I saw Baahubali – The Conclusion a week after its release. By then, there were broadly two categories of people I had come across. One that had seen Baahubali and were raving about it and the other, that had yet not been able to get the tickets. Never before has a non-Rajini film from the south created so much pre-release buzz, that has only snowballed after the release.
But take a closer look and the story is a familar one, something you were told as a child while you were put to sleep. That makes Baahubali all the more endearing.
A formidable queen called Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), who will do what it takes to keep the empire together and the lineage unbroken. A disgruntled elder brother Pingaladeva (Nassar) who is unforgiving towards the fact that the throne didn’t come his way because of his physical disability. An ambitious prince Pallavalthevan (Rana Daggubati), who grows up dreaming of being the king one day, regardless of his capability to be one. A firebrand woman of steel by the name Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who will not bear humiliation in silence. A warrior prince Baahubali (Prabhas) who will follow his dharma, regardless of the difficulty of the chosen path. And an old guard called Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a celibate, who has sworn unwavering allegiance to the throne of Mahishmati.
This wasn’t Baahubali. I saw in it the most lavish tribute to the Mahabharata on the Indian silver screen till date. Think of Satyavati, the queen mother, who asks Vyasa (her son before marriage from Parashara) to impregnate her daughters-in-law so that the throne of Hastinapur can have successors. She is Sivagami, who takes complete charge of not just the kingdom, but the lives of people who live under her care. She knows, that with Kattappa by her side there’s nothing to fear. She is also like Gandhari, who doesn’t allow her maternal instincts to override her sense of judgement and like Kunti, decides for her sons, without consulting them. And like Kunti, she has raised them with the right sense of dharma, something that will also cause dharmasankat for the characters later.
Dhritarashtra is not allowed to rule because of a physical disability and nurses this grouse all his life. Add a dash of Shakuni to this and you get the evil Pingaladeva. His son, who grows up with a sense of entitlement and whose hatred for his cousin knows no bounds, is Pallvalthevan (Duryodhana). Bring together the dharmic outlook of Yudhisthira, physical prowess of Bhima, the archery skills of Arjuna, the charming looks of Nakula and the intelligence of Sahadeva and you get Amarendra Bahubali. And like Bhishma, who had to fight his most beloved grandsons at Kurukshetra, despite knowing they were morally right, Kattappa had to well, kill Bahubali. After all, his allegiance was to the throne of Mahishmati and not to a person.
Mahabharata has been an important point of reference for several stories and our understanding of dharma. The right and the wrong and the subjectivity of these theories. There’s white, black and a zillion shades of grey in between. Mahabharata exists in these different shades of grey. In Baahubali, the nitty-gritties of dharma are discussed, if not at length, at least in passing in several scenes. Like the grand epic, Baahubali’s men and women spiral a series of events that go beyond control, with their oaths, valour, pride, promises and a sense of duty to fulfill them. Be it Sivagami’s oath to marry Pallvalthevan to Devasena or Devasena’s demand that her husband take over the throne of the kingdom like a true kshatriya, the women hold the key to all the major twists in the plot.
Pallvalthevan has his eyes on Devasena and convinces his mother Sivagami to get her married to him. And don’t we know that Duryodhana participated in Draupadi’s swayamvara and lost her to Arjuna. And that brings us to Devasena, a character so steely and resolute that you can’t help but see Draupadi in her. Devasena, who chops off the fingers of a man who tries to molest her is Draupadi washing her hair with the blood of Dushasana who tries to disrobe her. When she demands that her husband take over the throne like a true kshatriya, even violating the orders of his mother, she steps into a terrain traditionally reserved for the home-breaking vamp. But Devasena shreds those notions to pieces like she cuts apart her enemies in her swashbuckling sword fights. After all, didn’t Draupadi too demand that her husbands fight for what was right and stand true to their dharma? And her humiliation in the court being followed by an exile was also a throwback to the vanvaas of the Pandavas.
SS Rajamouli has attributed his style of storytelling and visual imagery to the regular stock of Amar Chitra Katha he grew up reading. The imprisoned Devasena rejecting the lustful advances of Pallvalthevan evokes the imagery of Sita in the Ashokavana of Ravana. Later, when she emerges in the battlefield, holding the severed head of her enemy, evoking terror in Pallvalthevan, she transforms into Kali. Mahishmati, was a microcosm of this country, holding within itself, its civilizational grandeur, imagination and glory.
Baahubali will be remembered for generations as a game-changer in Indian cinema. Hopefully, our female characters will hereafter have something to write home about. The biggest Indian film has already grossed Rs 1000 crores in a week and it has not been made in Bollywood. It also tells us that there are better ways to promote a film than drowning the audience with an overkill of appearances on reality shows and comedy circuses. Content is strong. No matter how many stories you plant to tell ‘Five reasons not to watch Baahubali‘ people will choose what they believe is best for them.
The biggest lesson to be learnt is that there are umpteen stories waiting to be told from this land. The real winners of tomorrow will pick the right stories and tell them in a way we will love to hear.