Big need not always be better but ‘Baahubali’ certainly is bigger and better in its imagination and execution. If ‘Magadheera’ served as an introduction to Rajamouli’s bravery, ‘Baahubali’ opens up as his main chapter. When a slightly grey-haired Rana Daggubati takes on a bison, I imagined Rajamouli taming a century old culture of filmmaking in India. He succeeds whimsically even with several loopholes under his supervision.
SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali is an epic in two parts, narrated through spectacular visuals and amazing special effects, including a 30-minute battle scene helmed with admirable precision.
However, beyond this, the film with a star-studded cast of Prabhas, Rana Daggubati and Anushka Shetty offers little else. The film suffers in terms of continuity, because the film’s production took more than two years.
Director SS Rajamouli has done some remarkable things with this monumental film, which is the first of a two-part tale. One, he’s made a film that actually gets better after intermission. Two, he’s given us a new epic with Bahubali. Yes, the cast is dressed like characters in Amar Chitra Katha, but this isn’t a reinterpretation of Mahabharata or a retelling of Ramayana. V. Vijayendra Prasad has written a whole new and original epic that doesn’t borrow too obviously from our favourite Hindu epics. Here, we see (mostly) new gods and new heroes who are not bland replicas of mythological heroes.
The first part opens with a desperate woman trying to save a boy child even as she drowns in a flooded river and he lives, nurtured by a forest tribe. He grows up to be Shivadu, little realising that he belongs to the nobility and that his mother, Devasena (Anushka Shetty), is chained and imprisoned by his cousin, Palvaalthevan (Rana Daggubati), in the royal palace.
It is not hard to guess what will follow. The rest of the story takes us on an adventure with Shivadu as he finally frees his mother — but not before indulging in a little romance with Avantika (Tamannaah, wooden as usual), who is part of a rebel group that lives in a mountain hideout.
However, the chaste Tamil that is spoken in the film (a Telugu version opened simultaneously as well) and the rather convoluted plot with far too many characters may not appeal to the modern multiplex crowd, addicted to simpler, less complex storylines.
Baahubali, despite its epic dimensions — with a tendency to copy larger-than-life Hollywood heroic tales like Ben-Hur and Troy — fails at some level to draw us into the narrative. Even one of the first scenes of a huge statue being erected with the help of slaves works in a very limited way to capture audience attention or set the mood for images of flying swords and falling boulders.
If Rajamouli thought that his special effects team that drummed up outstanding imagery — lovely waterfalls, magnificent snow-covered mountains and an awesome terrain of the kingdom — would somehow cover up the weaknesses of the film, he was wrong. Greater detailing and accuracy could have helped.
Our hero is Shiva (Prabhas), a prince who is smuggled out of his kingdom and raised by a different tribe. He grows up not knowing his lineage, but acquires some serious rock-climbing skills. If his wooing techniques are any indication, lurking under his hulking physique is an aspiring tattoo and make-up artist. In the first half of Bahubali, we see Shiva scampering up a mighty waterfall and pursuing the feisty Avanthika (Tamannaah), who is part of a rebel group that lives in a hideout, high up in the mountains. She is possibly the worst assassin in the history of all time, given how she doesn’t notice minor details like Shiva’s bulked-up self lying on a branch above her, painting paisleys on her shoulder. Then again, you know what they say — love is blind.
Shiva is besotted by Avanthika and so he marks her as his own by discreetly painting tattoos on her. Later, when they finally lock eyes on one another, he subjects her to a Zorro-inspired striptease (mythical rebel heroines have nice underwear. In satin, no less) and in a flourish that will make stylists clap delightedly, Shiva turns Avanthika’s green dhoti into a red skirt-type-thing. Avanthika sees herself post-makeover and sensibly decides Shiva is a keeper. Meanwhile in Mahishmati, King Bhallala Deva (Rana Dagubatti) shows off his rippling shoulder muscles and takes a giant bull by the horns, literally.
As might be evident, the first half of Bahubali isn’t exactly riveting. It teeters between funny, spectacular and tragic, depending upon how keen-eyed the viewer is and how much acting is required of the cast. You can tell the shooting has spread over the better part of two years because the continuity is inconsistent. For instance, Shiva has armpit hair in one shot and in the next second, he’s been depilated comprehensively.
However, Rajamouli is hoping what his VFX team has dreamed up as the imaginary terrain of Bahubali will blind the viewer to the film’s weaknesses and to a large extent, this tactic works. The CGI landscape, like the waterfalls and the rather magnificent Mahishmati, are spectacular. There are a few laughable spots, but they are few and far between. While Bahubali doesn’t feel as real as Middle Earth, it is a beautifully-imagined fantasy landscape that has been rendered in impressive detail, particularly by Indian standards.
In fact, the fake waterfall and city are more convincing than the real humans. Tamannaah confirms that she is an abysmally bad actress. As far as this reviewer is concerned, Prabhas is marginally better, but those who aren’t inclined towards being distracted by shirtless, well-built men may disagree. Fortunately, Prabhas entirely redeems himself with the fight sequences and stunts that he performs. There’s an air of Rajinikanth to the actor, right down to the goofy grin. Dagubatti has little to do except flex his muscles and smoulder from time to time, which he does ably. The two actors who do actually do some acting are Ramya Krishnan and Sathyaraj, both of whom play important secondary roles.
It’s post-intermission that Bahubali really comes into its own. Shiva is told the story of his father, Amarendra Bahubali (Prabhas in a double role), and his cousin, Bhallala Deva. They are princes in the royal family of Mahishmati, which faces multiple crises. Chaos is avoided when Bhallala’s formidable mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishan) takes charge. However, when a murderous army lands up at Mahismati’s borders, it is time for the two princes to take centre stage and they do so in a fantastically choreographed battle that unfurls over more than 30 minutes.
This battle is Rajamouli’s tour de force. It’s elaborate, well-choreographed and has some breathtaking moments. Prabhas and Dagubatti are both in their elements as the warriors who approach warfare in two distinctive styles. The outcome of the battle is no surprise, but there are enough clever tactics and twists to keep the audience hooked. The biggest surprise, however, lies in the film’s final shot, which gives you a glimpse into the sequel that will come out next year. And it’s good enough to make you wish 2016 was here already.