Bahubali: Fantasy on a giant scale
SS Rajamouli’s ‘Bahubali’ is a childhood comic come alive with epic characters and spectacular sequences
Sonali Ghosh Sen Delhi
I remember reading Amar Chitra Katha comics as a child – a beautiful retelling of myth, history and fantasy. They sketched a complete tale that made you enter enchanted palaces, cross mighty rivers and meet warrior princes who could battle an army of thousands, and beautiful princesses who lived in bejewelled chambers. Their illustrated world culled the sub-plots of epics like the Mahabharata and gave us concise, vivid, child-friendly stories. Every page evoked a delightful anticipation of what could transpire next, and every story ended with the hope of seeing something the next month that would outdo the adventure just read.
SS Rajamouli’s new film, Bahubali: The Beginning, is an Amar Chitra Katha comic come alive at your nearest multiplex.
From the first scene, when you see a woman with a baby emerge from a waterfall, with enemy soldiers chasing her, an arrow stuck tragically in her back, you are plunged into the Rajamouli world – one of love and loss, heroism and vengeance, betrayal and redemption. It is evoked with a visual grandeur, exaggerated swagger, and flourishes that are garish, misogynistic at times, and none too subtle, but it is still a world you, strangely, cannot walk away from.
Strange is a word associated with many a Rajamouli plot. In the past, he has made us believe in the rebirth of a mighty prince as a dirt bike racer (Magadheera) and of a lover as a housefly intent on wreaking vengeance (Eega). So, Bahubali, a tale of a lost prince seeking his kingdom and his destiny, seems tame in comparison. The director has honed over the years a flair for pulling off a grand spectacle and he now seems adept at creating mythological cities, and setting up huge battle scenes. What he also does in Bahubali is keep the anticipation going – and, like a storyteller of yore, he peels away the pages of the story, a layer at a time, leaving us with a cliffhanger at every twist and turn of the plot.
The first cliffhanger begins when the abandoned baby of the first scene, now a strapping mustachioed lad, Shiva (played ably by Prabhas), has to climb a waterfall, leap over cliffs and negotiate non-existent mountain trails to get the story going. This could be a great three-hour adventure in itself, but what keeps the audience invested in the story is a mysterious mask and the vision of a beautiful woman, Avantika (Tamannah) – an Amar Chitra Katha heroine come alive with dupatta and hair flowing sinuously in the wind, leading our hero to the world of the Mahismati kingdom, a realm of loyal commanders, cruel kings, imprisoned queens and a quietly simmering rebel army. The first half of the movie sets up its characters with many a palace intrigue, many a slave being whiplashed and a Tarzan-Jane romance between our hero and Avantika, a fierce warrior and not the simpering vision our hero had dreamt of. To keep the narrative going, apace with audience expectations, there are forest skirmishes, rebel attacks and avalanches, but midway through the movie you realise that Rajamouli is only whetting your appetite for Act II – with a grandiose, more extravagant canvas, where the story is painted in broad, childlike but vibrant strokes.
Though a lot of filmgoers will be canny enough to see Lord of the Rings, 300, The Ten Commandments, Game of Thrones, Hero, and a myriad other fantasy tales in Bahubali, what Rajamouli keeps alive is the very Indian tradition of Navrasa – where we are made to feel love and laughter, fury and compassion, disgust and horror, heroism and wonder in equal measure. He also understands that, in an epic, one needs to delineate every character well and sketch out sub-plots as integral to and not a frivolous diversion from the story. That is why the character of Kattapa (Sathyaraj) and Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) shine as much as Prabhas, Tamannah or Shiva’s arch enemy – Rana Dugabatti in fine form as Ballaldeva, all quivering muscles and flaring nostrils.
If any of the rasas do tend to predominate, it is the Adhbhutam rasa. Bahubali took over 500 days to shoot, with 17 VFX studios used in India, China and South Korea and a single battle sequence featured 2,000 junior artistes. This extravagance shows up awe-inspiringly on the screen, where a fictional kingdom comes alive right down to its massive palaces and impressive halls, and battle scenes of clashing horses, clashing swords, and clashing heroes whiz past wondrously. MM Keeravani’s (MM Kreem to North Indian audiences) music, Sabu Cyril’s art direction, and Rama Rajamouli and Prashanti Tipirneni’s costumes keep abreast of the film’s setting, giving it a feeling of being set in a faraway land, in a time one can imagine but never really reconstruct. It is a world that will appeal both to lovers of folk theatre and video game enthusiasts.
In the end, at a rational level, you might not believe in reincarnation, or queens imprisoned for 25 years, or even gravity-defying heroes, but the director believes and it is his vision that you subscribe to till the very last cliffhanger. There’s a sequel coming next year, and I can’t wait to turn that page.