Continuing our character posts, next up, Kattappa! Introduced 4th in the films, after Sivagami, Shivudu, and Avantika. And again, this is not meant to be the end all-be all on this character. Just sort of an interesting leaping off point to consider him. (full index of Bahubali posts, including other character posts, is here)
Kattappa is a really interesting character. Perhaps the most interesting character. Not the most admirable of the films (Amarendra), or the most complex (Sivagami). But the one that leaves an indelible mark on your mind from his very first scene.
Perhaps it is because he is so simple? There’s a kind of freedom in slavery. Not that I am saying slavery is good! But, for instance, prisoners released after decades in jail can crave that order. The constant pressure to decide what to eat, when to sleep, all of that was taken away from them. And they got used to that loss of control.
Kattappa gets to decide what to eat and so on. But he doesn’t have to struggle with any of the moral questions the other characters deal with. There are no higher functions for him, just eat, sleep, fight, duty. Even love is not part of his equation.
I said in the last post that Avantika is another version of Kattappa. And I stand by that. But she is a version who is capable of choices. Kattappa, in his introduction scene, explains that he is a slave to the royal family not because of any choice of his own, but because of a duty to his ancestors, decisions they made. He was born into slavery and has never known anything else.
Earlier I used the analogy of someone released from prison, who sometimes misses the ability to give up day to day decision making. Another analogy might be a child who was raised in an institution. There is a term for it, “Institutional Syndrome”. It’s not just a matter of missing that security from a regulated life, it’s a matter of no longer having the skills to live in any other way, or no longer having been taught those skills (this is why orphanages are bad and America increasingly switched to a foster care system).
(I don’t mean happy Mr. India orphanages, I mean ones with a rotating group of staff members and strict rules about when to eat and sleep and stuff like that)
Avantika, for instance, she chose to live a life of duty and repression. But it was her choice. She knew there was something else out there, and she knew that she could have it if she decided to go after it. Kattappa, he couldn’t even grasp the idea of free will. It would be like trying to describe colors to someone born color blind. He knows it is something other people have, but it is something that is just not in him.
(Speaking of colorblindness, Lucia is just the coolest movie, you should definitely watch it)
That’s why Kattappa is so fascinating. He is this brilliant powerful man. But he is crippled inside, or not just crippled, “differently abled”. While other people walk on their feet, he walks on his hands, let’s say. And that’s what we see in his very first scene. He wins a bargaining battle, and a sword fight, proving amazing abilities. And then immediately says, despite his huge abilities, he cannot do anything without the permission of his masters. The dialogue tries to explain it, fate-Dharma-something. But really, he cannot do anything without the permission of his masters because he literally cannot. He never learned how and it is too late for him to develop the ability.
That’s why he is so fascinating to us, as viewers, I think. The other characters, they are sort of more-than-human. All the parts we recognize within ourselves, anger and love and hatred and a desire to do good, but exaggerated slightly. But still there.
But Kattappa, he is something totally different. He has no emotions we can recognize within ourselves because they are all filtered through his cracked worldview. Pride, it’s pride in the people he serves. Anger, it’s anger on behalf of/with the permission of the people he serves. Love, it’s half-ashamed love, quickly hidden and forgotten. Hatred, that is not allowed either. A desire to do good, that doesn’t exist.
Kattappa has no desire to be a better person. No desire to do good in the world. No desire to make the world a better place. Because that would mean a level of abstract thinking that Kattappa never learned. Yes, he knows right from wrong, on a basic level. Devasena being chained up and put on display, that is wrong. Amarendra fighting bandits to save a kingdom, that is right. But if you asked him “Is it better to wage civil war for justice, or to accept injustice if it brings peace?”, he wouldn’t even understand the question.
This is also why, as viewers, we can find him a frustrating character to watch. It is similar to looking at a baby playing with blocks. At a certain point, you just want to say “Be smarter! Put the square in the square and the circle on the circle! It’s SO OBVIOUS!” Kattappa is like that baby. Something that is crystal clear to us, regular human people who were given free will as our birthright, is invisible to him.
(Or like that moment at the end of Happy New Year when literally EVERYBODY IN THE THEATER figures out the secret code before Shahrukh)
What makes him a tragic figure is that, very very slowly over the course of the two films, he is beginning to realize that something is wrong with him. It begins with Amarendra’s kindness. Kindness that he has to learn how to respond to, because it is something he has both never received, and never given.
He throws himself enthusiastically into Amarendra’s love story, without fully following what is happening and why (the scene with the love birds, as Avani (I think) pointed out in the comments, illustrates beautifully his inability to understand emotions). When it all goes wrong in court, for the first time, Kattappa tries to do something for himself. But it is the wrong thing, because the right thing does not occur to him. Rather than telling Sivagami that the flaw was in the message she sent, either the wording of it which made which son it was referring to unclear, or the commanding tone which insisted she had the right to force this marriage, Kattappa takes the fault onto himself. And, ultimately, makes things worse.
During the baby shower, Anushka tries to reach out to him as a fellow human, and again Kattappa fails to understand her, responding in the only way he knows how, not agreeing to be the baby’s “grandfather”, but instead offering to be his slave.
During the final battle and death of Amarendra, Kattappa knows that he should not do this. Normal human people do not kill those they love. But he also doesn’t know how NOT to do this, how to put anything (love, an abstract sense of right and wrong) above duty. Even the words to frame this internal debate do not exist in his head. And so there is no debate, he carries out his duty. But some dumb unspoken part of himself resists, and puts it off until the last minute.
Kattappa’s “happy ending” is not to gain Free Will, because he wouldn’t know what to do with it if he had it. It is to gain a better master, one who will slowly teach him how to make decisions on his own, to make moral judgments, to understand the concept of morality at all. I know we all want him to kill Nassar at the end and declare that he is following Mahendra just because he wants to. But that would not be true to his character. Kattappa has a long way to go before he could ever make a decision like that.