Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)

This franchise earned my attention when its sequel became the highest grossing Indian film of all time, though I understand it has since been topped by Dangal. What was especially interesting to me was that it achieved success at the box office internationally while also managing to obtain a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I knew I had to watch it but to do that I surely had to watch the first film first and so here I am.

An elderly woman flees a group of soldiers carrying and infant, managing to deliver the child to a small village at the bottom of a huge waterfall before dying. Adopted by the village leaders as their own, the child is named Sivudu and grows up with a yearning to climb the waterfall. One day he finds a wooden mask in the shape of a beautiful woman’s face at the bottom of the falls and having grown up to be an exceptionally strong young man finally manages to reach the top, encouraged by what seems to be the vision of a goddess. At the top is the kingdom of Mahismati ruled by the emperor Bhallaladeva. Sivudu finds and falls in love with the woman who was the owner of the mask. Named Avantika, she is a member of a group of rebels opposing the rule of Bhallaladeva and seek to free Devasena, who they believe is the rightful queen, from imprisonment. Naturally Sivudu’s true name is revealed to be Mahendra Baahubali and is the son of Devasena. The story of his father is then recounted by the slave warrior captain Kattappa who is sworn to the throne.

The story beats here are as old and as familiar as myth itself, Intricate and epic as the tale is, there are no surprising twists and every character falls into a recognizable archetype. Yet there is something very heartening in how the film’s unashamedly embraces the genre and plays it completely straight. Baahubali, whether the father or the son as they are both played by the same actor Prabhas, strides across the landscape like a Greek demigod out of the stuff of legends. His physical dominance and swagger would put even Dwayne Johnson to shame plus none of it is tongue-in-cheek at all. I was however surprised by how well it handled side characters. In an Indian film like this, it’s only to be expected that the sexes aren’t equal but this film does have interesting, competent female characters with plenty of agency of their own. For example I liked that his adopted mother Sanga organizes a party to search for him rather than stay at home and await news. As for Devasena, it’s rather cool that they show that she has been driven practically insane in her lust for vengeance. In short, while the plot is completely ordinary there are no dumb parts, which a lot more than I can say for many blockbusters.

The fight scenes with the slow-motion effects are obviously patterned after 300 but that’s fine. Similarly the computer generated imagery look obviously fake but do the job well enough. I’m amused that they felt the need to put the words ‘CGI’ in the corner in every shot featuring a giant animal to remind viewers that they aren’t real. I am however very impressed by the epic scale of the final battle and how over the top awesome the film makes the great heroes. The way both Baahubali and Bhallaladeva mow through hordes of enemy mooks will fill the heart of every Dynasty Warriors fan with joy. The addition of animals, exotic weapons and fanciful battle strategies adds plenty of variety to the action as well even when they aren’t very believable. This is very much India’s answer to Lord of the Rings and as far as I’m concerned that is just fantastic.

Like everyone else, I’ve seen the gifs of ridiculous action scenes in Indian film on the Internet and thought they were more funny than anything else. Yet these feats of larger than life superheroics are exactly what is called for in fantasy epics like Baahubali, making this a highly entertaining and even satisfying watch. I note that while this story was based on Indian folklore, the inspiration to director S.S. Rajamouli came indirectly by way of comics based on those stories. I think this is pretty great and I would love to see Indian cinema mine more from their mythology and folklore in this manner. This is easy recommendation for anyone who feels like an action movie and I’m very much looking forward to watching the sequel.

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