Bahubali 2: An eclectic, absorbing sequel
Cinema is politics but it is not necessarily political. In imposing lenses of ideology and gender roles on a film like Bahubali 2 and its predecessor Bahubali critics are doing the films a disservice
In Paul Narboni and Jean-Luc Comolli’s seminal essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism, the veteran literary critics assert that all cinema is political. Marxist film theorists like Comolli and Narboni argue that the institution in which cinema emerges is inherently ideologically oriented in favour of capital. This assertion is touted as the foundational tenet for most film criticism. Aesthetics and ideology do interact but they are not synonyms, although sometimes they can be. For example, Der ewige Jude, (The Eternal Jew),a movie made by Fritz Hippler at the insistence of Joseph Goebbels marries aesthetics and ideology to depict the Jew as a wandering cultural parasite. In this case, aesthetics and ideology are virtually indistinguishable as evident from the films rampant anti-Semitism. That, however, does not mean that every film has an ideological agenda to further. Take the two Bahubali films. Critics have savaged it for multiple reasons. Racism and sexism being the most prominent thorny issues. The racist symbolism of the first film was quite obvious. The Kalkeyas who invaded the Mahishmati kingdom were depicted as black, uncouth savages desperately in need of a bath. An Indian version of the blackface party in Dear White People if you may. The sexist bits are debatable though. Film critic Anna MM Vetticad wrote a sterling literary critique of the film’s sexist elements for which she won a Ramnath Goenka award. The only problem was that the critique tried to retrofit modern day notions of feminism on a film set in an imaginary historical context. Furthermore, the film actually has female protagonists who have complete agency and equality. The character of Sivagami is depicted as both a warrior and a mother. Devasena is depicted as a headstrong woman with an independent identity and agency. Therefore the allegation that the movie is sexist does have some shifty foundations.
The most problematic bit of criticism that has been hurled at the two films is that they are Hindu propaganda. This bit is a stretch of logic. To begin with, the film is set in an unspecified period. If one were to make an approximation then it would probably be set around the Chola period of the seventh century. To say that a film that has its settings in a time when there had been no Mughal invasion of India is Hindu propaganda is erroneous, to say the least. Both the films borrow liberally from Judeo-Christian traditions, Hindu myths, and comic books. In fact, there is a certain prelapsarian inventiveness at play in the film. Sure, there is that giant Shiva Linga but at the same time, there is the bit where Amarendra Bahubali questions the cruel ritual of animal sacrifice that the Vedas championed so aggressively. If anything, the film propagates is an ethical framework divorced from religion per se. Katappa is depicted as an honour bound soldier. Amarendra Bahubali is depicted as a loyal son who is ready to give up a kingdom because his adoptive mother orders him so. Having a film where characters are depicted as moral without all the sanctimoniousness is not a bad thing. Far from it.
The biggest chink in the armour of Bahubali 2 is the quality of the VFX. The problem with the film then is entirely technical rather than ideological. The creatures depicted in the film whether it be a cow, an elephant or a wild boar look like plastic toys in motion rather than the real thing-a feat that Jon Favreau's Jungle Book accomplished marvelously. That’s also because films like Jungle Book have ten times the budget that both the Bahubali films had. That the film manages to succeed despite these obvious fiscal limitations is entirely because of director SS Rajamouli’s soaring imagination. Reincarnation is a recurrent theme in his films, whether it be Eega or Magadheera. That trope is repeated here to great success. Although it does get maudlin sometimes. Devasena waiting for Mahendra Bahubali is eerily reminiscent of Rakhi’s character in Karan Arjun who keeps repeating, “Mere Karan Arjun Aayenge.” The action is relentlessly kinetic and enjoyable. It is with this action that the film navigates the seedy terrain of courtroom politics and the eventual fratricide of Amarendra Bahubali due to the machinations of Bhalladeva and Bijjaladeva. There is cousin against cousin, a la Mahabharata. Prabhas is impressive in particular. The grace with which he portrays the senior Bahubali is amazing. Not surprising that a recent news report said that the actor has already got 6,000 marriage proposals in real life. Dagubatti is equally competent in portraying what is the film's most interesting character-the amoral and insecure Bhalladeva. Rana Daggubati and Prabhas project characters that are polar opposites of each other and yet it is their relationship that propels the film’s drama. Cows with their horns set on fire are used as ammunition and so are date palms. To lubricate things further there is a shirtless fight too. In Bahubali 2 the muscles are bigger and so is the budget. Bahubali is that rare film where you don’t feel the strain of watching a 3-hour long movie. That is a testament to Director SS Rajamouli’s sterling creativity who is unarguably the film’s biggest hero.