2017 ends in a few hours. In keeping with tradition, I wanted to have a post that would capture the year. This time around, I could think of no better way than to talk about this film. I’d started writing about it when I’d seen it many months ago but I suppose it was supposed to be published thusly.
The Experience of Seeing
I remember walking out of the theatre an hour or so after midnight, having seen ‘Baahubali 2: The Conclusion’ almost two weeks after its release. It was, for me, almost two weeks too late. However, despite the delay, the show ran house full. Never in recent memory have I seen a hall so filled with people so late into the run of a movie at the box office. What was more, not a person in the house seemed passive – everyone moved the way the director must’ve wanted them to move. There was the loud whistling at the Prabhas’ (the hero) introduction scene and stunt – a uniquely Indian movie-going phenomenon if ever there was one, the rapture at the stunts, the rambunctious applause at the dialogues, including some made during the iconic court scene where Mahendra showcases his version of justice.
I wanted to start writing this right outside the theatre but obviously couldn’t. What follows isn’t a review, it’s a paean, a love song, a letter in admiration of and reverence to S. S. Rajamouli. And an attempt to show that, as Indian audiences, we have many more reasons to celebrate this film than the ungodly amount of money it has grossed!
About the Past
Growing up, we were regaled with stories from the Ramayan and Mahabharat – as is the norm, I suppose, in most homes without high levels of “modern” education. For us, these stories weren’t legends, their heroes not the imaginations of masterful poets. These were accords of History: the reality and realisations of this land, lessons told orally to generations so that we may accept the best lessons and reject the maladies of our forefathers.
While there was other Indic literature, nothing came close to the grandness and infinity of these epics. These were our heroes, our gods, these were the cornerstones of our faith, and in them we had all the moral lessons we needed. Indeed, more than just morals, I strongly believe that whatever stories can be told about the human experience have already been told in the Mahabharat. Everything else is derivative.
The preeminence of these two epics, perhaps, was why the Hindi entertainment industry was happy to play these stories on our screens – silver and small – over and over again. The one superlative attempt – no prizes for guessing – was B. R. Chopra’s seminal work and gift to mankind that ran on India’s one TV channel in the 80s. In each iteration, however, we’ve only added more gloss, more paint, more incoherent, largely fanciful interpretations (hat tip to everyone’s favourite “mythologist” Devdutta Pattanaik and the makers of ‘Siya Ke Ram’) and more hackneyed emotions. Our general laziness, dare I say disinterest, in storytelling ensured that complex yarns and characters were reduced to one-dimensional, idealistic, didactic, always speaking in chaste and therefore alienating Hindi caricatures. To a younger generation – and stories are always for the young – they became things to mock and not explore.
Which is tragic for the oldest continuous civilisation on Earth. And suicidal. More on this in a bit.
Why did no one look to pick the themes and personalities from these epics – not the epics themselves – and reinterpret them in a history that has almost no parallel, I don’t know. Why didn’t many decide to tell a story with all the glory and cinematic scale of ancient (than the Mughal) India, I don’t know. Why didn’t, in essence, anyone think that Indic civilisation can be explored on-screen without making it a story about the two avatars of Vishnu, again, I don’t know.
What I do know is that S. S. Rajamouli did, and we should all be grateful to him.
The H Word
Coming back to the question about the tragic bit. While I don’t know the answers to any of the questions I asked in the paragraph above, I do think I know a causality.
I’ll say it with caution because this (right-leaning) truth is generally an anathema these days: for most of its existence, India was a nation of the Hindu faith. I say faith and not religion because it is more than the latter and definitely unlike every other that claims that moniker. There’s no one book, no one God, no one way of worship. It has been called a way of life – and everything from hedonism to atheism found a place in it. I’m not making this up, or saying that everyone who identifies as a Hindu believes in this. I’m saying there were these schools of thought within the Hindu belief system and it is broad enough to take in all manners of contrasting beliefs, giving each its own space. Krishna tells us that all is Him, all come from Him, all return to Him, and all are seeking Him – how can then, the Hindu thinks, any faith be “wrong”?
Modern India, though, has been taught to belief a couple of things:
The Hindu faith was based on a brutal caste system. It was exploitative, inhuman, and *all* religious reformers were busy trying to eradicate this evil. Of course, no matter who made the attempt and how solidly, the system survived. From effectively the first lesson in History in contemporary schools to the last, caste is portrayed as a cornerstone of Hinduism. In fact, it is famously codified in Manusmriti, an ancient treatise on Hindu law.
The Hindu was as superstitious as he was sexist. All modes of worship were essentially ritualistic, leading to varied beliefs that have no basis in science. In our domestic spheres, on the other hand, women were relegated to being objects. If you’d have it, patriarchy was almost exclusively invented here – because, of course, ancient India invented nothing else – and no effort was spared to make women second, nay, third grade citizens.
Therefore, it is no surprise to see hundreds of posts on Social Media that say that the ruling disposition – majority Hindu – holds cow safety dearer than women’s safety.
I will not deliberate much on these points save saying the only thing truthful about them is that the they’ve been successful in establishing and sustaining a left-leaning narrative. I loathe the ideology because its foundation lies in victimhood: make someone the wrongdoer and someone the sufferer, and then, for eternity, make the former feel guilty and the latter seek retribution for crimes not done to him, in person, but to the general class of people he belongs to. Continue so on, till you’re reduced to one homogeneous mass with no diversity of identity, thoughts, opinions.
Indian art (and therefore education and cinema) is run by proud leftist (or the term a la mode, secularists), and they’ve been successful – for nearly 7 decades now – in reducing Hinduism to the points above and those points alone. Which is why, while you’ve had two Hindi magnum opus on Akbar (‘Mughal-E-Azam’ and ‘Jodhaa Akbar’), none on his arch nemesis Maharana Pratap, whose life and times are inspiration. Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal has been celebrated multiple times but never, say, the architectural masterpieces of Rajaraja Chola. Heck, even Asoka got played on-screen by Shah Rukh Khan, but we’re yet to find anyone interested in the masterful empire building of his grandfather, the first great emperor of this land, Chandragupt Maurya. The examples don’t end: we’re yet to see Chandragupt Vikramaditya (or any of the Gupta kings, an empire whose reign is commonly called India’s golden age), any of the southern dynasties (the Cholas, the Cheras, the Pandyas), Chhatrapati Shivaji, Rani Lakshmibai or Rani Gadinleiu on screen. Even inspiring scientists (Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta), doctors (Charaka), or artisans (Kalidas) are just names to a majority of our people.
Be fair, dear reader, and note that I’ve no qualms with Akbar or the Taj. Neither am I saying all of the “Hindus” mentioned above merit a film. However, I’m sure they merit their stories being told.
South Side Story
Sometime in the last decade, Manish Shah, a hitherto unknown man, became one of the most important man in the country for me. His Goldmines Films started dubbing the star vehicles of the South in Hindi. Prominent TV channels that play only Hindi movies started playing them, intermittently at first and then almost throughout the day and week. That’s how I was introduced to the oeuvre of artists such as Chiranjeevi, his son Ram Charan Teja, Nagarjuna, All Arjun, Mahesh Babu, NTR Jr., Dhanush, and, of course, Ravi Teja.
I found that the South, on the other hand, still churns out stories that know where we’ve come from. Their characters are rooted in their daily lives, they still celebrate their rituals, they still have time for their traditions. With their dubbing in Hindi, we finally saw heroes talking of gods, family life, and values with pride, not a sense of guilt or shame.
And all of these, I’ll declare, reach their peak with this film.
There’s not much I want to talk about the story. Not only is it fairly straightforward, it is also largely template. Two sources come to mind directly for its two principal themes: a character, in his or her misunderstanding, destroying a loved one from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and the corrupt
(Sadly, though, I read a few reviews before writing. Two were poorly written, but I can’t express in words the rage felt at reading Srihari Nair on Rediff. I pray to the maker that I never create anything with an intention of appearing too clever and result of appearing an arrogant, self-absorbed, insipid buffoon. Seriously, just read this piece. You will, inevitably, in the voice of the NRI who, within days of migrating, taunts everything India.)