Baahubali 2: What the response to SS Rajamouli's film tells us about outrage in the time of social media

SV Srinivas

May,08 2017 10:03:40 IST

With Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (also spelt as Bahubali 2), Telugu cinema has arrived on the national scene. Never before has a film emboldened fans and supporters of Telugu cinema to audaciously declare war, and proclaim victory over its mightier and wealthier Hindi counterpart. As someone who has researched Telugu cinema for years now, I am surprised by the narrative which is found — among other places — in trolls of Anna Vetticad’s review in Firstpost. If Baahubali 2 were just another Telugu film, it would have attracted attention for skirmishes between Prabhas and Pawan Kalyan fans in some Andhra small towns, and perhaps a couple of provocative tweets by Ram Gopal Varma on Chiranjeevi. But this is not an essay about Telugu cinema’s moment of arrival, or Baahubali 2, although they are both implicated in the issues I discuss below. This is an attempt to understand the larger context in which a Telugu film is being mobilised to express outrage against a strawman hashtagged as Urduwood. Why this kolaveri?

Still from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion/Bahubali 2

Still from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion/Bahubali 2

To say the least, cinema’s tryst with outrage has a long history. Telugu films have outraged sections of the public from 1938, when representatives of the Brahmin caste in Vijayawada, and some other towns of what was then Madras Presidency, objected to the representation of their community in Malapilla (dir. Gudavalli Ramabrahmam). The first Telugu talkie film had been released only six years earlier. But causing outrage was not limited to Telugu cinema. In the same year there were petitions in Bombay against the British film, The Drum (dir. Zoltan Korda), by a group of men calling themselves ‘Muslim Naujawans.’ As if this is not mind-boggling enough, cultural anthropologists point out that taking offence is an even older characteristic of public life in India, and is traceable to the 19th century. Cut to 2017 and we heard reports of a film set being vandalised by an organization claiming to represent the Rajput caste.

Before Baahubali 2 became a weapon in the armoury of the self-proclaimed enemies of Urduwood, (it) had its own share of woes with outrage. As recently as last week, a police complaint was filed against Rajamouli for “hurting the sentiments of a community through the use of a ‘caste slur’ in the film”. Before the film’s release, “pro-Kannada organisations” (not my coinage) in Bengaluru demanded that Sathyaraj (who plays Kattappa in both parts of the film) apologize in public for a comment he made on the Cauvery issue nine years ago. Fortunately, the actor apologised and thereby forestalled himself from killing Baahubali a second time.

The incident helps us see that a film’s release is a media event which provides opportunities for apparently unrelated stakeholders to publicise their concerns (or commercial interests, as the case may be). It is not possible to separate the film from the action surrounding it. Not the least because drama might be good, free publicity for the film. So much so that there are conspiracy theories about producers’ involvement in “controversies”, and protests against their own films with a view to generating publicity.

Stakeholders of the film-as-media-event include not just the politician and professional protestor but also journalists, commentators and, more importantly, consumers of media commodities like reports, reviews and opinion pieces (like this article). As viewers, writers and readers, we are all participants in the unfolding event and play bit roles in shaping it. In the run up the release of Baahubali 2, for instance, Karan Johar declared that we are about to “witness the biggest movie event ever”. Johar, being the producer of the Hindi version, had every reason to speak of the film in hyperbolic terms. However, reporters were not to be outdone by him. So, we have the prediction that the film would be “the greatest Indian blockbuster of all time”.

This media event also generated condemnations of the film’s bad politics. For instance, a columnist saw the film as a window on what was wrong with present day Indian politics and society: “When Baahubali severs the head of the army chief who assaulted his wife and we identify with his action, one understands why cow vigilantes, those advocating retaliatory beheading of rival army soldiers, or the encounter killings of suspects, find traction and validation in our society.”

The story however does not end with critical reviews. The reviewer’s criticism is met with social media outrage by people who at times don’t even bother to read the reports they attack viciously. In the case of Anna Vetticad’s review, her trolls came just short of claiming that they knew what she was going to say even before she said it.

How do we make sense of the mismatch between the scale of outrage, the violence of it, and the innocuousness of a film review? After all, who cares? This doesn’t make sense at all, unless we turn our attention to the larger phenomenon of which trolling journalists is but a small part. Evidence from Arab states, Europe and the Americas suggest that social media outrage is a truly global phenomenon (just Google the phrase and notice the diversity of contexts and issues that generated outrage). In India, we have witnessed several waves of outrage during the Jessica Lal and “India Against Corruption” campaigns, and protests against Nirbhaya’s rape and murder.

Outrage is not the monopoly of any single political ideology. Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj argue that over the past two decades expression and incitement of outrage has become an industry in USA. “The Outrage Industry” as they term it, understandably includes blogs, where individuals are free to rant as they like, but also radio and cable television which require considerable advertising revenues to survive. Outrage is good business. The outrage industry’s beneficiaries include political conservatives and liberals. Right-wing peddlers of outrage elicit angry responses from their liberal counterparts who in turn trigger off another round of outrage with their attacks. In short, givers and takers of offence feed off each other. Take our very own Kamaal Rashid Khan (KRK), whose fame rests largely on his ability to outrage celebrities and their fans.

Trolls are amateur purveyors of outrage whose extreme comments elicit likes and shares — the virtual currency of social media. They thrive because media in general and social media in particular is not about persuasion at all. We tend to access those media sources that reinforce our views. In many Indian states, we have newspapers and news television channels whose support for one or another political formation is an open secret. Some of them are owned by “politically exposed persons”, or businessmen known to be close to political leaders. So much for editorial neutrality.

Those of us who write on Indian cinema need to keep a few things in mind for raising the level of the discussion. First, to be candid, the average commentator needs to do a bit of reading on film form, history and business. To get the general picture, we need to go no further than TS Sudhir’s article on breathless television anchors who didn’t even know Baahubali was a Telugu film. Second, commentators are often condescending towards popular cinema and its audiences. M Madhava Prasad coined the phrase “disdainful engagement” to describe the response of English-speaking, middle class viewers to Hindi films (he was referring to the Filmfare column whose name says it all: “Readers Don’t Digest”). That phrase applies to a large number of reviewers writing in English. When we trash a Sultan or a Baahubali, are we being critical, or just expressing our middle class disdain? We are not exactly making a political, or intellectual, breakthrough when we bemoan film audiences’ lack of taste, intelligence and sensitivity. Finally, social media activity is often focused on broadcasting one’s opinions, not persuading others to change theirs. With our 1000 words, can’t we try to do more than what is possible in 140 characters?

SV Srinivas teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He is the author of two books on Telugu cinema: Megastar (2009) and Politics as Performance (2013).

Updated Date: May 08, 2017 13:47 PM