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Baahubali 2: The Indian Epic Melodrama

Yesterday, we watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, and except for the uninspired title the film was stunning. Despite what the title says, it is S.S. Rajamouli’s strong arms that carry the film. Watching the film, I was thinking about the epic melodrama genre that the director has down to a pat. Here are some thoughts about the film…

1, Baahubali Opens the Door

Baahubali’s production shows that Indian cinema is ready to relook the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. The stunning visuals and rich detail of the practical effects and the mostly passable CGI blended tastefully into the landscape shows a maturity in technical and aesthetic sensibilities. Especially, I applaud the decision to not attempt to make the CGI life-like. The distinctly dreamlike quality adds to the visual palette without jarringly interrupting the experience of the film. I am sure that the next few multipart epic dramas will be oversaturated with CGI and hi-speed photography and not all of them will sustain the same quality as these two films – we can rest assured that when the right filmmaker decides to do it, the blueprint for an epic melodrama is ready.

2, The Dominant Queen Mother

Was I the only one who thought this part should have been more appropriately titled ‘Sivagami, the Queen Mother (also featuring Baahubali)’? The Queen Mother’s role is a strong and complex one, whose equal we have not seen in a while, and Ramya Krishnan is a strong performer who elevates the role to unforgettable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Prabhas or Rana Daggubati, who are memorable as icons – but are just as stiff and unchanging throughout the film. The supporting cast channel their energy to build the value of the main characters. Anushka Shetty as Devasena and Satyaraj as Kattappa seem to have landed roles of their lifetime and they are both awe-inspiring and sympathetic in turns.

3, An Epic Production

I could not help but smile when watching the movie and noticing where the director has spent the money. While the first film has an epic battle on a massive scale, he manages to construct beautifully choreographed small skirmishes that manage to capture the former’s glory and hiding the smart cost efficiency. By shooting two of the three epic fights in the dark, the film also glosses over other instances of careful budgeting. And yet, it is clear that these moves are not aimed at cutting the overall production cost – but to spend it on VFX (both practical and CGI) for the fewer elements on the screen. This trade has paid off, as only three moments (an odd gold statue, an awkward human catapult and an ugly bridge) are poorly produced in a film that runs for nearly three hours.

4, The Length

There are many movies that stretch their narratives to make more money – The Hobbit trilogy being the worst offenders – but Baahubali felt like a film which would have benefitted from an extra film with a couple of hours to flesh out the two Baahubalis. The father and son become indistinguishable in their characterization quickly, and as mentioned earlier, Prabhas is not the kind of actor who could salvage the roles with subtle distinction. We end up admiring the father more than the son, and that is clearly the filmmakers’ intentions as well. However, it is a bit sad that the son ends up being an afterthought in the second film, despite the fact that the film is about him finally rises to the mantle of the epic warrior. But again, a third movie could have fatigued the audience and affected the quality of the film’s reception. Not to mention the toll that it could have taken on the cast and crew if they were to shoot another film. Then again, there are some rumors about another film set in the same universe with new characters and that could be an interesting development as well.

5, The Business of Baahubali

Lastly, a note about the film’s significance to the film business in India. Baahubali is a testament to the director’s capacity to produce a technically competent film at a fraction of its international counterparts’ costs, and its record-breaking business shows that the Indian market has not yet reached its peak. The two films are reported to cost a total of 430 crores INR, which is roughly $68 million USD. Their combined revenue is just over 1300 crores INR (about $203 USD); a figure that is still growing fast, as the second film has been at the cinema for just a week. Additionally, the TV rights of the two films have also reached unprecedented heights in the Indian market. Perhaps the most impressive point about the film’s business is that its opening weekend took home over a $10 million haul at the US box office, despite being shown in only 425 screens. Albeit, some of this staggering per screen averages are due to the inflated premium ticket pricing of the film aimed at cashing in on the phenomenon (I paid a little over twice the normal fare in Singapore). The hype machine was balanced with the actual attention to quality in the film, showing that the recent trend of big openings weekend culture cannot dampen a movie that genuinely earns its must-see tag. The two Baahubali movies stand as the only non-Bollywood movies on the list of all-time highest grossing Indian films. However, Baahubali 2 (Currently standing third) should easily end its theatrical run at the top of the list. The massive success of the film is a step towards dispelling the myth of treating Bollywood cinema as an Indian national cinema. The second biggest movie industry in India has delivered a film that has caught the nation’s imagination, and we can only hope that more are to follow.

SPOILERS

BONUS: Now, it is SPOILER TIME: If you have not seen either of the movies, then definitely don’t read this last section. However, if you have seen the first and not yet the second, you will be surprised at how non-spoilery the epic reveal turned out to be. The biggest question at the end of the first film was the classic cliff-hanger, Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali (#WKKB)? However, what the filmmaker did not anticipate was the adoption of this phrase by the meme-culture on social media. This question became such a big deal, that people were overlooking the obvious clues in the first film that clearly explains why Kattappa, a man whose family has sworn to abide by the King’s word over many generations, killed Baahubali, a man who is definitely not the King’s favorite person. The second movie could have gone in many poor directions where the question takes over the narrative. We have seen many films where the audience’s expectations, and the producers attempts to subvert or satiate that expectation dominates the sequel – often rendering the film as an underwhelming outcome. Baahubali 2 brilliantly used the hastag only to the point of promoting the film. When you watch the film, there are no surprises as to the WKKB question. Instead, the film masterfully changes the question through its narrative. It strengthens the Kattappa-Baahubali relationship in many light-hearted moments, heightening the tragic significance of the final betrayal. Through the camaraderie built through characterization, the film switches the question from ‘Why’ to ‘What does it mean’ – we have always known why he killed Baahubali, but the film explains the stakes of that betrayal. That is a brilliant narrative strategy that does away with the marketing strategy and tells us a more honest story.

Overall, this is not the best Indian film or the most important. If you have never seen an Indian movie in your life, then there are far more subtle and brilliant films that you could watch. However, if you are a fan of the broadstrokes Indian epic melodrama, this movie is unparalleled. It fully embraces the technical affordances of the 21st century and shakes off the underwritten and overproduced history of the 1990s and heads towards a new kind of Indian entertainer.

Which are your favorite Indian melodramas? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.