INTRODUCTION:Welcome to the world of cine magic-realism where a de-novo historical fictional reality is created as if by magic and Midas touch of the director S.S. Rajamouli, writes filmoanlyst Sushil Kumar.
Bahubali’s ever growing magical spell is mesmerizing Indian masses and its moolah multiplication at box office is undiminished even after marking a historic milestone of gathering over Rupees one thousand crores for the first time and is more than double of highest grosser in history ( Dangal).
Wonder of wonder is that in India, where one can’t even completely count the number of Gods , leave aside their incarnations and where myths abound in millions , Bahubali 2 has managed to create altogether a new mythical and timeless world whose celluloid creation has left people spellbound and wondering whether the film is actually reflecting real images.
What is intriguing is that Bahubali , has nothing new or nouvelle to offer , at least in content and storyline .Yet, its imagination and cine-conceptualization in integrating already existing plot lines into a complete story and then depicting that into breathtaking visuals breaking borders between believability and un-believability is truly remarkable. A necessary ingredient for a film’s success always is its capacity to create a make believe world much in a wish fulfillment mode for/of an individual or masses. Indeed, Bahubali does create an alternate reality that can be inhabited by some at least for some time to come.
As stated , one must credit the director for several things: first for not only imagining the potential and possibilities of integrating innumerable ideas and idioms from India’s ancient history and mythology. Most probably , the film plot is contextualized ( film’s fictional kingdoms of Mahishmati and Kuntala ) in an era of self-governing republics existing during sixth century BC era ( hinted by names like Patliputra etc.).Another give away is the predominant role accorded to Kshatriyas in the film as during that period only, the warrior class of Kshatriyas ruled these republics.
FILM-O-NALYTICS: Like a good conductor harmonizing different instrumental sounds into a soulful symphony , or an Indian classical musician mixing seven ‘surs’ creating soulful melody while rendering new interpretation of a raga, Rajamouli’s creative genius lies in beautifully blending and integrating existing myths, metaphors, allegories, allusions contained in India’s rich folklore, mythology, historical and literary traditions on one hand and in using modern cinematic technology( well not so new as over two decades old ) loosely labeled as CGI (computer graphics imagery), on the other , to create a celluloid spectacle celebrated by crowds like never before.
The film is remarkable for demolishing the proverbial truth that East is East and West is West and twain shall not never meet as the film is a perfect specimen of synthesizing Indian ideas and idioms with applied western technology ; the final product wouldn’t have been possible w Rajamouli has very intelligently chosen not to contextualize the time and space of events depicted in Bahubali as that would invite historian’s ire as often happens in India ( seen during release of Gowariker’s Mohanjodaro last year). Perhaps , for this reason no critic has attributed distortions of history for this film. Instead, the film maker has chosen a difficult task of using India’s rich mythological universe to create altogether new movie mythology and a fantasy world that is spawning a successful commercial franchise as a spinoff – much like Star Wars series do. And come to think of it, no royalty can be claimed for this new franchise as is done for Disney movies and new Bahubali franchise can keep all profits to itself.
Question is why the film maker didn’t choose a slice from actual ancient history like Asutosh Gowariker did for Mohanjodaro and Jodha Akbar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali did for Bajirao Mastani .Besides, opening film to criticism about claims and counter claims about factual correctness, a historical interpretation makes a film lose its basic objective of dramatizing a particular event or story to entertain, enthrall, educate and enlighten if possible. Take the recent public outcry caused by an attempt by Bhansali to make film on Padmavati; even his depiction of Peshwas in Bajirao Mastani was not without controversies .For this reason , most Indian film makers instinctively avoid making historical films.
FILM-O-TEXT-O-CONTEXT: Film’s name Bahubali itself is associated both with a popular God namely Lord Hanuman ( mentioned in ancient India’s greatest epics namely Ramayana and Mahabharata)and is also name of a legendary ascetic son of first Tiranthkara of Jains ( represented in largest standing stone statue at Sravanbelgola ) and has popular association in people’s consciousness as the word has common usage signifying a person, royal or ordinary, possessing tremendous physical prowess. Thus, the name itself evokes immediate identification in minds of most audience across all India.
Using mythological motifs to make movies or serials is relatively a safe option as mostly myth is accepted ,well , merely as a myth and not as a historical fact. One can see how plethora of serials based on mythology has been made in last decades but they hardly ever caused controversies. Most people don’t have neither time nor energy to comprehend boring historical details. Instead, they easily digest myths as they are mere indications and pointers to truths and basically simplify historical facts making acceptance easier without much questions and reservations. Moreover, mutli-layered Indian mythology, with its myriad forms , has both universal and particular presence across all India due to all prevalent Hinduism ; it also has regional and linguistic variations wherein the dominant pan Indian myths are particularized for easy identification and acceptance by the general masses – take Ravana who is worshipped in some parts of South India and this practice hasn’t caused controversies.
Bahubali has wonderfully incorporated symbolism, allegories and metaphors from both pan Indian mythology as well as its regional variation. Consider how some of these are incorporated : film has complete court craftiness and intrigue engineered by an evil mama ( adaptation of Shakuni from Mahabharata and Kansa from Krishna tales); poisoning of queens and princes’ minds ( as in Ramayana and Mahabharata) ; internecine battle between brothers ( main Mahabharata motif ); mother torn between raj dharma and love for son; courtship and love of royalty under hidden identity ( Shakuntala) ; use of Gandiva and dhanurdhaari ( both Ramayana and Mahabharata); the use of arrow to ignite the effigy of Ravana ( Ramayana); use of symbolism of Ganesha and elephant surrender at initial temple scene ; the saving of infant in bucket carried overhead in swirling and raging river waters ( saving of Krishna after birth by his father); use of Indian proverb of ‘kabhi rath par kabhi path par’ exemplified in trials and tribulations faced by characters in both Indian epics ; use of symbolism of bird chakor indicative of pining of lovers ; giving and keeping a ‘vachan’ or a word ( both Ramayana and Mahabharata); touring incognito to assess people’s moods ( much like kings ) ; incorporation of temple elephant going crazy connects with southern audience and there are several more. The beauty of Bahubali is that it uses nearly all existing elements of Indian society’s collective consciousness – including its unconscious moorings and this aspect perhaps is a good source material for social psychologist researcher.
Film not only uses Indian epics, mythology and history, it also incorporates some elements from Western epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Bahubali’s success emanates from scripting a storyline with a spectrum containing almost an entire range of universal human emotions experienced while living in the context of family, kinship, kings, kingdoms, princes, princesses, regent queens, court games/craft and depicting , ambition, ego play, intrigue, commitment, deception, murder, revenge, victory and redemption and ending with attaining Ram Rajya or Utopia and telling this tale into a nonlinear sequential format to sustain curiosity .Despite such a wide canvas, the film still manages to keep all strands well connected to create crowd’s curiosity and continued interest and this was made possible through cinematic depiction at spectacular size and scale with visuals that look real but still seem unreal as hitherto they existed only in imagination – far far away from reality. A viewer can’t believe one’s eyes when one sees realistic depiction of huge palaces, objects, animals, flying objects, multitudinous people , battle scenes ,all of which existed in one’s imagination or imagined past. Average Indian audience is not yet aware of what potential does CGI have in creating a virtual reality and a virtual world. In other words, its applied CGI which has made Bahubali story believable to Indian audience brought up on rich oral traditions of folklore , epics, mythology and plethora of pantheons of gods ,kings and even people.
To appeal and find easy identification with consciousness of common masses, the film alludes to several metaphors and allegories of India’s two immortal epics( Ramayana and Mahabharata) including their regional variations as well as its vast mythological universe and stories from folklore and literature. One must again appreciate the genius of Rajamouli for integrating all these elements into a déjà vu feel story containing endless elements from such a rich , vast and complex resource material and create a cinematic civilization of the yore using CGI technology to create a world of magic realism , whose magic continues to mesmerize and leave all Indians spellbound.
The film’s pan Indian success can be attributed to several reasons: its incorporation of most elements of Indian epics , literature, folklore, regional epics instantly creates identification amongst masses; the universal theme of fight between good and evil and victory of good in the end despite interregnum of testing trials and tribulations is linked to timeless leitmotif of India’s two epics and their living acceptance in daily lives of common Indians across the length and breadth of the country ( seen in annual renditions of Ram-Leelas ); Indian audience love the tales of love,loyalty,trust, commitment, betrayal,revenge,regret and redemption told in the context of royalty and regalia as India’s history abounds with such stories and it’s best example is cult following that Mughal-e- Azam enjoys even today ; it’s been three decades since the whole nation was fixated on two epic serials running for years and in a way was awaiting re-enactment of similar story told with fresh treatment in both literary and visual terms; the audience was getting prepared over last two decades through re runs of stories of characters and incidents from epics and mythology ( seen in serials of Hanuman, Shiva, Ganesh etc.) ; both the children and adults’ fixation with CGI games on mobiles and computers acted as a groundwork and created anticipation for CGI created movies – much like similar anticipation created in western societies for films like Iron Man, Avenger, Transformer series and Sci-fi movies like Martians, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxies etc.; it’s been some time now that post seventies Indian generation has not seen actual wars and combats as most battle combats are now confined to computer and smartphone screens and traditional royal battle in Bahubali finds easy acceptance as they anyway enact such computer battles every day in a game format; director’s genius lies in creating a story that would appeal to children and targeting children is an old strategy to create a mass following and acceptance- much like advertisers approach in devising strategy to sell a product ( think what Maggi noodles did to India’s middle class children and families); films clear strategy to avoid using any form of vulgarity in language or bodily display set a stage of full family film viewing both in urban and rural areas.
FILM-O-CRAFT: The use of CGI in making movies began in early eighties when its potential in creating spectacular virtual world that was seen in the Star Wars. It’s not that in Indian films, the CGI were not used earlier- recall its use in Rajnikant’s Robot and Asutosh Gowariker’s Mohanjodaro- but Bahubali’s success lies in beautifully harmonizing technology and mythology into a composite whole , into narrating a compelling celluloid tale. In fact, this approach has actually created altogether a new mythical/mythological world. It is a compelling story derived from all hues of human emotional universe ushering universal appeal to which not only Indians identify with but has potential of acceptance across the world as all societies can relate to it. Film’s emotional quotient has elements of universal experience specially when seen in historical hindsight in all cultural contexts.
With Bahubali, one is witnessing a rare phenomenon.
It’s universal acceptance is unifying India culturally that was not experienced before at this scale . It’s all round success is cutting across all regional, religious , linguistic, cultural divisions which divide virtually everything in daily life. We have not only rural folks going to cinema in droves thereby reviving now extinct phenomenon of whole household/ family viewing ( even in Agartala second week multiple shows are all sold out ). People from rural India are too dazed to see a spectacle and a drama whose elements they have heard in folklore and oral traditions only. We have not only masses but also classes ( middle and even top elites) crowding multiplexes and are wonderstruck to see a wonderful magical world created by an Indian film maker , similar to what Hollywood film makers have created in films like The Lord of the Rings, Thor, Avengers, Wolverline,Superman, Iron Man, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Matrix et al.
Films use location shooting of real spots/places and actual architectural creations to create a feel of realism and for this approach films are, for long , credited to create an approximate reality to really give a realistic experience to the conger. Even when an imagined land or location is integral part of the story telling, film makers resort to setting up of sets in studios. But, for films like Bahubali, though some sets are needed but for most part the entire habitat and architectural settings are creation of pure pure fiction and are created on computer or cine screens with no existential connection. Thus, if you want to see those magnificent multi-level palaces that are evoking awe amongst cinegoer’s , you wouldn’t find their existence in reality. Hence, the films created through CGI craft are basically illusions in absolute terms , and if successful ,this fictional world has potential to be created forever in endless combinations ( as seen in Lord of the Rings series) but has limitation of being alive in images that could only be brought to life through projection on screens. For example, one could at least see the set created for filming the song ‘ pyar kiya to darna kya’ in Mughal-e-Azam but one can’t find the beautiful palace seen on screen in Bahubali though in all likelihood the set for court must have been created. Thus, CGI created cine world is a bubble and can create some followers who could live in such fictional world forever . Some psychoanalysts would allege that this could create psychotic personalities living in such dream world but that’s is an altogether a different and difficult subject.
Only one Bollywood film sought to create such magical realism through historical fiction in K. Asif’s Mughal-e Azam five decades ago.
One must give due credit to director’s skills in visual depiction that wonderfully fuses CGI created fake and fictional architectural world inhabited by royalty with some huge actual sets that a non- discerning audience can’t clearly distinguish between the two – one absolutely absent existentially and one existential but artificial to an extent that it can be called materially non -existent .One can only guess that some sets were mounted to create the ambience of grandeur like huge set for holding the durbar and addressing people, for steps to enter the palace, the palace compound etc. and then these sets were fused well with the other CGI world , making it difficult to distinguish between a pure fictional image and one equally artificial but materially existent for the purpose of film only. Usually, most Indian film making efforts fall short in this attempt to fuse the gap between a pure CGI and images captured of object created to mimic real ones and this gap in skills create glaring gaps in causing believability issues amongst audience – as seen in recent films like Mohanjodaro, Bajirao Mastani, Jodha Akbar etc.
One must also appreciate the efforts of costume designer in designing realistic costumes, jewellery,pugrees of rajas, ranis, raj kumar , raj kumaris and rajya sahis as well as common folk/ ‘prajas’ and sainiks (though king and senapati crowns are more like armours donned in famous films of Hollywood like Gladiator,Avengers). The dhotis and sarees give an haute couture feel as they seem to be modernized with brocades, silver, and gold embellishments . Since the film’s occurrences are not timed in history, one can’t easily comment on the costume connection with the times but the feel of India’s ancient historical period is unmistakable.
One saw the dubbed version in Hindi . Though the film is originally made in Telugu but its visual spectacle is so breathtaking that most viewers can’t notice that lip-sync with dialogues is absent. One only wonders about the enhanced experience if one could see the film with the original dialogues but one doesn’t miss much as the film’s stunning visuals wouldn’t have afforded paying much attention on them anyway and this is proved by film’s all India success.
The film’s super success is not surprising as whenever an Indian film reveals effects of a new technological breakthrough , the audience’s curiosity in seeing the novelty ensures big footfalls. Worldwide, all audiences want to see how human imagination is translated into images in screens specially when done with novelty. One can recall when in the eighties, India’s first 3 D film Chota Chetan created cash waves at the box office.Or,when Star Wars, Matrix series or Avatar were released in the West. Novelty would remain name of the game in ensuring success on celluloid.
Rajamouli’s genius is also evident when one sees that not only he has used Indian mythology and history but has incorporated several visual elements of spectacular Hollywood films : chariot construction is Ben-hur like except that side spikes are replaced with helicopter like rotator blades on top; the villain’s abduction chariot is driven by muscular bulls –albeit created through CGI- much in the mould of Yamraj motif; the wind sailing amphibious ship was similar to exploratory ships of mercantile era depicted in Hollywood films (Pirates of the Caribbean) albeit with white swan’s facial frontal façade incorporating element of Indian mythology that interestingly gets converted into Udhan Khatola sailing on sky ; prolonged fights with swords and spears is reminiscent of duels depicted in films of recent times like Braveheart , Gladiator and Troy; the protective shield and its innovative use is also reminiscent of these three films too; aerial flying fighting scenes are reminiscent of prolonged fight sequences in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and repeated in numerous times in films like Iron Man, Wolverine ,Thor and Avenger series ; the blood spill in slow mo is reminiscent of Kill Bill series.
The visual impact of CGI created architecture ( including fractal landscapes ) of golden sunray beams bathed royal palaces with multiple levels ( visually similar to five level Panchmahal of Fatehpur Sikri )and flowing fountains is simply stunning and a treat to watch. Such CGI architecture may have allowed incorporation of moving aerial shots through corridors ,arches and gateways which would have been difficult to do if done in real palaces. One can’t commend and credit the cinematographer for devising such shot making when one has a nagging feeling that CGI driven architectural designs allow such 3D walk throughs.But even then final product’s finesse is to be credited to the cinematographer, no matter how spectacular the VFX or special effects are.
The film also uses special effects technology to show a withered arm of the ‘Mama’. Similar depiction was made in showing of amputated legs of Gary Sinise shown in Forrest Gump and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and failing bodies of lead actors in in Fault In Our Stars films . Even Rangoon used special effects to show an amputated arm of Saif Ali Khan but since film bombed that image wouldn’t live in public memory. The depiction of withered arm will surely leave both children and adult wonder struck specially when they have seen Nasser with both arms in countless southern films.Kamalahasan had created similar wonder and curiosity when he portrayed role of a midget in Appu Raja and his Dasavatar was also an attempt to mix Indian myths with CGI .
There is little likelihood of another sequel of Bahubali as Rajamouli has virtually exhausted all famous metaphors and symbolism by using nearly all common Indian mythology , Puranic and Panchantra stories and it wouldn’t be easy to repeat these again.
The film has also used familiar larger than life portrayal of characters in southern cinema as evident in depicting painting portrait of Rajkumari. The film has the typical hand waving (patented by Rajnikant) dismissal done by the queen.
Film’s depiction of traditional instruments of war including innovative use of trees as catapult and irrigation instrument is interesting ,though use of catapult is shown in other films like Troy and Gladiator. Similarly, the assault by multitudinous arrows falling from skies is also reminiscent of above mentioned films . The film has far too prolonged scenes of duels and too much of accompanying sound, fury and roars. The film music is fine but the songs don’t leave lasting impressions owing to dubbing issues.
The film has been mounted on scale and size in visualization and execution comparable to Hollywood films like Spartcus, Ben-hur, Ten Commandments etc.
The film has realistic depiction of animals created through CGI- mirroring efforts made by film like Life of Pi and their artificiality can only be observed by a discerning eye.
The film belongs to main protagonists played by Prabhas and Daggubati and both have shown tremendous effort in enacting their part. But their performances are not multidimensional and their acting is assisted by lot of special effects. What is different is that both protagonists have attempted to achieve physical perfection with bulging biceps, powerful pectorals, strong lats and quads and their physical presence accentuates their roles. It’s surprising though how Bhallala even with twenty five year seniority still shows supreme physical prowess while battling younger Prabhas.
Summing up, one can say it’s a ‘paisa vasool film’ as it is beautifully packaged into a complete package that will appeal to cine-goers all across India. Rajamouli’s approach is similar to Raju Hirani’s style of film making who seeks to incorporate elements that would create identification with most social segments in India. In a way, Bahubali signifies modernization and technological up gradation of India’s cinematic tradition. After all, Indians form the back bone of world’s software business and would be indeed be ironic if CGI is not applied by Indians to their own film making.