Sunday, July 12, 2015

Baahubali: The Beginning

Baahubali is an incredible, awesome film...except when it isn't.

Its CGI work is varyingly glorious, adequate, and really bad. Its props are lush and evocative except for all the armor that looks like bargain bin plastic. It is racist: shoe-polish black-skinned evil army uses a click language and rough-hewn wooden shields (the good guys have metal) while putting innocent villagers in front of its soldiers and is described in the legend that precedes its onslaught as barbaric rapists and thieves. It is sexist: its rebel warrior heroine becomes useless when the hero shows up. He physically brands her as his own property; gives her a forced, almost rape-y makeover that removes her armor and lots of other protective, sensible layers of clothing, exposing her in every possible way, while adding cosmetics and untying her hair; and distracts her from her self-stated life's work by pointing out to her that she is conventionally pretty, a value that is also stated as antithetical to her chosen life. Some of that happens in a dream sequence, but once reality returns, she is soon snared in a net and twists an ankle, apparently unable to continue walking on her quest (even though we've already seen a different woman go on an arduous journey with an arrow sticking out of her back). I guess you cannot be capable and self-directed once some completely random yahoo tells you you're pretty. Brains or looks, ladies! Earlier in the film she explains that tears are not a sign of weakness but of her boiling blood; now she says she's torn between him and her mission (her two loves in life). In what may be the worst of this whole simplistic, insulting arc, he actually decides for her by saying "You are mine, and thus all of your life is mine, so if rescuing the princess was your mission, now it's mine" and just walks off without her.

Neither racism nor sexism are a particular surprise, but the extremity of the first and the about-face of the latter shocked me. Based on the end of this film, I do fully expect her to be back and in warrior form in the conclusion, and I hope she will fight side by side with the hero—this is clearly a world with more than enough baddies for several heroes to come forward without any of them seeming less than divine in comparison. There's enough opportunity to grunt and impale and decapitate in slow-motion to go around.

Update to post (July 18, 2015): I just read two really good pieces on the rape of Avantika in this film, one by Anna Vetticad at The Hindu and one by Vivekananda Nemana on The Ladies Finger.

Back to the incredible, the awesome. I love basically everything else about Baahubali. There are so many moments that made me clap with delight in the theater. It's the only film I can think of whose second half not only is not worse than the first but also improves upon it so drastically (and the first half was no chopped liver, either). I tend not to care about fighting in films very much, but the huuuuuuuge battle is my favorite part, joining a short list of films whose battle scenes I would re-watch even out of context of the rest of the film (Asoka, Sikander). It is handled with such drama and creativity. The low tech demanded by the historical setting results in some of the most enjoyable weaponry and defenses I've ever seen. The political machinations are no less impressive, with Ramya Krishnan as Sivagami fierce and frightening in her philosophies and leadership. She's the hero of this film, in my opinion (okay, either Sivagami or art director Sabu Cyril), and that's one reason the decline and fall of guerrilla Avantika is so upsetting: these writers know how to make a no-nonsense, super -capable woman, but it's as though having created one they figured their quota was met and stopped caring. The clothes, SWEET HELEN ABOVE THE CLOTHES: small-scale metalwork (mainly jewelry, though a guardian's chain mail shirt and a prisoner's clanking chains are effective too) and fabrics are simply glorious. Exteriors, interiors, and architecture add reinforce the scale appropriately and beautifully. My favorite visuals include:
  • princely jewel-toned dhoti and flowing hair
  • a metal-tipped shoe (Kattapa's, I think?) standing on the head of a prisoner
  • the rebels' stone bracelets (even when Avantika's magically changes wrists and back mid-song)
  • Sivagami's entire wardrobe, down to the puff-sleeve sari blouses
  • Devasena's tattered dupatta, which...does not bode well for what we may find out about her, does it?
  • Mahishmati throne room (parliament hall?), which somehow looks like what Frank Lloyd Wright or Ron Thom would do if he only worked in stone
  • just the sheer crowdedness of the architectural facades in Mahishmati. How is this whole city not rendered immobile from over-stimulation?
  • the goat-emblazoned battle formation
  • the imagery of the fuchsia cloths sailing through the sky (and the opponents' reactions to them)
  • horse-mounted rotary blades
  • flaming hay bales
  • the whole snow sequence, which is an incredibly brilliant choice to make since we see snow in Indian films rarely and as a setting of suspense, aggression, or peril even less often. The tinkling of the ice coating every branch is just perfect. To me this loses its magic once the sledding starts because that portion is much less well done, but hours after leaving the theater I'm still enchanted by the ice.
I will never tell you not to bring your brain to a film—that's always your choice, and you should make it as you see fit, no matter what the rabid twitter rabble says—but I do think that aspects of Baahubali crumble under certain expectations or scrutiny. I somehow thought that a huge budget also meant absolute dedication to all detail and execution, but it doesn't, and it's probably unfair to hope so. All the budget in the world doesn't guarantee better writing, and I wonder if some ideas in story or characterization suffer from neglect when other, showier (and maybe more marketable) ones are distracting. I also won't tell you that the stupendous visuals, scale, and overall orchestration of so many wonders make up for my disappointments, because those are entirely separate concerns, all of them worthy of consideration. So while it isn't perfect (and sometimes stumbles in unexpectedly simplistic ways), Baahubali has so much to appreciate and revel in. Go see it, right now while it's on the big screen. It's extremely fun, wildly creative, and very, very cinematic.
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4 comments :

ideallaedi said...

Oh the flowing hair :) And Prabhas :) Loved the review !

The whole Tamannah makeover scene left me cold but I sort of expected it. I think Baahubali is the "typical" Telugu movie with all its elements including item numbers, just SSR stylized the hell out of it. What did you think about his cameo :) The theatre crowd went ballistic, and he got more whistles than even Prabhas and Rana.

The CGI was amazing in parts, but the snow sled sequence was ... quite shoddily done. And every time a sequence with animals came up in the movie, they flashed a CGI label which was quite distracting ! Dunno if this is an Indian censor board requirement or what.

Looks like some sort of adaptation of the Mahabharata :) [Baahubali - all the Pandavas rolled into one, Bhalladeva - Duryodhana and vicious brother, Devasena - Draupadi, Sivagami - Gandhari and so on]
The cliffhanger was great. Can't wait for part 2 !



Beth Watkins said...

ideallaedi - Thanks! I haven't seen enough Telugu films to say, really, but based on what I have seen, I certainly agree that a lot of what bugs me in this movie is stuff I've seen in other Telugu films (and Hindi, but more loudly in Telugu). I wish we'd had a bigger audience - there were only 25 people or so and no one was being very expressive. :) And I did not even notice SSR's cameo! I knew he had one but forgot to pay attention for it.

ideallaedi said...

SSR was the "bartender" before the item song :)

p Nair said...

Hi Beth,
I have been following ur blog for a long time now. I am a huge Shashi Kapoor fan and that is how i found this blog. Love ur blog. U r an awesome writer. I admire the fact that u highlight some of the ills that is present in my country.

Agree with ur take on Avantika but i feel this trend is visible in Magadheera, Eaga also. The hero does all the heavy lifting and the heroine is pushed to the sidelines. I am some one who has experienced the harassment at a young age. I still find it hard to talk about my experience even though it happened while i was in 7th grade. I had a highly developed body, a figure of a woman even at that age and that has caused me so much problem. While returning from school a drunken man who was standing behind me put his hand on my chest and, well he kept it there till he got off. I was so scared, felt frozen and didn't knew what to do. I looked for help to a lady yet all she did was to laugh at me and whisper something to the lady with her! I never felt that degraded in my entire life. What hurt me the most was the lady's reaction and i do not know if this reaction is limited to Kerala women (i am from Kerala). This is something i have not even told my mother. I have since then felt incredibly ashamed of my body and still tries to cover up so that no one will luk at me. Compared to what some of the girls in this country goes through, my experience is almost passable but i am yet to recover from the repulsion i have of my own body. So i cannot even imagine the pain of a rape victims. People of this country does not know the impact of such incidents on women and strangely women themselves does not support women.
The colour bias is another serious issue but the strange thing is it never gets discussed. Recently a man was acquitted in a harassment case filed by his in laws where their daughter had committed suicide due to constant insult from her husband for her dark skin tone. The court found that such a cause cannot be held for causing suicide. So the judgement itself shows the lack of sensitivity of people towards issue. Despite all this, i am keeping my hopes up and believe that India will change for gud, someday.

Regarding Shivalinga being a phallic symbol, is a wrong notion. The base of a linga which is called 'peetha' is actually 'yoni' (vagina). The shiva linga is supposed to symbolise the unity of male & female for creation, in Hindusim. But to most people and to Hindus even, this point is entirely unknown. In reality, a symbol which is supposed to show the equal status of male & female is now degraded to phallic worship! I am writing this as i saw a similar opinion of urs or some body else's on Linga being a male symbol on Satyam Shivam Sundaram review as well.

My English is not at all good. So please over look the mistakes. Looking forward to more reviews, especially on Shashi movies.
TC.