The One Thing That Stops Baahubali from Becoming India’s LOTR

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The One Thing That Stops Baahubali from Becoming India’s LOTR

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

The experience of watching SS Rajamouli’s epic prequel to Baahubali: The Beginning can be summed up in a single scene which takes place at the conclusion of Baahubali: The Conclusion.

During the final battle between Mahendra Baahubali (Prabhas), the rightful heir to the throne and the evil King Bhallala Deva (Rana Dagubatti), Baahubali’s soldiers use palm trees as propellers to launch themselves to the terrace of the king’s castle. The sight of human cannonballs being hurled from palm trees is a mad, genius idea that will fascinate you as much as, say, seeing the flaming horn of a bull being used as a weapon (another sequence). The soldiers land on the terrace with ease, in sync, and most importantly, without a single scratch – they go on to fight and win a bloody war.

It is a scene that leaves you dumbfounded on two counts: the inventive madness required to imagine and execute such a scene, as well as the sheer ludicrousness of it.

That’s the state you should submit to when you sit down to watch Rajamouli’s second instalment of the mighty Baahubali franchise this weekend. The first left us awed with the scale of visual grandeur (and the complete lack of a plotline and common sense). Two years later, you can’t help but still be awed by the scale of the visual grandeur – and the complete lack of a plotline and common sense.

Baahubali is a bit like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Anything can happen: Palm trees can become propellors, bullhorns can become fiery weapons, and poetic justice can be served by drowning people in a Baahubali-made flood in which a swan-like Titanic-esque ship will suddenly become airborne and surround itself with cloud-shaped horses.

It is the scale of scenes like these that establish Rajamouli’s shrewdness as a filmmaker. He is not trying to make a film – he is trying to take your breath away. So he takes conventional action tropes and squashes them under the weight of his audacious imagination before destroying them in a spectacular display of foolish fireworks.

The question you are left asking of this movie – widely touted as India’s answer to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – is WHY? Why, when you are sparing no expense to make the most visually stunning film, would you not give me a plot that I can enjoy without wholly suspending belief?

But, as phenomenal as the film looks, the epic spectacle is proof enough that Rajamouli falters terribly at the altar of his own ambition, wrapped in the film’s over-indulgent grandiosity.

There is a lot in the film to grant it the LoTR comparison – the war sequences, for starters. In the previous instalment, much of the film’s second half featured the mighty war between the Mahishmati and the Kalakeya kingdoms, which looked similar to the Battle of Helm’s Deep and Pelenor fields from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) in both scale and style. Then, like the Elvish language in LoTR, the makers created a new language called Kilikili in Baahubaali: The Beginning for the Kalakeya warriors. Even the misshapen faces of the Kalakeya warriors seem to be modelled on the villainous orcs from Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kings (2001). The fact that both the series feature elaborate set-pieces and rely heavily on special effects, further strengthen the comparison.

But, as phenomenal as the film looks, the epic spectacle is proof enough that Rajamouli falters terribly at the altar of his own ambition, wrapped in the film’s over-indulgent grandiosity. This happens, despite the film’s fascinating fictional universe populated by terrific actors playing intriguing, fleshed-out characters. But Rajamouli refuses to take it further. He refuses to take over the responsibility of taking the plot even a few notches above pedestrian level and leaving you with a movie that you could have watched on mute. It is a complaint that has never been hurled at LoTR.

The world of Lord of the Rings is so rich and deep that the audience isn’t asked to suspend disbelief. However, Baahubali works only when there’s a generous amount of suspension of disbelief, especially in the scene where Baahubali tames an elephant using a massive chariot, and then gets up on its head to stand like a heroic prince. Lord of the Rings amassed a cult following not solely because of its war sequences or stunning effects but because it aspired to give the audiences more, in the form of a new legend and a set of heroes, each fleshed out with purpose and a legit plotline.

The second instalment of Baahubali, on the other hand, is characterised by half-baked storylines and lazy writing. The CGI and special effects are its only saving grace.

With Baahubali: The Beginning’s record-breaking success in 2015, Rajamouli had managed to capture the public’s imagination in a way no movie ever had. It gave us the hope that it would eventually become a product that could stand on its own against its Hollywood counterparts. Two years and a three-hour movie later, Baahubali: The Conclusion will still succeed in driving the audience in herds to the theatres. But one question will remain unanswered… How is it possible to spend so much money and still make a movie that eventually feels silly?