Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Baahubali: An aspiring epic held back by conventional problems

Hey, folks. Long time no see. But a  movie as big as Baahubali called me to return to the blogosphere that I have sadly been neglecting.

My introduction to South Indian films on the big screen was a grand one this weekend (also an expensive one; not sure I can keep up with a $20 per ticket habit). Before I was sitting in a sparsely filled theater Sunday, my watched list included three Tamil films (including Madrasapattinam, which I have been trying to watch again ever since) and one Telugu film that had been dubbed from Tamil. But boy-o, the most expensive movie in Indian filmmaking history (last seen here: Ra.-freaking-One) and an epic was certainly a way to go.

I have some very mixed feels about it, but all could probably be summed up by this:

It’s an entertaining aspiring epic held back by some more conventional entrapments.

It’s hard to provide a short plot synopsis, so here goes a long one: It opens with a woman struggling out of a tunnel carrying a baby. She wards off attackers, gets injured and slips into the river. She holds the baby up, says a prayer, and dies but holds him up until he’s rescued. A village woman raises him; the villagers discover the tunnel but seal it because why not! Boy Shivudu grows up wanting to climb to the top of the Waterfalls That Never End and always falling down, miraculously not injuring himself despite hundreds of feet drops. Grown Shivudu (Prabhas) is proven to be insanely strong and good-hearted if rebellious — he carries a Shiva lingam under the flow of water to ease work for his adoptive mother — and then climbs the waterfall chasing a phantom woman. At the top, he discovers a whole new worlddddd (cue Disney music) and that the phantom woman is, duh, real… real bad-ass Avanthika (Tamannaah) from a tribe of people hellbent on rescuing some princess from The Evil Kingdom. He, ahem, romances the woman, takes on her quest and sets off to battle the kingdom’s forces of evil, epitomized by this king dude named Bhallala Deva who likes to kill mythological-sized bulls for sport. After lots of hullabaloo, good Shivudu who obvs is not just Shivudu kills evil prince, then prince’s bodyguard shows up and realizes THIS GUY IS JUST LIKE ‘BAAHUBALI’! Gather ’round kids while we rewind 50 years to tell the story of said Baahubali: He was one of two princes vying for the throne of Mahishmati, having to fight against evil cousin-brother Bhallala Deva for the right from iron-fisted maa Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan as a total badass) who is currently ruling with no probs but has to give away her throne to a male descendant for some reason. But I digress. Baahubali is obvs the thinking man here, the compassionate one, so on, and also, if you needed more convincing, he does a dance number with some dancing girls while on a mission; obvs this is king material, guyz. Bhallala Deva is just pure evil always. You can see how this is going to end already, so the movie throws in a giant epic, awesome battle sequence that takes forever and distracts you from the obvious while further proving Baahubali is also savvy on the battlefield. YAY KING BAAHUBALI! But as you have already guessed, newly crowned Baahubali got killed by somebody, who actually confesses to everybody as the big twist. NO MORE KING.


Yes, that is really where the movie ends, and I came out of it feeling a bit cheated by that (enough that I’ve told everyone who asked me about the movie to wait to watch it). Even though you can pretty much infer that young Shivudu/whatever his real name is was spawn of Baahubali (or Baahubali reincarnate), the movie really doesn’t really connect the two halves (convention trap No. 1: mismatched halves). How we got from Baahubali being king to his presumed son being carried down the mountain is left up to the imagination until part 2. I might have felt less cheated if the story was linear, or maybe if there wasn’t a full calendar year between the movies’ releases. Sure, we need some mysteries left to draw us in for a second take next year, but let’s be honest: Sure, you’re going to remember that epic battle and that epic waterfall, but you’re going to forget by then what all of the unanswered questions even are.

I thoroughly applaud the epic effort, the lush terrain, the generations of grudges. I only wish in the rush to be BIG AND AWESOME that really everything was big and awesome. (Age old problem, amirite?)

What was truly big and awesome: the landscapes, although they nonsensically range from tropical to frozen forest to desert with no transition or thought for geography whatsoever. Just pretty. I can’t say enough in praise of the thought behind this, though, especially the TOTALLY EPIC WATERFALLS (“the water mountain,” the subtitles say; not sure if the translation is accurate, but the descriptor is). It’s worth pointing out, though, that even here, the CGI is flawed. Roughly half or more of the CGI here is really, really good, Hollywood quality stuff. Another fourth is err, okay. What remains is TERRIBLE TERRIBLE “Did you do this in a garage with a 10-year-old computer?” TERRIBLE. It seems uneven, and it’s unnerving in the process.

Good action, bad CGI.

Also big and awesome: the wonderfully sprawling battle that dominates the movie’s second half. It involves strategy actually discussed beforehand like it was real life, and it’s filled with imaginative sequences in addition to the requisite body-slinging, showing that battles do, in fact, need some wit.

Detracting greatly from this awesomeness, however, is the thick, thoroughly icky racism all over the battle sequence. The bad guys are a ruthless, barbaric tribe of darker skinned and speak a clicking language that isn’t even subtitled. It is all bad. All, all, all bad.

Sadly, as depressing as that whole bit is, it’s not the most frustrating prejudice that leaks through.

I couldn't even find a photo of Tamannaa's bad-ass avatar, which shows you how much she's valued for it.
The worst is how thoroughly squandered the first half’s leading female character is. I was thrilled at the outset by Tamannaah’s character, a kick-ass warrior woman wholly devoted to her duty. Less so by her need to abandon that duty after stopping to have sex with a guy who has tattooed her without her knowledge (...wut?), disrobed her and put makeup on her face, which magically makes her like her reflection and fall in love with this obvious weirdo. The bold female warrior is a great character; thoroughly ruining her is therefore all the more terrible, and probably the worst bit of this epic being derailed by conventions.

What was the need to bend such a character into a conventional role as “mere love interest”? In a world where she’s sworn an oath to rescue another woman at all costs, what is the need to abandon her? Isn’t her quest just more interesting with Baahubali in the mix — teamwork vs. going it solo? Couldn’t we have learned more about her, Baahubali and the entire quest if she’d continued on for just a few more scenes? I’m not even really sure what the need was to stop and have the romancing song in the middle of such epic action, especially if the goal was to fade this character off the screen two scenes later. (Ostensibly she twists her ankle in escaping the hordes of baddies, and thus stays behind in the middle of nowhere on an avalanche-torn snowy mountain because somehow that makes more sense.) Wouldn’t it have been better to not waste time dwelling on her if she is so unimportant?

Alas, perhaps what this epic really needs is an editor to trim some of the fluff that detracts from its epic ambitions. The majority of the movie hits plucks the epic chords just right, and with a little bit of discernment, it could have been even more great.


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