BAAHUBALI!!!!! I saw it 7 times in 10 days in the theater (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday again, and another Tuesday), and then pre-ordered the DVD and watched it 4 more times with the few friends who had missed it in theaters. But that was a couple months before I started the blog, so I’ve never actually written a review of it. But now that Baahubali 2 is about to come out (FINALLY!), it’s time. And since this is a looooooooooooooong one, I am splitting it in two days, Monday and Tuesday. Hey, it was released in both Malayalam and Telugu/Tamil, right?
The Big Picture with Baahubali 1 is that it is the kind of rousing larger than life heroic story that only works if everyone involved really truly believes in it. One hint of cynicism from the script, the direction, or the acting, and it would all fall apart. But everyone here goes at it with such gusto, such joy, and such intensity, that it just soars. It’s the kind of movie you remember from your childhood, because it is treated with the purity of a child, there are no small emotions or small moments, it’s all shining and bright and magnificent.
It’s also not out of line with the tradition of films in India. There are the mythologicals, the historicals, and the mythologicals mixed with historicals that have always been around. Even before film, there were the stories of epic battles and blessed-by-God heroes. While the filmmakers are attacking everything with this sense of wonder, this freshness, they are drawing on ancient story patterns, patterns so ingrained that we can understand them instinctively.
The closest comparison is really the first Star Wars movies. Lucas went back to texts on ancient narratives before writing his script, stories of master and apprentice, epic quests, princesses, all of that. And he went back to older film traditions as well, Flash Gordon and other sci-fi films from the 1930s, stories that the audience of the 1970s wouldn’t consciously remember but would have a vague familiarity that makes the story seem more “natural” to them, despite the space setting. And finally, he brought in a fresh cast and a fresh crew and and convinced them somehow to commit and believe in this world he created (okay, Harrison Ford thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but that kind of works for Han Solo).
I wish I could have experienced Baahubali I as it was meant to be experienced, by someone who had grown up on the Mahabharata stories and TV shows, on older classics with epic sets and noble royal heroes, who would find this film both old and new at the same time. But even without that background, it still felt a little familiar to me. Not from Indian film, but from the oldest American films.
One of the first movies I remember watching was the original Zorro, the one with Douglas Fairbanks. It’s only about an hour long, there are no special effects, and the film quality isn’t that great. And of course it is silent, so the dialogue and story can’t be that complicated. But Fairbanks is such a riveting hero, leaping around the room with his sword, jumping on to his horse, teasing the heroine, there’s such a childlike glee to him. This is a 6 year old boy’s version of a hero, in a world with clear right and wrong, where battles are just for fun, and relationships are as simple as “I love you” “I hate you” and nothing else. It’s intoxicating and wonderful and precious, to be able to capture that childlike simplicity and purity, and then bottle it up in a film that anyone can watch.
(Here’s the whole thing! But no background music, I suggest playing a random instrumental piece while you watch it, just to add to the experience)
That’s why I came back to see Baahubali I so many times. Because while I was watching it, I could feel like I was a child again, sitting on my mother’s lap listening to her read a fairy tale to me, being transported to a world of magic and justice and perfection, the kind of world you can only really imagine as a child, before the “real” world has driven that kind of hope out of you.
And I kind of can’t say any more than that without getting into SPOILERS. Watch the movie because it will give you back your childhood. And then come back here and you can read my thoughts on the plot in detail.
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When I was dragging everyone I knew to see this movie, I told them that they absolutely couldn’t be late because the first 5 minutes were super important. And they are! For two reasons. Firstly, they are just a really unique and well done opening for a film. An older woman, with an arrow sticking out of her back, carrying a baby, and fighting off attackers. It’s feminist, it’s exciting, it gets you immediately curious for the rest of the story.
But in a larger sense, the idea of a baby being brought out of danger to a new world has such a deep almost tribal familiarity. Moses, Krishna, even Jesus had to be brought safely from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Superman too, sent from Krypton to earth. Before these stories, there was the reality, the deep human urge to send our children away from danger, to hope that they can be raised in a better world. It’s why England sent it’s children from London to Canada during WWII, it’s why there are so many stories of refugees desperate to get their children out even if they are stuck themselves. Heck, it’s why Kannathil Muthamittal is my favorite Mani Ratnam movie!
And the second half of this story has that same familiarity. Just as there is a basic human understanding of the superhuman drive to save a child, the simplicity of giving up your own life if a baby can be saved, there is also a basic human understanding of the other side of it, seeing a child in distress and immediately taking it in and accepting it as your own. Both “mothers” (really great aunt and adoptive mother) in this opening are calling on some kind of ancient pre-historic part of the human psyche, bringing the audience back before our cynicism and “logic” and desire for realism ruined our ability to believe.
The next bit is a little bit of a come down from that high. Our hero is a naughty little boy who keeps trying to climb the waterfall. But it is still connected, we opened with something that brought out a huge rush of instinctive needs in the audience (protecting a baby). And now we can connect that instinctive need to the way ‘lil Prabhas is looking at the waterfall. He’s not climbing it to be naughty or for fun or even out of stubbornness, it is just something he feels he has to do.
From a narrative building stand point, it’s good that we see Prabhas climbing and climbing at different ages. By the end of that sequence, the audience is familiar with the setting, both of the waterfall and the idyllic forest community. We have an accurate measure of the challenges he has to overcome to reach the top.
We don’t have an accurate measure of his ability to meet those challenges, which is where the next sequence comes in. He tries and tries to climb the waterfall, because something is driving him on. But there is no immediate need to accomplish it, no goal that will unlock his abilities. That is why he has to be called away to go help his mother, who is determined to accomplish an impossible atonement, washing the Shiva lingaa over and over again. He offers multiple ways to stop her, none of them work, and the only solution seems to be if he can remove the lingaa itself.
And this is the challenge that let’s us see his full abilities, his God-given abilities. This is also when we see the way Prabhas has a more direct line to Shiva than even the priest. In fact, the priest is kind of humorously useless in this sequence. He cannot stop Prabhas’s mother from performing atonement, he cannot stop Prabhas from moving the lingaa, the power of the world is in physical rather that spiritual. Or, rather, the spiritual is expressed in the physical. The Priest may be there to pray and interpret the Gods for the people, but Prabhas is God-embodied.
After Prabhas moves the Lingaa, carrying it all the way to underneath the waterfall, there is this little moment of pure joy when he dances in triumph and to honor the God. It’s an important moment, he is celebrating God, but also his achievement, the joy that comes from having risen to his destiny just now.
And that is what he does again when he finally climbs the waterfall. The “Dhivara” sequence, to me, is the purest expression of Prabhas’s purpose in this film. He is coming of age, coming into his own power. That power was always there, but it needed to be unlocked, he needed an inspiration to bring it out.
This song is not about “I am a beautiful woman waiting for you”, it is about “Prince! Come into your own!!!! Embrace your power!” Unfortunately, for some reason the Hindi version leaned a little heavily into “I am a beautiful woman waiting for you”. Which, along with a few other small changes between Hindi and Telugu, made the romance appear ever so slightly different as a whole.
The end of “Dhivara” is a letdown both for Prabhas and the audience. Prabhas has been inspired to be all he can be, do all he can do. And now that he has arrived at another figurative and literal plateau, he is craving the next challenge. And the audience wants him to find that challenge.
The challenge isn’t what it appears to be. We see a glimpse of Tamanah running through the forest, men chasing her. We think Prabhas will now have to fight them all off. But now, it’s an ambush, Tamannah was leading them into a trap and she is completely capable of saving herself. Prabhas’ challenge is not going to be saving Tamannah in battle, it’s going to be winning her away from the battle.
I know the later bit of the film has some controversy and I’m going to do a whooooooole discussion when I get there. But this earlier part I’ve heard objected to as well. Why did Prabhas have to interfere with Tamannah’s life at all? Well, because it’s boring!!!! The first full talky scene we have of rebel band is one of the most exposition heavy and dull sections of the film.
It’s not dull by accident. Rajamouli removed every trace of color and movement and individuality from this scene. The rebel band, pushed to the extremes of survival and bravery, has lost the ability to “live”. They don’t even let themselves cry any more. It’s not an accident that their symbol is the masks they wear over their faces. Any sense of individuality or deviation from their goals has been crushed out. Prabhas has to soften Tamannah not to make her more feminine, but to make her more human.
And then we go from this dehumanized place to a different kind of dehumanized place. The massive weapons mines of Mahishmati. And a different kind of dehumanized character, Kattappa (played by Sathyaraj, but he is such a distinctive character, he is getting the rare compliment of being called by the character name rather than the actor in my recap). Kattappa, we learn, is the last of his clan, sworn to serve the ruler of Mahishmati for all time. He is the greatest warrior the region has ever seen, but he will never fight for anyone but his masters.
Just as a thought experiment, if Prabhas had started trying to get Kattappa to wear eye liner and bright scarves, would we have worried about him “feminizing” him, or putting his masculine power on him? Or would we have seen it as a full-hearted innocent trying to bring some joy into a joyless life?
Speaking of joy, SUDEEP!!!!!! My favorite character in the whole film! And it appears he will not be returning for Baahubali 2 and I am CRUSHED!!!! He plays what my friends and I call “the falafal man”. Because while he is talking with Kattappa, on the table in front of them are falafals as big as your head! Really, take a look next time you watch it.
Well, “the falafal man”, or else “world’s best sword salesman”. That’s closer to his actual character, a salesman from “The Orient” who is trying to sell a sword to Kattappa. Kattappa rejects it, Sudeep is insulted, they duel, Kattappa shows off his skills, and Sudeep is so impressed he begs Kattappa to go back to his home with him. Again, there is a kind of parallel here to Prabhas and Tamannah. And like Tamannah, Kattappa rejects the invitation, feeling that he has a responsibility in this cursed place and can not leave it.
Back to Tamannah, she is sneaking away from her guard duty, asking her friend to cover for her. In order to lie (lay?) by a pool and allow fish to nibble her arm clean. It took me a few watches to figure out what she is doing, and maybe some people never figured it out and that’s why they missed some stuff about her character? Before she even sees Prabhas, Tamannah is already feeling trapped by her unforgiving lifestyle. Not that she wants to stop fighting, but she wants a little beauty and gentleness in her life too. She wants the sensation of the fish grooming her, and for a moment to see her skin clean and pale. And it is this pre-existing desire that Prabhas takes advantage of with his magical underwater instantaneous tattoo tool, painting beauty onto her arm.
This beauty almost prevents Tamannah from her desires, when the leader of the gang sees it and declares that she is no longer dedicated to their task and cannot be sent to fulfill the greatest mission. Tamannah argues back that the purity of her desire, as shown by her angry tears, should overcome any superficial appearance, and he agrees.
Now, notice that this argument works whether or not the tattooing was voluntary. I’m not saying it was voluntary, in any way. But this is a band that has become so devoted to it’s mission, even something as small as a pretty painting on an arm is seen as a great sin. Tamannah is reminding them that what matters is how they feel inside, not these superficial signs of devotion, darkening their faces and their dress, removing anything from their lives that might give them joy.
And the flip side of this is also true, one can be surrounded by great magnificence and yet have no joy inside of them, no beauty. Which we see as the camera brings us over the walls into Mahishmati.
There are so many details in the sequence, I had to watch it many times to catch them all. We heard that the evil King is collecting all the gold in the kingdom in order to build a statue of himself. And now as the camera zooms up and down streets, we see quick glimpses of guards pulling gold from the necks of weeping women, carts piled high with gold, and men being beaten, presumably as punishment for refusing to voluntarily give up their wealth.
The filming is brilliant as well, it’s drone style, as though we are following a bird through the city (or a bug, possibly using technology developed for Eega/Makhi?), it immediately immerses us in the feel of the place, much more than a simple tracking shot or crane shot would do. And we end at the center of it all, in the palace courtyard, where we meet our villainous grouping of son, father, and grandfather.
Prabhas, our hero, exists in a world of women. As baby he was brought to safety by one woman, and taken into safety by another. As a child and young man, we see him primarily interacting with his mother. And he is driven to climb the waterfall and change his life by a 3rd woman, Tamannah. But Rana is from a harsh world of men. His crippled father and boisterous son cheer him on as he dominates and defeats the most male of all animals, an enormous bull.
Kattappa is the character who exists in both worlds at once. He is there to support Rana, but his request is in support of a woman, the release of Anoushka from captivity. And later we see that he speaks, happily, with Anoushka, able to talk to a woman as an equal, unlike Rana and his father and son who never engage with women (do we even know if Rana’s wife is alive or dead?).
This is our first meeting with Anoushka, and just as Kattappa and Tamannah share features of noble souls trapped in unforgiving circumstances, so do Anoushka and Prabhas share features of power that has been tamped down waiting for release. In our first meeting of Anoushka she moves soooooooooo slooooooooooowly. I want to reach through the screen and shake her and tell her “just MOVE why don’t you!!!!” But that’s the point, we are supposed to feel the same frustration she does at how her life has been limited by her circumstances so that she can’t even walk at a normal pace. Chained up in the city square, face damaged by the sun, body weakened. But when Kattappa tries to force her to do something, she is inspired to reveal her power! And she turns her eyes full on him as the wind rises and the thunder claps.
In Hinduism, there is the idea of ascetics building up power. Really, there is the same idea in most religions. Prayer, sacrifice, self-denial, it’s all about collecting cosmic playing cards that you can cash in as needed. For instance, there is Gandhari, Dhritarashtra’s wife in the Mahabharata, who keeps her eyes covered for decades but, according to some versions, when she removed the blindfold she was capable of giving out great blessings (protecting her son from in the battlefield) and curses (blackening a toe that one small part of her eye fell upon). This is what Anoushka is doing. She has kept her fire tamped down for decades, waiting for the moment to reveal it. In the same way, Prabhas has kept his fire hidden, living the life of a carefree forester, not wasting it on small matters.
Now, the audience is primed to see these two characters meet. Especially since Anoushka has declared her son will save her and, based on that opening with baby Prabhas fleeing from danger, the audience can be pretty sure that he is her son. But what is going to bring them together?
Back to Tamannah! She has a day to prepare herself before leaving for her mission, and she chooses to spend it trying to trap the person who is tormenting her, the one who has painted her hand. Her friend puts her hand in the water as bait, and Tamannah hides in the tree with a bow, ready to shoot an arrow down into the water, unaware that Prabhas is on the branch above her, painting another design onto her shoulder.
There are two messages in this sequence, first that Prabhas is really something special. Tamannah isn’t some foolish maiden, his ability to sneak up on her means that his physical abilities are beyond the usual, not just in climbing up a waterfall, but in a whole variety of ways. And secondly, Tamannah hasn’t quite understood how Prabhas feels about her. She sees this as a simple bait-trap kind of situation. He likes to paint young women, there is a young woman, he will paint her. She doesn’t realize that Prabhas has fixated on her in particular, that it isn’t a “any woman will do” kind of situation. She doesn’t realize that there can even be a situation that isn’t “Any woman will do”.
Okay, it’s time for my big Avantika Rape? section! OH BOY! What fun!!!!
Here’s something odd I noticed about the soundmixing between the Hindi and Telugu versions (I saw both in theaters, not on purpose, just because of convenient showtimes on particular days). In Tamannah’s intro scene in Hindi, you hear heavy panting, like people are running flat out, and occasional cries that sound angry and dangerous from the men. In the Telugu version, somehow it felt different. The panting was lighter, and the cries sounded less angry and more joking and lustful. In Hindi, it looked like they were chasing her down to kill. And, when we realized it was an ambush and they were military, it kind of felt immoral. That she was just tricking random soldiers into chasing her so they could be picked off.
But in the Telugu, it felt obvious that they weren’t chasing her as part of their job as soldiers, they were chasing her because they wanted to rape her. Which meant it wasn’t immoral at all, it was self-selecting bad guys. If they were chasing in order to participate in a gang rape, they deserved to die. And it also explained why Prabhas seemed to be strolling along a little in his effort to save her. Because the “bad guys” were moving slowly also, we could hear their voices, they were joking and enjoying the cat and mouse game, they were in no huge hurry.
The biggest change is what it means for how Tamannah sees the world, and herself in it. In the Hindi version, she is a warrior and an outlaw who is drawing her enemy into a trap. The same is true in the Telugu version, but with the added nuance that she is using her body in order to do it. For Tamannah, an outside man being attracted to her is an automatic danger for her, and weakness to be exploited in him. She only knows of sex and attraction as weapons, nothing else. And so when she reacts to Prabhas’ approaches by setting up a trap, and then by chasing and attacking him, it might not be because she has that internal “I’m in danger” alert that women get, it might just be because she doesn’t know any other way to react.
And then let’s look at Prabhas. While Tamannah only sees love and sex as danger and ugliness, Prabhas is the opposite, he can’t conceive of them being twisted that way. He paints her hand and her shoulder the same way a little boy would tug a little girl’s pigtails. It’s his way of saying “I like you” and “I want to be your boyfriend” as purely as he can. Heck, once he finally has a chance to talk to her, that’s all he wants to say, in the incredibly inane line “I am man, you are woman, I have come here to love you”. It’s really just that simple for him, the thought of a higher duty and responsibilities and complex relationship power dynamics don’t even occur to this character, he is an innocent. Oh, and going back to the slightly different wording of the “Dhivara” sequence, in the Hindi version it sounds like his vision is promising him love, and he therefore thinks he has earned it when he meets her later. But in the Telugu, it is clear that it is not just about Tamannah, it is about being inspired to a great challenge. His vision hasn’t told him that he has won her already, it has told him that the challenge of winning her is worthy.
A lot of reviewers pointed out what Prabhas does with his body language to differentiate between free and happy and carefree “Shivu” of the forest, and noble responsible “Baahubali”. But the Shivu body language isn’t there just to show how different he is from Baahubali, it’s also there to show his innate Shivu-ness. He sees the world as a safe and happy place, he strides wide and swings his arms out. He is open to everything, expecting only good things will happen. Fearless, because it has never occurred to him that there might be something to fear.
And in this confrontation with Tamannah, we can see in their fighting styles the difference in their attitudes. Prabhas is playing with her, casual, laughing, free and easy in his movements. Tamannah is focused, after a goal, and trying to get there as fast as possible. That’s why Prabhas “wins”, because she can’t even understand what he is doing, there is no clear goal that he is trying to achieve, and he doesn’t seem in any hurry to get there.
And then we get to the “rapey” bit. The fight takes them to a natural hot springs. This location isn’t just about being “sexy”, all fertile and stuff, it’s about what is beneath the surface, the promise and warmth and hope and all of that. They move from the cold grey world Tamannah has been trapped in, to something more like Prabhas’ world, rich and beautiful and safe. And it was there all along, underneath the snow.
That’s why Prabhas has to undress Tamannah. It’s not because it is sexy or rapey. It’s because he returning her to her previous essence. He isn’t changing her, he is un-changing her. This is what Tamannah has been struggling with all along, why she let the fish clean her hand, why she looked unhappy at her reflection in the water. It’s not because she was unhappy with herself, it’s because she didn’t feel like herself. She wanted to strip off this misery and darkness all along, but didn’t know how.
That is what Prabhas does for her, shows her herself again. And that’s what makes her finally see him as well, and understand what he is saying, that he came all this way and did all of this, just for her. Not because she is a random available woman he can rape, or because he sees her as just another comrade to be used in the war, but because he sees her as herself, beautiful and unique, something no one has ever seen in her before.
Yes, this sequence is “problematic”. But only if you watch it with a larger context in mind. If you watch it for just what it is, a scene in this movie between these two characters, it is a little silly, but ultimately harmless.
The “harm” comes in when you see it as part of a decades long history of harassment being romanticized in Telugu films. And as part of a lengthy history of strong women being turned into “just” love objects in narratives from everywhere. And generally if you have ever had a man tell you “you’d be pretty if you just smiled more” or otherwise seemed to imply that the main goal of your life is to be attractive to a man.
Those larger contexts should be addressed and discussed. What is frustrating for me and, I think, other viewers who enjoyed this particular sequence in the same way I did, is that this one fairly harmless moment in a film that is about so much more, is being blamed for everything else. Fairly obviously just because this happened to become a super popular movie. If there had been the same articles written about any one of the much more guilty films, no one would have read them, because those films didn’t get the massive record breaking global release. If these articles had said up front “this one scene is a little disturbing, but not that bad, however it reminds me of these 7 other much worse scenes and I am going to take this opportunity to talk about them and the overall trend”, then I wouldn’t have minded. It was just the attitude that this particular scene was obviously the worst thing ever and to blame for all the problems in the universe, that’s what bothered me.
Especially considering what comes afterward, which shows that Tamannah is in control all along. She makes the decision to enjoy this brief interlude, this warm spring in the snowfield that is her life, and then the next morning, she makes her plan to slip away and return to her duty. It’s all her choice, all along.
It isn’t Prabhas that takes away her choices, it’s the army guys who show up as she is walking away. They would have killed her, and they delay her enough for Prabhas to wake up and come chasing after her.
Okay, this bit I have a harder time with. Not so much because of the huge social implications, but just the laziness! Tamannah has to be sneaking away, that is the most important part, that she kept her duty ahead of everything else, and made the choice to leave Prabhas. But then for the plot to continue, Prabhas has to be able to chase after her, and ultimately take over his mission, bringing him to his destiny.
But, really???? Super warrior woman is defeated almost immediately and needs Prabhas to save her? And also, A TWISTED ANKLE?????? Like some freaking Jane Austen heroine!?!?!?!?
Just, a little more imagination would have helped here. Like, what if she had been shot by an arrow as from cover right away, the kind of bad luck there would be no way to have prevented. And that’s why she couldn’t fight, because she was severely injured, and that’s why Prabhas had to rescue her from the soldiers. And later take over her mission.
I’m going to go to the Interval break before I stop today. It’s an awkward interval break, feels like it really should have naturally gone into two parts about half an hour later right before the flashback. But that would have made the first half over two hours long, so they had to find somewhere dramatic to break it before then.
Prabhas says good-bye to Tamannah and starts moving towards Mahishmati. I didn’t notice on my first watch, but along the way there are all sorts of big signs that something big is about to happen, bushes bursting into flame, lightning bolts, etc. And as he lands within the walls of the city, there is a sudden vision of him in armor and regal robes, before changing back to our innocent Prabhas with the simple cloth clothing.
Prabhas makes his way to the town square, where Rana and his evil family are watching poor oppressed peasants struggle with an elaborate pulley system to lift the enormous golden statue they have made out of all the gold collected earlier. A rope slips, and Prabhas grabs it and pulls all by himself, inspiring others to grab hold and pull as well, eventually righting the statute. Only what inspires them is the vision of Prabhas’ face, and an old man who calls him “Baahubali”. The call is taken up by one person after another, until it rings out through the whole square, even the elephants trumpeting in triumph.
What I find most interesting about this is Prabhas’ reaction. He’s hiding in a corner, having knocked out and taken the clothes from one of the guards. He is confused by it all, but doesn’t really care, he just wants to finish his task, get back to Tamannah, and his happy forest life. There is no greater goal in mind, even all this hullabaloo causes only the slightest curiosity. But on the other hand, if he sees an immediate need (like the slipping statue), he will fulfill it. There is just no sense of greater responsibility, no reason he should concern himself with all these people he doesn’t even know.
And it is the growth into that greater responsibility that we see take place over the course of the second half. And the end result of that greater responsibility which I anticipate we will witness in The Conclusion.