Bahubali left me a little underwhelmed, partly because of not meeting the very high expectations set by the rave reviews. Now, if only the reviews had alerted me to the fact that this flick, even while being technically slick, suffers from some of the usual flaws that afflict most all commercial Indian cinema, I’d have left the theatre quite satisfied.
Yes, Bahubali is a big-budget commercial film, not Lefty-Lefty ‘parallel’ cinema, for which are rave reviews usually reserved. Therefore, it is unfair to judge it by the art-film bench-mark. You expect an “art” film to engage you in some sort of way: either by being an aesthetic experience or perhaps by giving an insightful or novel interpretation of the world around us. This is not a pursuit that appeals to many audiences. The goal of a main-stream film, on the other hand, is not to stimulate but to entertain the maximum possible number of people, by holding their interest throughout, and, at the end, leaving them feeling paisa-vasool happy. Bahubali not only accomplishes this, but it actually leaves the viewer feeling quite thrilled. That is what is key to the success of this film.
The one aspect of the flick that I would give director Rajamouli the maximum credit for is its climax, which is actually a sort of anti-climax. Some reviewers felt that the film’s ending is “abrupt”. I do not think so; the ending is in fact clever. Introducing a dramatic twist in the tale at intermission time is the usual trick. In contrast, this film ends with a twist! There are precedents of movies being made with a sequel already planned. Tarantino’s Kill Bill comes readily to mind. Such films present the director with a challenge: the screenplay of the first part must give the audience the satisfaction of watching a complete film. Does Bahubali’s to-be-continued ending fail this test? It does not, because the plot really does not matter! (More on this later). The technical glitz is the film, not the weak storyline, and that weakness is somewhat redeemed by the somewhat-suspenseful ending.
I will come to much-talked about visuals shortly, but in my view, it is not really the visuals that thrill you, but the background score. Though at times melodramatic and at any rate overly dramatic throughout, the heavy soundtrack is designed to dull the senses, and to lead viewers like sheep to wherever the director wants to take them. Full credit to Keeravani.
And yes, the computer graphics. Are they great? Yes. But meeting “global” standards? Not. You can figure out that the waterfall is not real. The avalanche is okay-okay. But the huge armies milling about the vast grounds in the needlessly long-drawn battle scene are, well, wonky. I suspect that the scenery (and even the romance section of the plot) of this film is influenced by Hollywood’s Avtar, but unfortunately does not compare well with the slickness of that film.
There are other small touches that I liked. The film begins with paying tribute to some of Telugu/Tamil film industry’s greats, who, in my view, did not receive the global (and even pan-Indian) acclaim they deserved, only because they made “regional” language films. The Shivling scene is certainly a novel portrayal of religiosity. The hero declines to subject a bull to customary beheading at the beginning of a battle, preferring instead to spare the “mute animal’s life”. The women characters of the film are not Barbie dolls; they are leaders and vengeful warriors. And there’s a hint of pre-marital sex with no guilt-trapping, quite unusual for a South Indian film. Liberals should be thrilled by this, but they seem pissed.
The major flaw of the film of course is that the plot puts your credulity to test. It sounds as though the plot was being invented even as the film was being shot on location. The other flaws follow naturally. Screenplay is wobbly. There are way too many scenes and the progression between acts is not smooth. The romance scenes and the songs rob the film of its aspects of sophistication. There’s an item number with three female dancers: perhaps to creatively fill the usual Telugu film quota of five dance routines per film.
I would now like to conclude this short review with a reference to the title: Liberals should chill. This is no “Hindutva” film at all. Perhaps Hinduism has been completely banished from Bollywood, but down in the South, it is still not shameful to portray characters as religiously Hindu. No film-maker here consciously promotes Hinduism, and no film-goer would see this flick as promoting anything Hindu. (In fact, Bahubali has a secular touch: the sword-seller is a good Muslim noble). The Shivling scene occurs quite early in the film; and later on, there is not much religion at all. I suspect that the scene is director’s own prayer to his ishtdevata at Srisailam — a hallowed Siva temple where some parts of the movie were reportedly shot — that He may bless the project with success.
What explains then Liberals’ anxiety over an innocuous film made primarily to make the makers a handsome profit, and some glory on the side? I suspect it is that Libeals have convinced themselves that their survival is dependent on de-Hinduizing India. Any display of Hindu religiosity in art and cinema seems to drive their latent paranoia to stratosphere. What an irony. The chaps are always fighting “Islamophobia”, but hey, what do you call an irrational fear and hatred of Hinduism?