Baahubali: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

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S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning (dutifully reviewed here at SSS) was a work of grand spectacle, visual wonder and narrative simplicity. It found Rajamouli delivering a shot across the bow, if you will, announcing his intent to deliver a film worthy of the epics which drive the mechanics of the plot, and could stand side by side with Hollywood. But it is Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which truly delivers on that promise.

The Beginning ended with a shocking cliffhanger, and most of The Conclusion is given over to a long flashback explaining exactly how it came to be. But this thread doesn’t quite account for all that’s going on here. Instead of the rather straightforward hero’s journey of the first film, Rajamouli expands his canvas, allowing for more detours and  different emotional contours to the film. Indeed most of the first half of the film resembles a wonderful fantasy romance.

After Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) is announced crown prince, he is told to see the kingdom and know its people by Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan). His adventures in the Kuntala Kingdom and his romance of Princess Devasena (a great Anushka Shetty) are maybe the best scenes in the film. Think of the sheer pleasure derived from the hunting sequence or when Baahubali teaches Devasena how to shoot 3 arrows, an elaborate courting dance where they act in perfect unison, and as equals, in defeating their foes. These types of sequences are where Rajamouli displays his mastery in tweaking the tropes of his chosen genre and archetypes and making them more expressive than anyone else.

But the most incredible sequence is undoubtedly “Hamsa Naava,” a fever dream where Rajamouli indulges in the most fantastic images of his career. The swan boat which transports the main characters back to Mahishmati Kingdom ascends to the heavens, swimming against the clouds, horses in the sky – who else is dreaming of such images in world cinema?

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Undoubtedly, this is a work of images, icons and myths. Rajamouli has made hero films (that’s what you do in Telugu cinema), but he’s never filmed his actors like this before. They are gods, figures in a myth, part of a drama which they do not quite understand, but fulfilling the role they were destined to play (the final image returns to the beginning of the story – a genesis). Rajamouli gives weight and pathos to his characters so that when their fates play out, they are redeemed by his imagery (Sivagami touching Devasena’s feet as repentance; Kattapa slaying Baahubali and immediately kneeling before him, an entire film’s worth of characterization crystallized in a single image).

Much of the film is given over to the moral choices available to the characters, and how they respond to them. And, though this is an epic masala film where the heroes and villains are depicted in broad strokes, there is depth and complexity to the characters. Bhallaldeva is probably the most interesting: as a youth, his jealousy is awakened by his father and he is shaped by him; as an adult, he owns all his behavior and understands the private desires that drive him. Questions of morality (how does a loyal son act? How does as king lead?) are ingrained into the work, but they are pondered and answered through action, such as when Baahubali swiftly beheads a lecherous man in the middle of the Mahishmati court.

By the time that Mahendra Baahubali and his uncle Bhallaldeva finally face off, Rajamouli has established both men’s motivations and what forces have led them to this moment. Their battle is epic, framed as an uprising where Mahendra attacks Mahishmati and has to hurl himself over its walls, concluding with a fierce showdown where the chief icon of the kingdom’s sickness is destroyed and washed away. The emotional urgency of this grand battle is greater than anything the American action film has managed to produce in quite a while.

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Baahubali: The Conclusion manages the rare feat of having its emotional tenor completely matched by its visual expressiveness, with Rajamouli at his mythopoetic apex. This is the culmination of Rajamouli’s CGI experiments, leaving realism far behind in search of the most powerful images of his career, and it is absolutely wonderful mainstream filmmaking.

Two years ago I despaired at the thought of the work of a fascinating filmmaker being roundly ignored by the Western critical establishment, and nothing has really changed since then. Pop culture outlets still marvel that an Indian film could make so much money in their weekly box office roundups, but when it comes to actually reviewing the damn thing they are nowhere to be found. Auteurism is not of the past; it is happening right now at your local multiplex. What critics are on the front lines grappling with these films, digging through the filmographies, sorting the whole mess out? The films are there, waiting.

Baahubali: The Conclusion is currently playing at AMC Alderwood, AMC Factoria, Century Federal Way, Cinemark Lincoln Square, Regal Meridian and Regal Parkway Plaza.

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