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Is India’s Bāhubali: The Conclusion a New Beginning?

 
 

The time for “Year 2017: The Conclusion” has come and various summaries and “best of” lists naturally abound. In India, when it comes to movies, the winner could have been only one and its victory was a foregone conclusion. The insanely anticipated Bāhubali: The Conclusion emerged as the highest-grossing Indian movie of all time at the domestic market. The film broke not only the box office but, more importantly, some regional differences.

Just like its predecessor, Bāhubali: The Conclusion is a fantasy movie meant to dazzle the viewer rather than making him think. The main focus is on producing stunning visual effects. There is no dearth of beautiful landscapes, colorful crowds, huge palaces, and quick battles. These fill in the screen so completely that they often completely cover the story. The movie also continues to explore the Superman skills of its double hero — double, because the lead actor, Prabhas, plays the role of both prince Amarendra Bahubali and his son, Mahendra, and the two happen to have Herculean strength.

And it’s not just the protagonists: even the would-be king, the crippled and old Bijjaladeva is able to crush a block of stone with a single blow of a naked fist (well, they don’t call these movies “blockbusters” for nothing). This time Amarendra Bahubali shows us how to shoot three arrows at one time while holding them with one finger or kill three men with one throw of the sword. But the hero seems to have a particular fondness for in elephants. He can overturn an elephant by ramming an enormous wooden cart into it and shoot a gigantic arrow by using the elephant’s tusk as an arc. My favorite is his castle-storming technique. It’s easy: a few soldiers should cover their bodies with shields and form a ball together to be shot from a stretched palm tree like a catapult so that they can separate in mid-air and fall upon their enemies. The movie shied away from sex scenes or difficult social questions but not from brutality: in one of the final scenes, we see a man being burned alive.

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Yet, despite these all of this, I find Bāhubali: The Conclusion plot to be better when (and only when) compared to Bāhubali: The Beginning. In 2015, Bāhubali: The Beginning left the audience wondering about the intention of one of its most amiable characters. The seemingly invincible Amarendra Bahubali was murdered by the loyal and brave commander Kattappa. Throughout the last two years “Why did Kattappa kill Bahubali” emerged one of the most-often asked questions on the Indian Internet. The answer provided in Bāhubali: The Conclusion might have been not so amusing in terms of the plot but it was also very Indian in a traditional sense of the word (and from the next sentence through the end of the next paragraph the reader will encounter spoilers). Kattappa killed Amarendra Bahubali because it was his duty to follow the queen’s orders. But the answer as to why the queen Sivagami — Amarendra’s aunt and foster mother — ordered Amarendra to be killed is a more complex part of the story.

Sivagami not only brought up her nephew Amarendra (whose mother had died during childbirth) and treated him as equal to her son, Bhallaladeva, but also decided that Amarendra would be a better king than her own son. Yet, Sivagami subsequently wanted to compensate Bhallaladeva for her choice that robbed him of his first chance to become the king. Amarendra’s falling in love with Devasena, a princess of Kunthala, a vassal state, provided a spark that ignited a flame, as not only both Bhallaladeva and Amarendra wanted to marry Devasena but also the princess provided to be stubborn when facing queen Sivagami.

Eventually Sivagami’s feelings, her own stubbornness, and her pride made it possible for wicked Bhallaledeva and his father to manipulate the queen, cause a conflict between her and Amarendra, and eventually make the queen kill Amarendra. Still, Sivagami atoned for her sins by saving Amarendra’s newly-born child Mehendra and by losing her own life to protect him. Thus, Sivagami emerged as the only interesting, complex character in the otherwise black-and-white world of Bahubali. Don’t expect a Game of Thrones, but Bāhubali: The Conclusion tries to offer something for everybody, and — which is especially important in the Indian context — to tie up the history of one family, with its love and tragedy, with the broader story. Thus, we have a mother’s love for her son that must compete with her attempts to remain a just ruler (while her son is not particularly just), there is a tension between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law disguised as a conflict of power, there is son’s loyalty to his foster mother which remains nearly complete even when she mistreats him, and there is a loyal commander who will even kill his friend if that happens to be the queen’s order. Quite obviously, there is also love and humor, political intrigue and physical rivalry of men, dance sequences and fight scenes. The movie actually shares quite a lot with both Indian TV series (in terms of style) and Indian mythology (in terms of substance).

Just like the plot tries to put together various emotions, the background interweaves elements of Indian culture and history taken from different periods and regions. The borders of Bahubali’s kingdom, Mahishmati, are mentioned, but still geography and history do not seem to add up. Bāhubali: The Conclusion mentions the ancient kingdom Magadha which existed before the birth of Islam but there is also a scene showing people dressed in distinct Muslim clothes (and a Muslim merchant from Kabul appears in the earlier movie) and another one that shows the invasion of “Pindaris” (who historically ravaged parts of central and north India in 19th century). At the same time it is clear that the heroes of the movie are Hindus by religion. They are shown worshiping the gods Krishna and Shiva, and the final battle scene of the film even uses a part of Shivatandavastrotram, a hymn composed in Sanskrit and devoted to lord Shiva, as a musical background. The fact that Amarendra died at exactly the same time when his son was being born — together with the fact that both are played by the same actor — also suggests reincarnation. Thus, Bāhubali is vague but it is also concrete: it is a fantasy but it is clearly set in India; it focuses on a particular kingdom, but it could as well be located anywhere in South Asia; it is so mythical that it can be all-Indian.

And this — Bāhubali’s journey from being a regional movie to an all-Indian hit —  is particularly interesting for me. As I mentioned in an earlier article about Bāhubali: The Beginning for The Diplomat, the movie comes from Tollywood, the Telugu language industry. While it is a robust industry with millions of viewers, until Bāhubali it was overshadowed by Bollywood on the national level. Comparing movie remakes versus movie dubbing are one of the ways of measuring the popularity of an Indian movie beyond its language region (though it does not always have to work this way). Popular films originally made in Tamil or Telugu and with actors popular in the states where these languages are spoken are often remade in Hindi, and the roles of South Indian actors are taken over by those from the north. The same happens the other way round, showing, to a degree, regional divides: parts of the audience are assumed to prefer a remake with their actors. Yet, Bāhubali: The Beginning, the first installment of the Bāhubali saga, was not remade in Hindi and with Bollywood actors. Beside the Telugu original, the movie had been prepared with the Hindi and Tamil dubbing from the very start, and was popular with the speakers of these languages.

Bāhubali: The Conclusion reached even further. The movie had been prepared in five language versions: Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. The Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam versions meant that the movie could reach the speakers of nearly all major languages in South India (apart for Kannada), the Hindi and English versions gave the movie a possibility of an all-Indian and global outreach. The collection from the cinemas in the Hindi speaking regions have in fact become an important part of Bāhubali: The Conclusion’s success: half of the money earned in India came from the Hindi-speaking north. In the days of the movie’s premiere new Bollywood productions were not able to not match the work of Tollywood even on their own turf. Thus, just like its predecessor, Bāhubali: The Conclusion managed to cut through the regional divides and became the first Tollywood movie to defeat its Bollywood rivals and claim an all-Indian success.

At the same time, however, for a movie of this budget and advertisement, both parts of Bāhubali failed to pack power punches on the international circuit. As statistics stand now, Bāhubali: The Conclusion is India’s highest-grossing movie on the domestic market, but when it comes to finding an Indian movie that earned the most on the international market, the first spot now belongs to Dangal. Dangal is a Bollywood movie about a wrestler training his daughters. The film has been a major success not only in India but also in China, it is thought that its success on the Chinese market gave Dangal an edge over Bāhubali: The Conclusion. At any rate, it is interesting to note that outside India Bāhubali with all of its grandiose style stayed behind Dangal, a much simpler and moving story that focused on the relation between a harsh father and his ambitious daughters. The essence of Dangal’s story is quite universal, and the movie is not particularly deeply immersed in Indian culture (though there are important references to it). Moreover, the father’s behavior in Dangal’s story was something to which the Chinese audience could particularly relate. Bāhubali: The Conclusion’s story may be as universal in a historical sense but its style and its cultural references are very Indian.

Still, Bāhubali has possibilities which Dangal does not: as it belongs to a world of its own, it can give birth to new stories and became a whole franchise. So far, two more works have appeared: an animated TV series called Baahubali: The Lost Legends and a novel titled The Rise of Sivagami. The latter, as the title implies, focuses on the character of Sivagami and her rise to power and sheds light on the earlier history of the kingdom.

Is Bāhubali: The Conclusion a new beginning? Not for the Indian movies on the international market. Is it a new beginning in terms of sparking a franchise (the “Star Wars moment” as it was said by some)? For me, it is too early to tell — and Bāhubali is not by any means the first Indian movie that was followed by sequels and other works around them. Is it a new level in terms of the budget, the grandiose of design, the scale of work and the financial success in India? Yes, it is, though in terms of earnings Dangal achieved a similar success without this scale of effort. But it still may indicate that some of the powerhouses of Indian cinematography may try their hands at reaching the Hollywood scale. And will Bāhubali’s lead to a broader dissolution of regional differences when it comes to movie industries? I would doubt that. Yet, as the first Tollywood movies to triumph in the Hindi-speaking north, the two Bāhubali movies are certainly a watershed moment in the history of Telugu-language cinema.

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