The Indic side must learn to use powerful visual media with mass appeal such as cinema to convey its message so as to prepare the ground for greater receptivity of facts.
Baahubali’s success shows there are backers for it and takers as well. It’s time to step on the gas and cash in on the momentum.
So much has been written and said about Baahubali 2: The Conclusion in less than a week of its release, which is not surprising given the blockbuster popularity of the first part and the interest it generated around the second. One wonders if there’s any aspect of the movie or its significance that has been left untouched. And yet, I have something to say just as I had, about the first part two summers ago.
At the time of writing of this piece, Baahubali 2 is reported to have crossed Rs 600 crore, almost $100 million, in earnings before completing its first week in theatres. Trade analysts seem to be running out of adjectives and encomiums to capture the scale of the movie’s success and the overall impact of this two-part epic fantasy on the Indian film industry.
Despite its flaws, of which it has quite a few, the movie makes a powerful impact on the viewer. I think what works for the movie, just as it did for the first part, is the simplicity of the plot, for which some have panned it. Keeping the plot simple was perhaps a deliberate move on S S Rajamouli’s part because it allowed him the bandwidth he needed to indulge the unprecedented boldness of his vision and unabashed flights of imagination in every frame of the movie. It is hard to miss his passion and commitment to the mammoth project, and his success lies in inspiring his team to share his vision and dedication.
Each of the primary characters, except for Tamannaah’s Avanthika, has been fleshed out better in the second part. By most yardsticks and possibly by design, the character of Amarendra Baahubali is way more memorable than the son’s. The camaraderie in the first half between Prabhas’s Amarendra Baahubali and Sathyaraj’s Kattappa is a treat to watch (for those who can relate to Telugu brand of humour), which is what lends considerable emotional heft to the scene where Kattappa kills Baahubali.
Without exception, each of the actors essaying the primary roles has done justice to his or her part. Anushka Shetty deserves a special mention for bringing to life true Indian feminism on screen through Devasena.
That being said, I believe that K K Senthil Kumar’s scintillating cinematography, the visual effects, Sabu Cyril’s artwork and M M Keeravani’s evocative background score should be credited for giving Rajamouli’s vision its aura and gravitas, for they elevate the movie to the status of an epic.
Keeravani’s soundtrack, in particular, leaves a deep impact that lasts long after you leave the movie hall.
Depending on the scene, the music is majestic, regal, rousing, poignant, romantic, sensual, powerful or martial, showcasing the sheer range and versatility of the master composer. Having watched the original Telugu version and the dubbed Hindi version, I just wish the makers had paid more attention to the song lyrics in Hindi, which unlike the first part, expose the pitfalls of dubbing.
All said and done, while there could be parts of the movie which are either amateurish or could have done with sharper editing, there’s no denying that the Baahubali franchise is proof enough of Rajamouli’s gifts as a master filmmaker with a strong spine that backs his audacious creativity to the hilt. Importantly, the pan-India success of the movie is also a proof of his ability to strike a chord with viewers across the country.
This takes me to the meat of this piece.
Filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani is often credited for being a wizard who understands the pulse of Hindi moviegoers better than anyone else, to which his midas touch is often attributed. If that be the case, Rajamouli has his pulse on filmgoers across the country because he can see the unity in this ancient land’s diversity.
Lest we forget, the Baahubali franchise was always intended for pan-Indian consumption. That did not prevent Rajamouli from mooring his movie and its characters in the culture and faith of this land at a time when wearing or owning your Hindu identity is all the more politically incorrect and invariably attracts controversy since the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power.
While it is acceptable to showcase the so-called Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb on big screen in celebration of the supposed syncretic traditions of India, the slightest hint of even non-confrontational pride in the subcontinent's Hindu roots results in being branded either communal or superstitious or regressive or all of them.
This is all the truer of the media and entertainment industries (assuming they are still distinct and distinguishable), especially Bollywood, where embracing Hinduness leads to ostracisation of the BDS kind. And yet, Rajamouli has unflinchingly embraced it and, in the process, has contributed to mainstreaming of several things Hindu in popular culture and consciousness.
Sure, there’s no denying that the movie is essentially about an internecine royal feud and is not about Hinduism. However, the Hindu milieu in which the story is set and the inspiration Rajamouli has drawn from Hindu epics and characters is what has riled up the Left, so much so that they can’t help seeing the franchise as a “Hindutva Aryan Brahminical Patriarchal conspiracy”.
Starting from a song based on Ravana’s ode to Shiva, the Shiva Thandava Stotram, in the first part of the franchise to the undying devotion of Amarendra Baahubali to his motherland even in his dying moments and finally ending the second part of the franchise with a shot of a Shiva Lingam, the movie stands for everything that is anathematic to the Left.
What’s more, at a time when our Armed Forces are repeatedly targeted and vilified by the Left and its cohorts for merely doing their duty, and feckless pacifism is advocated the rest of us to deprive the society of its will to stand up to its adversaries, through the movie Rajamouli lays emphasis on the importance of Kshaatra Dharma.
To rub salt into the Left’s wounds, the resounding success of the franchise in both urban and rural centres in several languages bears testimony to the fact the movie’s subliminal Indic message, real or perceived, has no dearth of takers. This obviously should alarm the Left because one successful movie, albeit fictional, firmly rooted in Indic-ness, seems capable of posing a serious threat to its decades-old evangelical propagation of a mirthless and cynical narrative of Hinduism and nationalism.
To add to the Left’s woes, Rajamouli’s success could encourage more and more filmmakers from the South and near-deracinated mainstream Bollywood to draw from Hindu Itihaasas and Puranas and portray them in a manner not endorsed by the Left.
While the Left licks the wounds inflicted on its soul and ego by a mere allegedly Hindutva movie which does not even have Hinduism or Hindutva as the centre piece of its script, the success of the Baahubali franchise certainly has several valuable lessons for the Indic side.
Even if we wanted to, in this day and age, no movie could ever hope to be treated as a mere movie, especially one like Baahubali. Because whether we like it or not, acknowledge it or not, for quite some time now in independent India, a battle of ideologies has been and is being fought at all levels on all platforms through all media, which is not always overt and evident. Therefore, the tendency to view everything through the prism of our respective ideologies is all the more heightened.
A wounded ideology, in this case, the Left, is even more prone to this tendency because it has always believed in its Manifest Destiny to be the sole shaper of our destinies and worldviews. This narcissistic belief, a truth claim of sorts, is what has made it difficult for the Left to swallow the fact that all its proxies and avatars have been reduced to almost a nought electorally.
This does not mean that it has been defanged politically, socially, culturally or academically. Far from it. The Left’s entrenchment in the establishment for decades gives it the continued ability to operate from newsrooms, film studios, university campuses, think tanks and NGOs, thereby giving it access to a huge cross-section of impressionable hearts and minds.
Until this is countered on each of these fronts, the Left will continue to set the terms and outcome of every debate, discussion and discourse, notwithstanding its humiliating defeat at the hustings.
As an avid movie buff, I think I understand and appreciate the power of the cinematic medium to capture and influence popular imagination. I am sure I am certainly not the first person to recognise the lethality and effectiveness of the visual medium in general and movies in particular, in shaping narratives and the subconscious.
From Parasakti to Haider to PK, examples abound of movies which have lent themselves as vehicles of an ideology or narrative. Therefore, in this ideological tussle, any ideology or ecosystem which contemptuously disses and dismisses the visual medium as a mere ceaseless producer of mindless bilge or remains oblivious to its immense potential, does so at its peril.
This needs to be understood because while the power of facts and truth cannot be denied, what is, unfortunately, true is that in an age when perception is everything (was it ever not?), understanding prevents the best of minds from receiving verifiable facts without biases of any sort.
What else explains the reluctance of the educated elite to accept or even consider the irrefutable facts of the existence of a Ram Temple under the now demolished Babri Masjid? Despite the Allahabad High Court having arrived at its conclusions based on the hard evidence placed before it and based on the law of the land, the Left has managed to convince large sections of educated Indians that the verdict is based on blind faith and nothing more.
This was possible because of the Left’s control of the intellectual apparatus in the country under the Congress’s patronage, which has given it an edge in the battle of perceptions. Therefore, while the Indic side must continue to dig deep to present facts through rigorous scholarship, it must equally understand the value of first impressions and perceptions in an age of five-minute reads.
The long and short of it is that the Indic side must learn to strike a balance between genuine scholarship and use of powerful visual media with mass appeal such as cinema to convey its message so as to prepare the ground for greater receptivity of facts. Baahubali’s success shows there are backers for it and takers as well. It’s time to step on the gas and cash in on the momentum.