At several points during Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the audience I was watching it with whooped and whistled. Mostly it was at something Prabhas did, like throwing a tree at charging soldiers or jumping from one flaming, stampeding bull to another. At times, I felt a cheer rising within me as well, but it would remain stifled, often as a result of an over-ambitious visual effect or an especially florid bit of Hindi dubbing, but also because it’s difficult to applaud aspects of a film while disagreeing with the whole.
Some films will set your pulse racing even as they espouse the exact opposite of your worldview; others you’ll want to like but not be able to bring yourself to. Baahubali 2 is undoubtedly a spectacular action film. It’s also a tradition-bound, caste-conscious macho militarist fantasy.
The first Baahubali film ended with Kattappa (Sathyaraj) explaining to Shiva (Prabhas)—actually Mahendra Baahubali, rightful heir to the kingdom of Mahishmati—why he killed his father, Amarendra Baahubali (also Prabhas), the former king. His explanation took the form of an extended flashback, which continues in the sequel as we’re beaten over the head with scene after scene designed to show how virtuous and beloved of his people Amarendra was. We’re also reintroduced to Devasena (Anushka Shetty), the princess of a small state, who becomes Amarendra’s wife. Shetty thus plays wife and mother to Prabhas in the same film. If they ever have another film in the series, it might be “Baahubali: Freudian Issues”.
Because we already know that Kattappa is going to kill Amarendra, everything is necessarily a build-up to this moment. It’s a long, long time coming—and a good indicator of how invested you are in the mythology of the Baahubali universe is to note if the wait starts to weigh on you. Not that there are many dull moments: in one 30-minute stretch, for instance, writer-director S.S. Rajamouli follows a sneak attack in the forest with low comedy, a boar hunt, more comedy (sold with hammy exuberance by Subbaraju, playing an inept warrior), a song sequence and a bona-fide battle. It feels like there’s always an action scene, or a song, or a set-piece happening. It’s as if the makers have determined that if anyone is going to get bored, they’ll have to do it in spite of the narrative, not because of it.
Baahubali isn’t the kind of film that waits for its audience; it comes to you. Whatever historical time period this story is taking place in, it isn’t the Age of Nuance. A follower of the evil king, Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati), can’t just be a schemer, he has to be a pervert too; Amarendra can’t just be a regular benevolent ruler, he has to give up his dinner for poor children and be fed by their teary mothers. The plot is reasonably well worked out, but character motivations are often sketchy—including, crucially, Katappa’s. Even by epic action film standards, the performances are broad. In the rare moments when there’s more talk than action, the film assumes the hyperbolic qualities of a tele-series; the scenes featuring Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan, overdoing the eye-popping a bit) and Devasena, in particular, would make for a great Ekta Kapoor-style mythological soap (Kyunki Rajmata Bhi Kabhi Saas Thi?)
Still, what makes Rajamouli’s films unique is that, in the midst of the most incredible silliness, there’ll suddenly arrive a breath-taking image or a fluid, heart-pounding shot. I was laughing when, during a battle scene, Mahendra catapults himself and a few others onto a terrace with the help of a handy tree. But once he lands, the scene transforms into something ridiculously attractive—a continuous sideways shot of him slashing his way through enemy ranks, blood flying in theatrical arcs.
For a film that’s highly invested in ritual and tradition, it is perhaps revealing that when Baahubali 2 wants to make a point about valour, it reaches for the grammar of the caste system. Time and again we’re told what it means to be Kshatriya; how, when it’s required, a true Kshatriya will reveal their warrior nature. This sort of talk is worrying—whether or not Rajamouli has included it unthinkingly. To mention one caste is to refer to the entire system; to extol the virtues of one is to deny the same qualities in the others.
For those who think questions of caste and sexism and racism shouldn’t be directed at big-budget entertainers, I can only say that I believe there couldn’t be anything more important. Hollywood is making further inroads into the Indian film market every year. If Baahubali 2 is a hit, we might be seeing many more “event films” of its kind in the near future. Whether we ask much of these films is up to us.