Bahubali 2 switches from 'dharma' to ‘political correctness’, and does equal disservice to both
It is revealing that in an age in which tradition is being venerated, Bahubali 2 holds up such an impoverished moral vision for public consumption — and is still widely acclaimed
SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (also spelt as Bahubali 2) has smashed all box office records for gross receipts. But it also is the most expensive of Indian films, at about Rs 180 crores, and the economic success of a film should rightly be computed as return on capital (profit/cost x 100).
The film’s return on capital is hardly as impressive as it might seem. A low budget miracle like Jai Satoshi Maa (1975) did substantially better with a budget of Rs 30 lakhs and receipts of Rs 5.5 crores. But SS Rajamouli’s budget also includes a large publicity component which has been used to announce it not only as an economic wonder, but also an aesthetic one. The film has found some detractors but the general consensus is extremely positive. One cannot deny that the film (or, at least its first part) is visually impressive and merits comparison with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), but that film achieved greater heights with less technological assistance. Zhang Yimou’s Chinese film is evidently part inspiration for Bahubali 2 (as suggested by its choreographic and musical elements) but Hero was serious in its mythological evocation of tradition in a way that Rajamouli’s film is not; it followed its own cultural precepts consistently.
Bahubali 2 evidently derives from the Amar Chitra Katha comic books and uses the same kind of aesthetic and it would only be fair to acknowledge the legitimacy of its approach. The purpose of these comic books is to inculcate a sense of India’s tradition in the young by mythologising India’s cultural past though narratives rendered in an easy comic book form. They derive from the mythological genre in cinema — especially films from South India — and constantly recall a mythical glorious past. Chariots and armour, for instance, are bejewelled and resplendent in gold to show the ‘glory that was ancient India’ although gold would hardly suit an actual war. But the comics are true to the originals in their narratives; philosophical/ethical issues like dharma and karma which constitute the bedrock of traditional Hindu belief are respected. This makes the Amar Chitra Katha comic books a serious cultural undertaking — in the same way as Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Bahubali 2 subscribes to the Amar Chitra Katha aesthetic but, while we should accept it seriously on these terms, we are also entitled to demand seriousness from it when it deals with tradition and at least an Amar Chitra Katha level understanding of the Hindu moral perspective when it deals with notions like dharma.
Bahubali 2 tries to create a sense of India’s glorious past/tradition in the same way that the comic books do and I propose that in order to do it sincerely, it must also respect the complex ethical/ philosophical issues involved. Since it makes references to ‘kshatriya dharma’ (and emphasises the sacred threads on its protagonists) it must honour the notion and demonstrate that the code of dharma meant something to tradition. Amarendra Baahubali in Bahubali 2 is a hero and he must conduct himself like a hero, not only physically but also morally. The Indian epics are full of good and bad people but the bad people are not like the villains of Bollywood action films, the kind played by Ranjit, Amrish Puri or Ajit. In Telugu and Kannada mythological films Karna, Duryodhana and Ravana are played by stars like NT Rama Rao and Rajkumar. This implies that these characters are not despicable bit players in the drama but are also heroic in their own way. Duryodhana and Ravana are perhaps as mindful of dharma as Arjuna and Rama, although they may interpret the notion differently.
Bahubali 2 begins with the imminent ascension of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) to the throne and his rival Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati) designated Commander-in-Chief. But before that happens, the Queen Mother Sivagami believes Baahubali should travel incognito to get a measure of the territory he is to rule and the neighbouring kingdoms, and he makes the journey with his trusted general Kattappa. This part includes a segment set in the Kuntala kingdom and Baahubali’s romance with the Kuntala princess, modelled on the Virataparva section in the Mahabharata; it is about a prince incognito being forced to display his valour by a crisis and also introduces a boastful coward (Uttara Kumara in the Virataparva) who later dies courageously. Arjuna, we recollect, marries Princess Uttara in the Mahabharata and Abhimanyu is their son. In Bahubali 2 the protagonist displays his valour by vanquishing an army of robbers, and this is where our first problems with the film begin.
A ‘hero’ as we understand the term in the epics, is not only someone capable of feats of great prowess. He is also someone confronted by deep moral problems at moments of crisis, problems which need resolution. Arjuna killing a thousand foot soldiers would itself not be a ‘heroic’ act; he needs to vanquish Karna who is his equal, and he has to decide whether he should kill Karna when a wheel of Karna’s chariot is stuck in the mud. In the first part of Bahubali 2 dharma has no role to play and the protagonist only kills anonymous robbers without straining himself. But if there are no moral dilemmas there might still have been a profound issue to be resolved – since Princess Devasena has been promised to Bhallala Deva by Sivagami. Baahubali would then have needed to obey the Queen’s order to ‘bring Princess Devasena back in chains’. But the film has him making his own promise to Devasena that he will protect her honour, whatever the cost. Baahubali now only has to give up his throne instead of facing a moral dilemma which needs resolution. In the Mahabharata people confront deep moral dilemmas and take harsh decisions which affect them later – like Kunti abandoning her first born son Karna. Making Baahubali give up the throne is a convenient way to avoid such complexity.
Protecting a beloved’s honour may be admirable in the real world, but there are dharmic issues sidestepped in the film. We soon discover that what Rajamouli is doing is to put aside dharma as a notion at his convenience and appealing to contemporary mores like ‘democracy’ and ‘gender parity’ instead. As an instance, Baahubali declares that the dharma of the Kshatriya is to obey the people’s will but the will of the people is only relevant in a democracy where it can be determined through elections. Five hundred bit players shouting for Baahubali can hardly be a convincing demonstration of the ‘will of the public’. From being an upholder of dharmic law Baahubali is abruptly transformed to a popular politician of today. Another scene has Baahubali’s replacement (as Commander- in-Chief) groping women, and Devasena duly chopping off his fingers. This may go along with present concerns about female molestation but it has nothing to do with tradition and mythology, to which the film should be true; Dushasana disrobing Draupadi is not ‘molestation’ but also involves dharma. As it is, Bahubali 2 switches constantly from dharma to ‘political correctness’ and back again, doing equal disservice to both.
An issue which comes to the fore in the second half has to do with the relationship between the hero and the king. In any epic they stand apart but hierarchical imperatives demand that the hero submit to the king regardless of his own martial prowess. It is for this reason that Arjuna and Karna subordinate themselves to Yudhishtra and Duryodhana’s will respectively. But the king is also compelled by dharma not to be arbitrary and is bound to treat heroes (and other stalwarts) as respectfully as is owing to them. The social code governing everyone insists that no one can act according to whim.
When Bhallala Deva is installed as king in Bahubali’s place (guided by a Shakuni-like character Bijjala Deva played by Nassar) he does not become a noble adversary in Duryodhana’s mould but a contemptible figure out of a cheap kind of commercial cinema. Bhallala Deva is guided by no moral principles and, if anything, this reduces our interest in the narrative. He becomes the absolute tyrant and is free from compunctions, with self-advancement as his only goal. His ‘filmy’ wickedness becomes particularly conspicuous when he addresses the noble general Kattappa (Sathiaraj) as ‘mera kutta’. The reader will see how ludicrous this would in an epic: one cannot imagine Duryodhana addressing Dronacharya as ‘kutta’ (‘dog’), though a Bollywood villain usually says such things to his henchmen. Once the villain is made immune to moral/dharmic codes, one cannot take interest in his doings, since there is no wrong that he cannot do. The only thing that can stop him is physical force and that is what Baahubali, expectedly, uses. The last part of Bahubali 2 has therefore the same human interest as a staged WWF fight — in which stopping at nothing cannot prevent the villain’s defeat.
Bahubali 2: The Conclusion is technically competent but degenerates into noisy action bereft of human drama. The high point of its latter half is its showcasing of the fanciful ‘armament technology’ of ancient times, perhaps inspired by a high-tech reading of the epics. If the film is making waves, the next digital film with a bigger budget is still likely to outdo it. But what is most revealing is that in an age in which tradition is being venerated, it holds up such an impoverished moral vision for public consumption and is still widely acclaimed. This is an alarming indication of the tatters in which Hindu tradition (especially its ethical aspects) finds itself in the Indian/Hindu consciousness. The glory of a tradition is perhaps better understood by its ethical codes than by its armament technology.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
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