Sunday, July 12, 2015

Baahubali: The Beginning... Hey, wait, that means... God damn it I have to wait another YEAR for the end?!

“Special Effects Blockbuster” are three words Hollywood has trained me to avoid. They signal the hollow spectacle of dreck like JJ Abrams new Star Trek films, which ditched the moral and human aspects of the original series and replaced them with lens flares glinting of CGI space ships, and Michael Bay’s Transformers series, films so dull the only thing preventing me from falling asleep while giant robots battled it out on screen at the theater was the rowdy group of middle schoolers sitting in front of me--and whose antics were more entertaining than the giant mess of CGI on screen by miles. “Special Effects Blockbuster” usually means a film in special effects are not a means to an end, but the end in themselves.

Baahulbali is being touted as the biggest Indian special effects blockbuster to ever grace the screen. A marketing line like this is red meat for the box office obsessed, blockbuster-watchers of the 24-hour, English language global news cycle. And soon enough we find Internet Critics are bickering over whether or not the CGI are As Good As Hollywood™, generating rupee for rupee comparisons with Red Chilies output like Ra.1 (Shahrukh Cannot Be Defeated™), and attempting to find the special effects clip, like the one from Magadheera, most likely to catch the attention of Reddit and go viral. Meanwhile, any discussion of the real pleasure in a film like Baahubali gets lost in the shuffle.

But Baahubali is not a “Special Effects Blockbuster.”

What SS Rajamouli gave us is a “Fucking Epic Blockbuster.”

As far back as I can remember SS Rajamouli has had a knack for creating sublimely ridiculous special effects set pieces that showcase the talents of his heroes, not the programmers. When Prabhas gets into an underwater knife fight with a shark in 2005’s Chatrapati, the money shot isn’t of the gnashing teeth of the great white but the reveal of the victorious, dripping wet Prabhas. And the scene has a narrative point-- that Prabhas, as the titular “Chatrapati,” will do anything to save his friends. Masala films often use an introductory scene of the hero defeating hordes of rowdies for one purpose or another; SS Rajamouli’s genius was to swap in a shark.

In Chatrapati, Yamadonga, Magadheera, and again in Eega (I haven’t seen Vikramarkudu), SS Rajamouli uses CGI to create crazy landscapes and amazing set pieces but--and here’s the important part--he never loses sight of the best special effect he has: his heroes. Prabhas knife fighting a shark. Jr. NTR swaggering around Yamaloka decked out in gold bling. Kiccha Sudeep facing off against an evil fly. And Ram Charan’s sweet dance moves being enough to break the spell of Mumaith’s fantastic bosom.

As a long-standing supporter of SS Rajamouli’s particular type of blockbuster, as well as of his hero, Prabhas, I didn’t bother looking up any news about the film before walking into the theater because I knew this film would not disappoint. (And it did not.)

[Two caveats worth mentioning here-- 1. Due to a mistake in the film listings, I ended up coming in after the film started but after watching a few theater response videos of Prabhas’s entrance scene I think I actually only missed a few minutes or so at most. And 2. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.]

The story of Baahubali begins with village boy Shiva (Prabhas), who lives a charmed life in a village at the foot of a massive waterfall. Despite the best efforts of his doting mother (Rohini) to keep him grounded, Shiva has both feet planted firmly in the clouds, continually trying and failing to climb up to the top of the waterfall. When a mysterious wooden mask comes tumbling over the falls one day, Shiva is captivated by thoughts of the woman it belonged to. In a gorgeous song picturization, in which a daydream Tamannah in a flowing sari leads him forward, Shiva finally works up the strength to make it to the top.

What Shiva finds is a woman, Avantika (Tamannah), more magical than he could have imagined.

We first meet Avantika as she’s running for her life from a gang of thugs. In a nice reversal of stereotype, just as it looks like Shiva is going to step in and save her, Avantika summons a sword and saves herself.

Like Jack and his mystical beanstalk, Shiva sees no reason to hurry home until he’s explored a little. It turns out Avantika is a freedom fighter and when free spirited Shiva sees the austere conditions in which she lives her life he can’t stand it. Shiva convinces her, through one of the most explicit flower-standing-in-for-sex songs I’ve seen in years, to let him shoulder some of her burdens. Specifically, he’s going to singlehandedly complete the task her group has been fighting for--he’s going to free the lady Devasena (Anushka Shetty) from the massive walled city of Mahishamti.

Devasena has been held captive by the king, Baladeva (Rana Daggubati) for many, many years. She’s been kept in rags, chained in the town square. It’s a horrible punishment but Devasena’s spirit hasn’t been broken. She won’t rest until her son (!) comes to rescue her and Baladeva burns.

Shiva makes it to the city and rescues Devasena but leaves whispers behind him… “Baahubali, Baahubali, Baahubali…”

Who is Baahubali?

Shiva and Devasena’s flight is stopped by the crown prince (Adavi Shesh) and slave-warrior Kattappa (Satyaraj), the Mahishamti royal family’s reluctant--but dutiful--servant. Avantika and her freedom fighters, as well as Shiva’s village family, arrive just as Shiva and the crown prince are battling to the death. The crown prince’s head is separated from his neck. Kattappa attempts to take revenge but falls to his knees when he sees Shiva’s face. Baahubali.

The second half of the film is Kattappa’s flashback. He narrates the story of two brothers, Baahubali (Prabhas) and… Baladeva (Rana Daggubati), princes of Mahishamti, locked in a contest for the position of high king. The young men are equally matched in almost every aspect. The Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), a stone cold iron lady if there ever was one, cannot decide between them… until one day the country is threatened by a horde of enemies, the vicious Kalakeya. Whichever prince wins the battle, will win the crown.

After Kattappa’s thrilling recounting of the battle, he gets to the sobering part of the story. What happened to Baahubali? An untimely death delivered by Kattappa himself. In a story to be continued in the next film.

By almost any measure Baahubali is an ambitious film. SS Rajamouli takes a standard lost-and-found, bickering brothers masala plot, complete with flashback sequence, and throws his heart and soul into it. The risky decision to break the story into two films means that a lot of time is given over to character development and SS Rajamouli puts a lot of trust in his actors. We’re not just told that Queen Mother Sivagami is a total badass, we get to see Ramya, eyes flashing, counter a sword attack with a concealed knife while she’s holding a baby in the other arm. Kattappa’s history isn’t just slipped into some expositionary dialogue, we can read it in every line of Satyaraj’s face. We see the interactions between Baahubali and Baladeva, between the two princes and their subjects. Baahubali’s open heart, Baladeva’s craftiness.

Rana Daggubati does a wonderful job as the vile Baladeva but he’s only playing one character. His job is to show the man before and after his villainy was in full flower. My favorite scene with Baladeva, and I think the most telling, was his introduction sequence in which he wrestles a wild buffalo for sport. Baladeva careless with his own life because he knows Kattappa will jump in to save him, he doesn’t particularly care about the wild buffalo. The beast is there for his entertainment, as are all his subjects. As is Devasena.

Although both men were buff, the gym-toned, sculpted, oiled sleekness of Rana’s muscles were almost the complete opposite of Prabhas’s work-hewn, rugged physique as Shiva.

I’ll get to Shiva in a minute but first a word on the heroines. Anushka Shetty was fantastic in her handful of scenes as the beaten but not broken Devasena, the heroine for this first film was Tamannah. I’ve been on board team Tamannah since she whipped Ajay Devgan in Himmatwala and, believe me, I’m not turning in my membership card any time soon. As Avantika, Tamannah is playing a tough warrior but she is a tough warrior who must reveal to the audience a tiny chink of vulnerability so we believe it when she falls in love with Shiva. In an absolutely lovely scene, we see Avantika fall asleep by the river, her hand in the water for the fish to clean, a small bit of pleasure in her otherwise duty-focused life. She stares at her reflection for a minute before washing it away. Shiva is a force of nature. His invitation to her is not so much a declaration of love but as it is a reminder that life contains more than duty and that physical pleasure is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.

But Shiva. Baahubali. The two pillars of the film are equally powerful and equally compelling. And Prabhas is the master of both. His Shiva is openhearted, tied to nature. Dressed in blues and greens, Shiva is one with the waterfall, the animals, the trees. He’s mischievous, as nature sometimes is, but could not deceive or cause harm even if he wanted to. Baahubali, meanwhile, is cultured man of the city and a soldier. He’s noble, valiant, and brave. He’s also empathetic, breaking bread with his subordinates and watching out for the lives of the least among his subjects.

As Shiva, Prabhas has an open posture, a loping stride. He has nothing to guard himself against. But as Baahubali, he’s disciplined, moving with purpose as a soldier would. Although the two men have the same outside appearance, the physicality of the characters is completely different. It’s an incredible transformation.

Along with the leisurely character development, we were also treated to some spectacular visuals. I was blown away by sheer power of the waterfall setting, as well as the intricate detail in the walled city of Mahishamti. Both were overwhelming in their own way. The rushing water, nature’s destructive force, consuming the entire frame. The city is mankind’s force on display, the conquering of the landscape, rending the sky with a massive gold statue larger than any of the Gods… it’s only a matter of time before the Gods themselves respond to Mahishamti’s hubris.

Another highlight was the costuming. The villagers, the death-worshiping Kalakeya, the refined city folk, the masked freemom fighters… each had their own unified look. The amount of effort put into design must have equalled the work that went into Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I feel I should mention the CGI since it shows up in all the promotional copy but, to be honest, I feel like the best special effect in the film was Prabhas himself. I will say that, like in his other films, the effects were generally used in service to the story but there were a couple of places where it felt like I was watching a cut scene from a video game rather than a film and wanted to hit “A” to skip through so we could get back to the real story.

Baahubali is an epic fantasy film. And fantasy, by definition, is not real. It can be a reflection of our times or not. It can be anything we want it to. To that end, I appreciated that SS Rajamouli had women freedom fighters, as well as the strong Queen Mother character. Too many male fantasy works include an unquestioned imbalance of power between the genders. While the world of Baahubali is run by men, as our world is today, women are not invisible and not powerless. Not only was it heartening to see the Queen Mother’s lady bodyguard, it made the world feel more rich and realistic, not the typical Ethan of Athos (or, indeed, Game of Thrones) high fantasy nonsense.

I’ve been re-reading Tolkien recently and in his genius introduction to the reissue of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Tolkien talks about how unhelpful so many of our modern critical tools are. He hated the critics that picked through for every allusion to earlier works. He hated the critics that saw everything through some narrow filter, looking for the “code” to unlock the work. And he really hated allegory. A lot of Tolkien’s complaints rang very true to me, especially dealing with the mythological storytelling in mass films. It’s just not a helpful way to look at a story. Does it touch you? Does it speak to you? Then good. If not, that’s fine, too. But let me enjoy it.


Anonymous said...

Awesome review! Thank you for writing it. It didn't come here, even dubbed. :/

Movie Maven Gal said...

Great review and I heartily agree with your love of this film. This was my first Prabhas and Rajamouli film, and it won't be my last for either!

sue said...

Just loved your review. This has become THE film for me, which I follow like a true fan(atic) ... in the line of Star Wars, LOTR fans!! :P
It was also my first Prabhas film, and as the lyrics of Sameera song of Ek Niranjan go... I totally freak-o(ed) on him. Have not missed a single film of his, except Raghavendra, which I could not sit through. Prabhas as a saint was a bit too much too handle, however much a warrior he might have been!! :D

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