4 min read.Updated: 07 Aug 2018, 12:56 PM ISTRaja Sen
For Netflix to truly behead its rivals, such as Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar, the 'Baahubali' web series needs to overwhelm. All constraints must die
There have been no new Game Of Thrones episodes this year, and even before the last season of the massively successful series will air in 2019, networks are busy mining the intellectual property offered up by George RR Martin’s dragons-and-décolletage saga. HBO has announced five Game Of Thrones spinoff shows, each dealing with worlds and characters far from the ones we already know, and the first one to go into production is a prequel series taking place thousands of years before the events of the series we know.
This week, Netflix announced the production of a prequel of their own. Following on from the stupendous worldwide success of the Baahubali films directed by SS Rajamouli, they have announced an epic series called Baahubali: Before The Beginning. Amazon India got there first, with an animated series based on the swords-and-sandals mythology — Baahubali: The Lost Legends — but that flew under the radar and never quite clicked. The newly announced series sounds a lot more promising, and a lot more expensive.
Netflix has already announced two seasons of the prequel series, a live-action epic with — as the network’s press release assures — “the incredible narrative style of the franchise, including the high production values, spectacular visuals and connective-epic story telling." Season one, based on Anand Neelakantan’s book The Rise Of Sivagami, presents Sivagami, the royal matriarch we know in the films, as a young rebel who learns to fight and manipulate her way towards the throne. This sounds right.
The Baahubali films are impressive not simply because of the scale but because of the intricate details Rajamouli focusses on: there is nuance, for example, in the way two characters size up one another, and in the way their headgear makes us aware of a social hierarchy. Both films in the series suffer because of the need to do too many larger-than-life things at the same time. Baahubali - The Beginning soon gets bogged down in messy waterfall-based farce before achieving high drama in the third act, followed by a gasp-worthy cliffhanger ending. On the other hand, Baahubali -The Conclusion, the film I preferred, enjoys an absorbing and compelling buildup but rushes through its climax too soon. Both films needed room to breathe, particularly because it was always apparent that Rajamouli had more to say about these warriors and about these worlds.
This is why they would work better as a series. “The world of Baahubali is extensive and immersive, with strong characters and larger than life kingdoms," said Rajamouli in a statement. “The films are from one story set in this world, and more dramatic stories were broadly conceived while building the Universe." There we have it, talk of an interconnected storytelling universe — not to mention that the statement made sure to spell it with a capital-U, the way Marvel and co write it — which means aspirations for the franchise are suitably sky-high.
The reason this is momentous is because we have always screwed up our myths. We have had several iterations of the great Indian epics, of course, but Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana from 1986 and BR Chopra’s Mahabharat from 1988 remain the most memorable — perhaps because they came at a time when there was only one television channel. Aamir Khan was recently involved in some gigantic-budget five-film Mahabharat adaptation, but, perhaps in part due to bigoted outrage at an unofficial announcement about the actor playing Lord Krishna, the films appear now to have been shelved. (Instead, Khan might be playing Gulshan Kumar in a biopic. Mata Rani works in mysterious ways.)
The Baahubali films shook Indian cinema in a massive way, and Netflix has done well to get their hooks into this popular intellectual property with a treatment that, conveniently enough, gels strongly with prime time Indian television tradition. The background score will deafen, eyes will widen past breaking point, there will be lots of melodramatic betrayal taking place mostly in slow motion. There is therefore potential for a show that appeals to viewers of Game Of Thrones as well as audiences hooked to Naagin-based entertainment.
The important thing for Netflix to note here is that the series not be given the stepchild treatment. These are grandiose films and they deserve a series that is proportionately baroque. Prabhas, the charming leading man of the films, may not be the star of the television series, but he — and younger incarnations of popular characters like Katappa — should certainly make appearances in the series in order to tie the Universe together. Sacred Games was a solid enough first step as a Netflix Original produced in India, but the budget never seemed extravagant. This one must. For Netflix to truly behead their rivals, the Baahubali show needs to overwhelm. All constraints must die.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.