Baahubali 2's real heroes? Its women, as brought to life by SS Rajamouli
In terms of opening, Bahubali 2 (also spelt as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion) is Rajinikanth-esque. There are few comparisons for the kind of hype, excitement, frenzy and yes, even milk abhishekam that this spectacle around the story of Amarendra Baahubali is witnessing. The revenge drama set in the Kingdom of Mahishmati has shown that what Salman, Aamir, Shah Rukh and Rajini 'Khan' do, SS Rajamouli can do better. For the past month, the director and his two male heroes, Prabhas and Rana Daggubati, have been driving the movie promotion blitzkrieg.
But peel off the layers of visual grandeur, go beyond the "Why Kattappa killed Baahubali'" question and the clash of the protagonist Mahendra Baahubali and the antagonist Bhallaladeva in the climax, and you realise Bahubali 2 is much more about three women. And that is what gives the movie character.
For those who understand and follow Telugu and to an extent, Tamil cinema, this is classical old cinema format that ensures three elements — a strong woman character, romance and comedy — are present in a script. And with Rajamouli and his father, scriptwriter Vijayendra Prasad's fascination for high octane verbal duels, it is the clash between two of the women characters that sets up Bahubali 2.
To me, Ramya Krishnan as Sivagami and Anushka Shetty as Devasena define Baahubali 2. As was already explained in the first part, Sivagami is the reigning queen because her husband Bijjaladeva is handicapped and therefore is seen as unfit to rule the kingdom of Mahishmati. But Bijjaladeva played by the versatile Nasser doesn't have just a bad hand. The character inspired by the cunning Shakuni of the Mahabharata, Bijjaladeva is the poison to son Bhallaladeva's already envious mind.
Unlike the father and son Baahubalis who are all white and Bhallaladeva who is all black, Rajamouli paints Sivagami in several shades of grey. He focuses on her motherly instinct by her willingness to breastfeed the two babies, only one of who is biologically her son, and bring up both boys together. Amarendra Baahubali's mother passed away at childbirth. She is fair when it comes to deciding who will be king and chooses the more deserving Amarendra over her own blood, despite her husband's prodding.
(Minor spoilers ahead)
But her pride is also her hubris. She is contemptuous when it comes to the manner of approaching a smaller Kuntala kingdom for princess Devasena's hand in marriage. She is insensitive in the manner in which she fails to understand a young woman's mind and heart. To make it worse, her pride is pricked when she is challenged so much so that she asks for Devasena to be imprisoned and brought before her.
Her insistence that even Amarendra will need to fall in line is what leads Mahishmati to its downfall. In that sense, Sivagami is almost Shakespearean, a King Lear like character. Her tragic flaw is to judge without thinking, with her ego driving her to issue orders, only to regret later.
Again, even though Sivagami refuses to be influenced by cunning Bijjaladeva, she is certainly blinded by motherly love, trying to please and appease son Bhallaladeva, who she is afraid she may have hurt by denying him the throne. She isn't a perfect mother because she does not realise what is going on in Bhallaladeva's mind and the plots he is weaving.
In Rajamouli's book, Devasena is Arjuna, a competitive warrior who can wield the bow and arrow with finesse. The eye of the fish for her is her sense of dignity. The fact that the Queen of Mahishmati does not recognise the need to respect her sets her on a collision course with Sivagami. Torn between the two most important women in his life and the sense of right and wrong, Amarendra chooses the right path. That it is in Devasena's company is again a commentary on how central Sivagami's character is to the entire conflict in the Baahubali story.
Bahubali 2 is set in a timeless era, though interestingly in the opening scene, there is a reference to Dandakaranya, the theatre of Maoist conflict in present-day India. But it is modern in its approach in the manner in which it deals with a subject like sexual harassment. The importance of not crossing the line with women and crossing it at your own peril is beautifully woven into the storyline. Though the barbaric instant justice that is meted out reduces the powers-that-be at Mahishmati to a kangaroo court, the fiery nature of the two women protagonists defines Amarendra Baahubali's path.
The messaging of Bahubali 2 therefore is important. It stresses that when a girl grows up with the freedom to make choices — in Devasena's case by taking archery lessons, choosing her life partner and being given the right to reject a matrimonial alliance — she can be her own person and develop into a strong personality, who doesn't break down even when chained for 25 years in the palace courtyard.
Baahubali 2 underlines that the woman alone has the right to make a choice about who will be her partner and consort and it is for others in her family to assert themselves to make sure no one takes away that right from her.
Rajamouli highlights that between a man and a woman, even if they are king and queen, it has to be an equal relationship. That the wife should not flinch from asking from her husband what she expects of him. "Get back the kingdom,'' says Devasena to Amarendra.
The third female character Avanthika, played by Tamannah has a blink and miss role in Bahubali 2 but she too is not the archetypal consort to a would-be king. She had the meaty part in Baahubali: The Beginning where she plays a tribal warrior, who can protect both herself and her clan from predators. Rajamouli's Devasena and Avanthika, in that sense are 21st century women, with a mind of their own. Who can love as well as kill. None of the three are cardboard characters, reduced to being part of the scenery.
Interestingly, even in the making of the movie, the women in Rajamouli's family are an integral part. His wife Rama is in charge of the costumes while both Rajamouli's daughter and cousin and music composer MM Keeravani's daughter are part of the ensemble Mahishmati cast.