Baahubali: The Beginning is available to stream on Netflix. Be sure to watch the Tamil version. And yes, there are English subtitles.
This article contains some spoilers but none of the twists and turns are revealed.
Over the past year, I have made it a personal mission to convince everyone I bump into to catch Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Like this one time, I was walking along the streets of Bukit Bintang when a group of Russian tourists approached me.
Russian tourists: Yo man, do you know how to get to the train station?
Me: Sure. You go to www.netflix.com and click on Baahubali.
Russian tourists: What?
But before we get to the conclusion, we must go through the beginning. And this is where things get tricky. Convincing people to watch Baahubali: The Beginning reminds me of how I used to convince people to watch Breaking Bad — always with a disclaimer. There I used to say, “I know season 1 is really slow, but trust me, shit gets real in season 2.” Here, I say, “believe me, the second half of the film is bloody amazing!”
From the get-go, we’re thrown into a world that looks like ours and sounds like ours but feels otherworldly. We see a middle-aged lady, played by Ramya Krishnan, emerge from a cave with an arrow sticking out of her back, and scurry through the forest. She’s carrying a newborn, as a number of armoured soldiers chase her. And then she does something I did not expect — something we rarely witness in Indian films. She outsmarts the soldiers, grabs one of their swords and kills them all, but not before taking reasonable damage of her own.
As she tries to cross a river, she loses her footing. She knows her time is up. In a last-ditch attempt to save the newborn, she lets out a passionate wail to Lord Shiva. “take my life for my wrongdoings, but save Baahubali!” The water engulfs her, but the baby survives. Is it ridiculous? Sure. Is it awesome? Hell yeah! Just like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, this is a fantasy. And in fantasy epics, people are going to do and say ridiculous things. What matters is everything looks and sounds ridiculously cool, while also serving the story.
Baby Baahubali is found by a group of villagers, who do not know who exactly he is. Neither do we, at that point. Baahubali grows up as Siva (of course the villagers do not know that his birth name is Baahubali) and he’s fascinated with what lies above and beyond the waterfalls. He doesn’t know why; we sorta do. We want to know more. This is where the first half of Baahubali: The Beginning truly succeeds.
Director S. S. Rajamouli and co-screenwriter K. V. Vijayendra Prasad do a great job in creating a sense of wonder and intrigue. Who is Baahubali? Where did he come from? How is he unbelievably strong — in one scene he carries a giant Sivalingam statue on his shoulders, much to the shock and awe of the village folk. Who is the middle-aged lady who sacrificed herself trying to save him and what were her wrongdoings? We know there’s going to be a badass reveal, but Rajamouli makes us wait patiently. As we salivate and eagerly anticipate, Rajamouli explores different facets of this world he has created.
And this is where Baahubali: The Beginning becomes hit or miss. The introduction to the kingdom beyond the waterfalls is GORGEOUS, perhaps one of the most beautifully shot and rendered sequences of the year. But what Rajamouli also does well is present the Kingdom as a character, with personality oozing out at every corner, out of every wall and every brick.
As the camera breezes past the streets, we see the poor being tormented and the slaves getting whipped by army officials. We also see hundreds upon hundreds of vibrantly dressed dancers performing a variety of Indian dances on the palace grounds. It is simply stellar to witness.
We’re introduced to the vile King that almost everyone seems to hate, but no one is brave enough to say it. The king, Bhallaladeva, singlehandedly takes down a bull, in another display of otherworldly strength. And then we meet Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a fearsome warrior whose ancestors have pledged their souls to the throne and he will follow suit. And finally, we see Devasena (Anushka), who is shackled by rusty chains, apparently, for many years. Some folk call her queen, but Bhallaladeva spits at her. Who is she? At one point, with fury in her eyes she says, “My son Baahubali will be back!”
But interconnected between those awesome scenes, are romance sequences that are complete and utter garbage. Sequences that feel forced and painful to watch. A romance that will make your insides cringe. And on top of how annoying these sequences are, they are also at times borderline misogynistic. But perhaps it’s unfair of me to call out its misogyny. After all, this film is set in ancient times.
Siva starts having hallucinations of a hot girl calling out to him. Suddenly he’s able to scale a mountain that he previously could not. Look, I get it. I go to the gym. Whenever a hot chick passes by, I’m suddenly able to bench press like a professional powerlifter. But the execution of this angle in Baahubali: The Beginning is just so freaking cheesy. We later learn that the hot chick, played by Tamannaah is actually a badass guerilla warrior part of a clan that is trying to rescue and avenge Devasena. And for a second there, I thought to myself are they actually doing this? Great! But her badassery, which Tamannaah surprisingly pulls off, is undercut by the sheer stupidity of the romance angle that reduces her to Siva’s little princess.
There is a musical scene in which Siva removes Avantika’s leather armour against her will and she’s left standing there with a tiny blouse that exposes her navel and a gorgeous long pavadai thavani. Two things come to mind. Are you seriously trying to tell me, that’s what she wears under her ass-kicking outfit? And, didn’t he just sexually harass her? Once again, I understand what Rajamouli was going for. Avantika grew up in a community with only one thing on their minds — avenge Devasena. She was (probably) trained since young and presumedly never went on a single date throughout her adolescent/young adult life. Then comes a man looking like a sex God, who sees the lady behind the warrior. It’s a concept that we’ve seen before and it’s an idea that could have worked here as well, had it not been cheesy, surface level nonsense.
And then we get to the flashback and the movie becomes awesome again. This is where the meat of the story takes place — yes, this movie is more about what happened in the past, than what’s happening in the present — and there are some fist pumping revelations. What those revelations are, I will not spoil, but I will say that it’s worth sitting through the horrendous romance farce just to get to it. The flashback also has some of the most memorable EPIC battle sequences in recent memory, and I’m not just talking about Indian cinema, but cinema. Period. Some parts of the large battle sequences are silly but inventive; the best parts are brutal, bloody and glorious.
Many Indian directors spend millions of dollars to produce shit we don’t care about, like unnecessarily extravagant filler song sequences shot in unnecessarily extravagant production sets — I’m looking at you Shankar — or unnecessarily extravagant filler song sequences shot outside of India — I’m looking at you everybody else. Finally, we have an Indian filmmaker who used millions of dollars to create something that is both spectacular and of meaning (besides the romance between Avantika and Siva, which is trash).
Here, Rajamouli also has given us a plethora of interesting characters, brought to life by really good performances. But this, I will discuss further when I review the second chapter. The film ends on a cliffhanger that is both shocking and powerful. Baahubali: The Beginning is a mixed bag but what comes after… is truly special.
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