Baahubali (SS Rajamouli, 2015)

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This guest review comes from Jhon Hernandez of the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.

One of the biggest movie events of the year happened this past weekend, but you wouldn’t know about it if you read any of the biggest English language film publications around. Baahubali: The Beginning, the latest film from SS Rajamouli, was just released. The New York Times didn’t deem it worthy of a review. Variety publishes stories of its box office success and gigantic marketing push, but can’t throw a freelancer at it. A cursory search reveals a couple of reviews from English-language publications at best. It’s a rather sad state of affairs for one of the modern cinema’s best mainstream filmmakers.

SS Rajamouli has, over the last few years, steadily upped his scope and ambition. No longer content to tuck his most lavish and improbable images into narrative side trips or flashbacks (Yamadonga‘s trip to hell, Magadheera‘s flashback structure), Rajamouli in his last two films has focused his attention on utilizing his considerable gifts to giving shape to impossible images. His preferred tool is the CGI image, and he’s possibly one of the only filmmakers currently working not bound to traditional ideas of realism – for Rajamouli, each image is fantastic. So Eega, his fly revenge film, becomes not just about its technological advances (Rajamouli is proud of his special effects and wants to show them off – his Zemeckis or Cameron side, if you will), but about how the technology can enhance the film’s devilish sense of humor (the film shares DNA with Tex Avery and Joe Dante all while successfully invoking and playing around with the idea of the Telugu film hero). Baahubali successfully creates a world and aims for a sense of realism in its battle scenes, but will often drop an image of such iconic and mythic stature that any thought that realism is the end game here is quickly dispelled. Rajamouli demands more.

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Baahubali tells the story of Shivudu, a young man (Prabhas) driven, for a reason unknown to him, to climb up the mountains and waterfalls that surround his small village. What he finds when he reaches the summit takes up the majority of the film (and the second part coming out in 2016!). But, oh, what a beginning! What Rajamouli achieves in the first half of the film is pretty great. There’s a sense of wonder here, that anything could happen, that’s sublime. The long sequence of Shivudu climbing the mountains is a highlight. It’s a succession of monumental images, each one upping the scope of Rajamouli’s vision and imagination, treating cinema as a playground and filled with a sense of narrative possibility (with a fraction of the budget, Rajamouli makes other would-be blockbusters like Jurassic World seem empty and imaginatively bankrupt).

There’s almost a sense of disappointment once Shivudu gets to the summit because the film narrows its scope to this particular conflict and scenario, but the film keeps growing and growing instead. It soon incorporates underwater calligraphy, palace intrigue, wrestling bulls, giant statues, dueling princes, dark-skinned warrior tribes with a clicking language (uh…) and many more tropes. We’re not dealing with a radical filmmaker here, challenging the form and narrative structures of his marketplace, but instead a popular artist working within the system, adding new twists to old formulas and executing them with flair. He nails the item number (Shivudu cavorting with three beauties in a den of thieves afford plenty of chances for Rajamouli’s love of bellies), epic battle scenes (there’s even discussion of battle tactics!) and pure masala moments galore (a sword blocking a sea of arrows is a highlight).

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For the interested, there are some caveats. There’s a sequence in the first half the film where Shivudu meets Avanthika (played by Tamannaah), a warrior belonging to a small rebel faction of the Mahishmati Kingdom, that plays out in a disappointing manner. Her character is tough fighter, filled with purpose, and ready to infiltrate the kingdom in what is most likely a suicide mission. But as soon as she meets Shivudu, this version of her character pretty much disappears entirely. Their number together, “Pachcha Bottesi,” is charming on just about every level. It consists of Avanthika running around trying to attack Shivudu, while he skillfully avoids her, removes her warrior gear and applies make up to her face. It’s a gracefully done scene, full of little touches that Rajamouli movies are rife with (the ice on the branches), but it’s still a make-over scene and it basically spells the end of Avanthika as a strong-willed character (here’s hoping the next installment gets her back in fighting shape).

Rajamouli also isn’t quite a “bodies in space”-type action filmmaker. He emphasizes action with direct, impactful images, usually cutting after a punch or blow has been delivered and the recipient has been sent flying or stabbed, and then cutting right to another hit, usually without that intervening motion to get us from one moment to another. But in Baahubali, he also manages to take a broader view of the action at points, giving us wider shots of the thousands of soldiers in battle, emphasizing strategic positioning, and the tactics of his character.

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For all its virtues, however, a two-part epic from an unknown Indian director simply isn’t going to get anywhere near the critical attention that it should. Notable auteur films are getting passed over all the time by mainstream publications and critics who simply have no interest. How many critics bothered to see Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider last year or Imtiaz Ali’s Highway? These are major releases from talented directors – knotty, complicated works, engaging and working through thorny thematic issues while breaking new formal ground within a commercial cinema. Without the backing of festivals or critics, these filmmakers are falling through the cracks of auteurist criticism. The complete neglect of Baahubali is proof of that.

Baahubali is now playing at the Cinemark Lincoln Square Cinemas.

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