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-[Film Reviews]-, SOUTH ASIAN CINEMA, South Indian Cinema

‘Baahubali’ (2015, 2017): Fantasy Spectacle That Works

Directed by: S. S. Rajamouli || Produced by: Shobu Yarlagadda, Prasad Devineni

Screenplay by: S. S. Rajamouli, Rahul Koda, Madhan Karky, V. Vijayendra Prasad || Starring: Prabhas Raju, Rana Daggubati, Tamannaah Bhatia, Anushka Shetty, Ramya Krishnan, Sathyaraj, Sudeep, Adivi Sesh, Nassar, Prabhakar

Music by: M. M. Keeravani || Cinematography by: K. K. Senthil Kumar || Edited by: Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao || Country: India || Language: Telugu, Tamil

Running Time: 330 minutes

When I first watched the fantastic trailer for writer-director S. S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali in 2015, I was impressed by the scale, scope, and alleged record-breaking budget of the feature; the narrative is stretched across two, ~2.5 hour installments (Baahubali: The Beginning released in 2015 and The Conclusion released in 2017) budgeted at ₹430 crore (~$48 million) in total, and tells the epic, Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)-sized tale of a reincarnated prince (Prabhas Raju) who saves his birthright kingdom from an evil usurper. Though Baahubali features plenty of standard Indian cinematic trademarks for both good and ill (e.g. an engorged running time, over-the-top melodrama, a brilliant color scheme, fantastic music), the film is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air compared to the current international blockbuster landscape. In a day and age when Hollywood studios have become infatuated with expanding as many slapdash “cinematic universes” as fast as they can, and Bollywood has tried (and failed) to take itself more seriously by Westernizing itself as tactlessly as possible, this dual language Telugu-Tamil fantasy film resorts to storytelling basics, likable characters, gritty action sequences, and imaginative, psychedelic Hindu imagery that would make acid-tripping rock ‘n roll artists from the 1960s proud. Baahubali isn’t without its major shortcomings, but it is undeniably effective filmmaking.

Rajamouli and principle screenwriter, K. V. Vijayendra Prasad, understand how to take their story and characters seriously without taking themselves or their audience too seriously. Lead actor Prabhas’ titular dual roles (he plays both an overthrown monarch and his prodigal son) have clear, straightforward motivation for all their actions, as do major supporting characters Sathyaraj as the loyal manservant/king’s guard commander, Anushka Shetty as the principle love interest, and Rana Daggubati as the primary antagonist and usurper. These effective castmembers handle their mythological roles and cornball dialogue with ease, embracing the fantastical angle of their characterizations and gratuitous monologues with the stand-and-deliver routine of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Top: Anushka Shetty (center) dominates the second half’s few dance sequences. Bottom: Prabhas anoints himself as the grown Mahendra Baahubali, rightful heir to the Kingdom of Mahishmati.

Baahubali’s heavily marketed action sequences, when they stay grounded and the camera avoids pulling back to reveal inconsistent computer generated imagery (CGI), are effective. Action scenes in Indian cinema, be they from Bollywood or elsewhere, are often weak, but with recent successful films like Haider (2014), certain filmmakers seem to be taking them more seriously. This trend continues with Baahubali, where over-the-top slow-motion and gratuitous gore FX work for the violence, rather than against it. Of course, this story is more about fantasy and mythology than any sort of heightened realism or historical drama — think more 300 (2007) and less Rome (2007-2008); with that in mind, Rajamouli picks a tone and appropriate visual style and sticks to them, thank God, rather than chopping different genres into a single hodgepodge of mass-audience pandering drivel.

The film’s much ballyhooed and expensive digital FX are the biggest mixed-bag of the whole experience. No doubt a film of this size requires a good amount of digital enhancement, and in many respects Baahubali draws much of its style and swagger from memorable CGI, but in just as many instances, the overuse of that technology kneecaps the movie’s spectacle. Goofy, ludicrous digital FX like a gigantic avalanche, a horse-drawn, mechanical scythe weapon, a stampede of cartoon cattle with their horns ablaze, and even minor FX like actress Ramya Krishnan holding a CGI baby over her head while standing in CGI water, beg the question as to why simpler and cheaper practical options were not considered. Numerous parts of several action scenes, some minor while others major, are hindered by distracting and totally unnecessary digital FX.

Needless to say, these farcical stunts alternate between wink-wink jokes to the audience and painfully unintentional comedy at the expense of dramatic tension. Problems are compounded by how often Rajamouli acquiesces to blue screen backgrounds for basic dialogue scenes or shot-reverse shot techniques. While certain digital overreaches may be excused in extravagant action sequences given the epic scale of those scenes, lazy digital trickery during dramatic sequences is unacceptable. To be sure, Baahubali’s techno-wizardry is a far cry from the silly escapades of, say, Aamir Khan in Dhoom 3 (2013), but it is still a far cry from Hollywood’s best. More and more Indian blockbusters are openly attempting to mimic Hollywood action franchises, but in doing so they are making all the same mistakes that overeager American tentpole features made in the early 2000s when CGI was considered a new tool in that industry.

Last but not least, Baahubali has one of the best soundtracks of any film in any industry in years. Both the song-and-dance numbers and background score are memorable, diverse, and identifiable, so much that they eclipse Baahubali’s pervasive action and excessive special FX as the true stars of the film. Baahubali boasts the musical potency and theatricality of a rock concert, thunderous and rousing during its most action-packed moments while soft, soothing, and melodic during its quieter ones. Visually speaking, the diverse musical numbers are perfectly choreographed to their tracks and shot in such a way that every riff, chorus, hook, and verse reverberates with emotion and sensuality. In terms of sheer production value, there’s no contest between Baahubali’s reference-level musical features and its action set-pieces, which is one way S. S. Rajamouli doesn’t break the Indian filmmaking mold.

Baahubali is an unapologetic triumph for South Indian Cinema, even if its cinematic violence and CGI are not as groundbreaking as its marketing would have you believe. In a national film culture that is routinely dominated by Bollywood melodramas, here we have a Telugu-Tamil epic that lives up to the bombastic hype. If nothing else, the Baahubali saga has reminded the international film industry how much India’s filmmaking prowess extends beyond the Hindi-language stables of Mumbai, and shows its potential for action filmmaking despite how far Indian special FX as a whole have to evolve before they’re convincing. Either way, Baahubali is a riot at the cinema, and one of the most enjoyable for-all-ages theatrical experiences I’ve had since the original Avengers (2012).

The waterfalls are big, the women are beautiful, and the emotions are exuberant. Embrace the fantasy.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Baahuabli knows what it is and ain’t ashamed of it. It’s big, loud, proud entertainment that’s more cinematic than most Hollywood superhero films and less ridiculous than most Hindi romances thanks to violent action sequences, great characters, a classical story, and a rip-roaring soundtrack.

However… though much of Baahubali’s digital trickery is necessary and competent at times, much of it isn’t at all and repeatedly, consistently, without fail takes away from the solid fantasy-adventure at this movie’s core.

—> RECOMMENDED

? Prabhas playing both Amarendra Baahubali and Mahendra Baahubali symbolizes the Hindu concept of reincarnation, right? I just wanna make sure I have that correct.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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