primarily Prabhas and Sathyaraj, which keep the audience in their seats during the first half in the hope that the best is yet to come. This is where Rajamouli does not let the audience down and delivers brilliantly in the explosive second half. And how!
Even as the movie inches towards intermission, the pace of the story quickens and there is a palpable spike in the audience’s interest levels because they are given a taste of what is to come in the second half. Once the second half begins, you know your senses are in for a delectable treat. It is in this half of the movie that the central characters of the story come to the fore.
The treatment and portrayal of the characters deserve to be acknowledged, in particular Ramya Krishnan’s regal performance as the steely Queen Mother Sivagami, Prabhas as the majestic Bahubali, Rana Daggubaati as the ambitious contender for the throne and Sathyaraj as the fiercely loyal slave general. Nasser’s character is Dhritarashtra-esque and Anushka Shetty’s reminds one of Rakhi Gulzar’s role in Karan Arjun which was immortalized by her dialogue “mere Karan Arjun aayenge”.
The piece de resistance is of course the battle which lasts for close to 40 minutes and which had the audience in the cinema hall rooting vocally for the protagonist. It is this segment of the movie which is worth a repeat viewing and elevates the entire experience of watching the movie.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that no other Indian movie (except for B.R.Chopra’s series Mahabharat despite the lack of advanced CGI technology in 1988) has captured battles of yore with such conviction and executed it to such perfection. This is the segment where Rajamouli’s genius as a master showman is showcased. His vision for this portion of the movie is truly astounding (and appears to brim with a lot of subtext).
Prabhas and Rana acquit themselves magnificently in this segment and their extensive physical training for six months shows in every frame. I personally cannot think of any other pair of actors from the South or the North who could have done justice to the roles because it’s not just the physicality involved, but the regal bearing which the characters are expected to radiate. This too demonstrates Rajamouli’s acumen as a director who can see his characters in his mind’s eye and choose the right cast to play them.
At this point, it would be unfair to not mention the brilliant portrayal by actor Prabhakar as the leader of the savage hordes (the Kalakeyas) and Madhan Karky’s creativity in creating a new language, Kilikili, for the movie. Clearly, a lot of spadework and research has gone into the making of this movie.
What deserves a special acknowledgement is M.M.Keeravani’s musical score, particularly the rousing background score for the battle sequence. The powerful music conjures images of bravery, patriotism and does absolute justice to the martial spirit of the scene. Its contribution to enhancing the near-demigod like stature of the protagonist Baahubali is immense. The stirring rendition of the Shiva Tandava Stotram as part of a song in the first half of the movie is a treat for music lovers. Unquestionably, Rajamouli has got it right almost on every front including its marketing, which explains the overwhelming reception to the movie.
Having said that, the movie’s significance isn’t solely about its individual success. After an extended jaded, unimaginative and formulaic phase, much like the Bollywood of the ‘80s, the Telugu film industry has made its presence felt at the national level in a spectacular fashion, which I am personally happy about. The fond hope is that the success of Baahubali will help change the trajectory of the Telugu film industry for the better.
I may sound partial, for although my native tongue is Tamil, having grown up in undivided Andhra Pradesh, Telugu holds a special place for me. In fact, I rue that I couldn’t watch Baahubali in Telugu because the dialogues in Graandhika Telugu (chaste Telugu) would have been music to my ears which have grown up listening to the dialogues from Telugu mythological films like Maya Bazaar and NTR’s classics.
At another level, I am also happy that there’s at least one Indian filmmaker who thinks it is worth his while to make a film which draws from Hindu mythology and history. That the national audience has embraced his labour of love with open arms is the icing on the cake. I suspect this is one of the reasons for the motivated charges of racism and sexism which are unfairly levelled against Baahubali despite the movie having strong female characters who keep the men around them in check. After all, such allegations help cement Leftist stereotypes of Hindu patriarchy and vilify that vile predator called “the aggressive Hindu male”. I am just surprised by the conspicuous absence of a “feminist piece” titled “The Rape of Jodhaa” after the release of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar.
Maybe I should not be surprised because the politically correct “secular” expectation is to celebrate a movie which asks us to be grateful to a bunch of Persianised Turkic-Mongol invaders and celebrate their love for coercing Hindu women into submission. According to this narrative, it is perfectly acceptable for a filmmaker to portray a Hindu princess as having willingly offered herself to a Mughal after marrying him under political compulsion and after having been unfairly accused of infidelity. We are also expected to demonstrate our faith in “liberal values” by buying the “seduction”, not rape, of Jodhaa by Akbar in a swordfight. It wouldn’t count as “rape” for these guardians of feminism because the Stockholm Syndrome apparent in such an equation is to be blithely ignored.
Rajamouli may or may not have had a subtext in mind when he made Baahubali, but its success seems to have rattled the Left which finds itself unable to dismiss this “Hindutva movie” as just a movie. This presents an opportunity to the Indic Right.
It’s time for the Indic Right to realize the power of the audio-visual medium in this ideological tussle and invest serious efforts in employing this medium to present its narrative just as it was employed to lethal effect by the Dravidian Movement. As I have said elsewhere, free speech and expression are the Indic Right’s best friends and they must be exercised to the hilt. Simply put, instead of whining and cribbing each time movies like PK and Haider are made, the Right too must learn to give the Left a taste of its own medicine. To put it in the words of Chinua Achebe, the author of Things Fall Apart, “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own”.