Baahubali, the first part of SS Rajamouli’s two-part epic, was set mostly in the fictional kingdom of Mahishmati. However, it began in another kingdom, at the base of a waterfall that made Victoria Falls look like squirt. Against this landscape, an impressively bulked-up Prabhas lost his shirt within the first few minutes of the film, which is always a plus.
Then, he slammed a metal rod at the base of a massive Shiva lingam (much to the horror of a bystander sadhu) and hoisted said lingam on his shoulders. It was a Freudian wet dream — partly because there was a waterfall and a phallic object, partly because all this was being done to please a mother, but mostly because here was an epitome of masculine strength establishing himself as a hero by literally dismantling an order set in stone.
In that moment, we saw a clever combination of reverence and irreverence. While this virile young man thought nothing of uprooting the Shiva lingam, he showed respect in the way he handled it. The same could be said of the story Rajamouli told in Baahubali. The classic formulae were all there, but Rajamouli shook things up a little. His characters weren’t identifiable as photocopied versions of Hindu mythical figures even though they looked and acted like they’d stepped out of an Amar Chitra Katha comic. There were twists in the tale that ranged from perhaps the most inventive use of tent material in a battle to Kattappa (Sathya Raj) admitting to having killed the heroic prince. There was computer-generated imagery that boasted of a kind of sophistication unseen in India both in terms of its execution but also in the sense of the expansive scope of Rajamouli’s imagination and the details he’d worked out of this fictional world. In short, Baahubali was a film that extended hope — that we can build a new set of legends and heroes.
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is here to dash those hopes and that too with a story that moves at the slow-dripping pace of Chinese water torture. Young Mahendra Baahubali (Prabhas) finds out about his mother Devasena and father’s love story and then heads to Mahishmati because, hell, why not? Could he and his long-suffering mother leave Mahishmati to just rot in Bhallaldeva’s (Rana Daggubatti’s) arrogant and dictatorial grip? Of course, they could. They could even go back to Devasena’s (Anushka Shetty) home in the northern kingdom of Kuntal and organise a proper rebellion against Mahishmati. Devasena was once a good warrior, so she could give her son a lesson or two. Or her son could just work at his career as a temporary mehendi and makeover artist, with Avanthika (Tamannah) as an example of his skills. But no. Instead, Mahendra Baahubali’s bright idea is to attack the well-armed Mahishmati with his snarls, Kattappa and a few thousand scythe-wielding farmers.
In stark contrast to Baahubali, this sequel is a patchwork of existing stories. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is deeply committed to being a crowd pleaser and so, in tune with the current mood of the nation, takes religion (specifically the Hindu identity of its characters) very seriously. Instead of the fictitious goddess of the first film, this time we have odes to Krishna, for example. Religious rituals are of enormous importance to the plot and it’s worth noting that there is not a single non-Hindu culture in this film.
Baahubali 2 also borrows heavily from existing films. The ladders that the Uruk-hai used in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, as well as the idea of unleashing a river to vanquish foes (remember Isengard?), are neatly copied. Amarendra definitely has a little bit of Legolas in him. The catapulting idea from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is seen here.
Whereas Baahubali held out the promise of creating a new, homespun fictional world, Baahubali 2 is a film that wouldn’t have its key moments of spectacle without Hollywood blockbusters. That’s a shame.
Elements from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, like the exiled prince and the disguised warrior who wins the princess’ heart, are sprinkled all over Baahubali 2. With every inch that the sluggish plot progresses, the film becomes a little more predictable and a lot more boring. The only two interesting characters in series are Sivagami (Ramya) and Devasena. Both of them look gorgeous and are promising initially. However, they are quickly reduced to one-note parodies that milk the idea of a woman being arrogant rather than strong. They’re made to doubt themselves and cut down to size by deceitful men. Why? Because otherwise, they’re taking the attention and agency away from the male heroes and villains. Speaking of sacrificed women characters, poor Avanthika, despite being a powerful warrior, has nothing to do and literally not a single dialogue in this sequel.
It also becomes obvious very early on in the film that there isn’t even an internal logic to this story. For instance, when an elephant suddenly goes mad and goes on a rampage, threatening Sivagami, the camera suddenly swings to the bolted door of a large shed. The bolt quivers and then finally breaks. Why? Because Amarendra Baahubali has broken them doors and is dragging out a massive chariot, which he will use to tame this mad elephant. The question is: what the hell was the young crown prince doing in a locked shed? When he got inside, why didn’t he just leave the door open? What if the elephant hadn’t gone mad? It’s all very strange.
The cherry on this cake of nonsense is the little whoop in favour of Kambala that Rajamouli includes in the film. We’re shown men chasing bulls by the tail, and this is presented to us as a scene of idyllic, pastoral bliss. Later, bulls with their horns set aflame — how’s that for loving humane treatment? — are unleashed upon an army because them bulls be brothers to the human soldiers. It’s another matter that following the logic of the scene, the bulls were probably drowned. If they weren’t underwater, then they were stuck with burning horns.
Holding Baahubali 2 together are the cinematography, the stunts, the spectacular special effects and the good looks of its leading actors. Prabhas is very easy on the eye as Amarendra and it’s always a pleasure to watch Ramya and Shetty. The general expectation seems to be that the sight of any of these actors, smouldering into the camera, is meant to distract the viewer from noticing the half-baked and frustrating storyline. It’s almost as though Rajamouli was hoping Ramya’s angry eyes will scare everyone into not spotting the problems. There are enough moments of insanity, visual effects and slow-motion fight moves to make people clap and whoop, but the box office returns won’t take away from the fact that Baahubali 2 is a disappointment. From its script to its key action sequences, it’s either inept or borrowed from elsewhere. The last thing one expected from Rajamouli was a failure of the imagination, but, sadly, that is the conclusion we have to draw from Baahubali 2.
Update: The piece has been updated to reflect that the buffalo-racing sport shown in the film is Kambala not Jallikattu.