As the titles for Baahubali: The Beginning showed up on screen, a decidedly juvenile thought crossed my mind. "It'll be hilarious if they write 'Baahubali: The Intermission' during the mid-way mark and 'Baahubali: The Conclusion' at the end of the movie," I thought, chuckling to myself and not daring to share that thought with the person sitting next to me.
And, well, that's exactly what happens. Only, by the time that final slate appeared on screen, I wasn't chuckling anymore.
Baahubali: The Beginning is a grand and largely impressive epic by Telugu film director S. S. Rajamouli. With budget estimates swinging wildly between Rs 170 crore and Rs 220 crore, it is rightly being touted as the most expensive Indian movie ever made. It is one of the first Indian films to make use of the costly Arri Alexa XT camera, now a staple in big-budget Hollywood productions, and utilised elaborate sets constructed in Hyderabad's Ramoji Film City.
The story is a familiar composite of Hindu mythologies and Hamlet-like story elements, with Prabhas playing the curious and sinewy-armed protagonist Shivudu, a young man who grows up in a village at the base of a giant, ethereal waterfall that begins above the clouds. He has a rogue-ish grin and an impossibly charming presence, which makes it difficult to fault him even when he, at one point, breaks into a silly dance that recalls Salman Khan from 'O O Jaane Jaana'.
Consumed by the idea of scaling the waterfall, he is led by visions of a beautiful nymph (Tamannaah) during the song 'Khoya Hain' and, with great effort, manages to reach the top. There he realises that the nymph is actually a tough-as-nails archer named Avantika, part of a warrior clan that wears masks on their faces, and falls in love with her. Far from his idyllic village, atop the waterfall, is the kingdom of Mahishmati, ruled by the cruel Bhallala Deva (Rana Dagubatti). It doesn't take long for Shivundu to realise that he has a strong connection with the kingdom, the cruel king, and a wrongfully incarcerated old woman named Devasena (Anushka Shetty, channeling Raakhee from Karan Arjun).
The film is heavily dependent on CGI, as trailers have also shown us, and one expects nothing but the best in this day and age. Here's the unfiltered truth, though: if you've watched even three or four CGI-laden Hollywood blockbusters from the last decade or so, you will definitely find the special effects here occasionally sub-par.
It's all a question of budgets, after all. For even the most expensive Indian movie ever made is, in Hollywood terms, a mere $40-odd million movie. For the sake of perspective, that's still $15 million short of how much Richard Donner's Superman had reportedly cost to make... back in 1978. Meanwhile, most special effects spectacles nowadays, such as Guardians Of The Galaxy or The Avengers, cost around $200 million or more to make.
This disparity shows up in Baahubali: The Beginning in every fourth or fifth VFX shot on an average, and the results can be jarring. One shot of a tree bursting into flames is actually so badly done that it came across as comical. Another sequence, which features Bhallala Deva facing off against an entirely-computer-generated bull (which the movie tells us is CGI via a tiny disclaimer that appears on screen every time this happens -- thanks, Censor Board) loses much of its power because of its patchiness.
But, holy hell, when they do get it right, it is absolutely stunning.
Rana Dagubatti in a still from 'Baahubali: The Beginning'
The film's piece de resistance is a flashback sequence in its second half, which depicts stunning swordplay and massive battle scenes. What Rajamouli lacks in CGI firepower (which I'm sure he must be aware of), he makes up for with excellently staged set-pieces. The denouement of one particular sword-fighting sequence, shot in heavy rain, had the audience at its preview screening in Mumbai applauding breathlessly.
A significant part of the movie's second half is taken up by a mighty war between Mahishmati and the army of warlord Kalakeya (Prabhakar), comparable to the Battle Of Helm's Deep from The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002) in scale as well as in style. The shots are all familiar (visuals like the camera following an arrow right to its target have been done to death by now), but the execution is top-notch and the vision, immensely grand. A lesser filmmaker would've been overwhelmed by the canvas and allowed incoherence to seep in, but Rajamouli and editor K Venkateswara Rao do a fantastic job of allowing the viewer to understand what is happening even as they see how it is happening.
There is also a fair bit of inventiveness, such as a chariot fitted with mechanically-operated rotors designed to slice into enemies and a mace that operates along the lines of Go Go Yubari's meteor hammer from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, which makes this portion all the more memorable.
The film, made in Tamil and Telugu, has been dubbed into Hindi to appeal to a wider audience. I would've personally preferred a subtitled version, as some of the Hindi dubbing artistes occasionally sound out of sync emotionally with the actors saying the lines on-screen, but this is a minor nitpick.
Aside from that, Baahubali: The Beginning packs in the regular Indian masala elements. This, while true to Rajamouli's style of filmmaking as seen before in the wildly-inventive Eega (2012) and Magadheera (2009), occasionally comes across as a hindrance here. For instance, an 'item song' set in a foreign location called Singapuram (a reference to modern-day Singapore, realised beautifully as Morocco-meets-Game-Of-Thrones by art director Sabu Cyril), comes across as a commercial indulgence that could've perhaps been avoided or made shorter. Also, true to prevailing Indian commercial cinema aesthetics, this film has a distinctive navel fetish: several shots linger on Tamannah's bare midriff largely for the benefit of male viewers, for example. There is also no real attempt at subtlety when it comes to acting, characterisation or dialogue; this is a classic good v/s evil story, plain and simple, which isn't particularly interested in dealing with shades of grey.
However, all said and done, Baahubali: The Beginning is a remarkable achievement. What Rajamouli has pulled off here, despite its flaws, is nothing short of a miracle, especially when you take into account India's notoriously risk-averse filmmaking environment and when the film ends on a tantalising cliffhanger (paving the way for Baahubali: The Conclusion, due to release next year), one can't help but applaud his singularly brave vision. As the cliché goes, a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, but it doesn't really matter if that first step is shaky as long as it lands firmly and confidently.