Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)

In American cinema, good action movies — movies that entertain not only through violence but also intricacy of plot — are hard to come by. Though I am no expert in Indian cinema, I can imagine that they too suffer from a lack of solid flicks of this kind. S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Beginning is an exception, and the American action movie industry can and should benefit from watching this modern marvel.

BTB follows the journey of the young Shiva (Prabhas) who is saved from drowning as a baby by a woman who holds him up in a river as she herself perishes. Taken in by a young couple unable to bear children, Shiva grows up strong with the constant desire to climb the unclimbable mountain nearby — a goal that upsets his adopted mother. After countless failed attempts, he — along with the mask that fell from the mountain — make it to the top of the mountain where he falls in love with a young girl whose sole goal is to rescue her queen, Desavena (Anushka Shetty). Shiva, being in love and knowing his capabilities as a warrior, agrees to save the queen who has been imprisoned for years. After fighting the prince and his protector Kattappa (Satyaraj), Shiva manages to save Devasena.

Upon his triumph, Kattappa realizes that Shiva is the rightful heir to the throne as the son of Baahubali. Thereafter, the story of Shiva’s father — one that incudes rivalry, battlefield triumph, and ultimate betrayal — is revealed. The biggest reveal of all, however, occurs at the very end when Kattappa admits that it was he who killed Shiva’s father. This conclusion sets the scene for the sequel which should be expected this year.

I’m not sure one year is enough to digest all that has happened in the first installment which runs at nearly three hours. The whole movie is quite dense, particularly the second half of the movie which features the story of the original Baahubali. The battle scene in which Baahubali leads his small army against the impressively numerous and fierce army of Kalakeya (Prabhakar) is by far the highlight of the film, though I hesitate to call it a scene as it could have been an entire movie in itself, so let’s call it a grand battle sequence of epic proportions instead.

It may be a big leap to say that the sequence is unparalleled, as we have seen so many epic and fairly similar scenes in other productions such as Game of Thrones, 300, Lord of the Rings, Braveheart and many more. The formula is fairly simple: take an important and ancient battle where the odds are stacked heavily against the protagonist, have said protagonist give an epic speech to inspire all of the other troops, then use a mix of impeccable strategy and unrelenting ferocity to win the battle. In Baahubali’s case, the battle has his army of 25,000 facing Kalakeya’s of 100,000. Not only is the city at stake, but the throne is up for grabs and if Baahubali kills Kalakeya, he will become king. However, throughout the battle he is more concerned with the larger victory than securing the throne for himself.

As the battle starts, Baahubali’s army employs the ingenious strategy of catapulting massive tarps covered in gasoline (or something easily flammable) on the approaching army, then firing fire arrows at the tarps. Additionally, they use horse drawn carts with what look like helicopter blades spinning in the front, taking out any enemy along the way.

In such a time when strategy still played such a large role in combat, it is exciting to watch brains beat brawn. In a larger sense, just like sneaking a bomb underneath a wheelchair of a nursing home patient or killing a group of people using a machine gun turret emerging from a car trunk, it is always fun to watch someone beat his enemies by simply being smarter. This is certainly the case in Baahubali.

However, it takes more than just brains. The army is on the verge of accepting defeat, until Baahubali inspires them all with a speech on how death is not be feared, rather a life lived in fear is to be feared. The army fights more ferociously than ever after that and still intelligently, mind you, another example being Baahubali throwing bolas at all the hostages Kalakeya has taken so they fall, leaving their captors easy targets for spears or arrows. In the end, Baahubali and his army are victorious, but it is Baahubali’s cousin Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati) who kills Kalakeya, supposedly making him rightful king. Sivagami, however, proclaims Baahubali the king because he fought unselfishly trying to save as many of his people as possible rather than trying to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

“A warrior can become a hero by killing ten people in a battlefield” she says, “but by saving one life, a warrior becomes the God”.  Her words ring true and speak not only to the character of Baahubali, but also to the movie’s dedication to moral code and loyalty. The woman in the beginning is dedicated to saving Shiva; Shiva is dedicated to climbing the mountain; the warriors on the mountain are dedicated to saving Desavena; Shiva becomes dedicated to the same cause; Baahubali is dedicated to saving his people, etc.

With these themes so strong, it is, at least on the surface, not surprising to see several allusions to the Bible throughout the movie. Yet, being an Indian movie it is not something one would come to expect. Shiva, a chosen one himself, being saved in the river and brought to an accepting family seems to clearly be a reference to baby Moses in the river. Although less apparent, I also see the sealing of the cave after Shiva’s rescue, due to fear, as an allusion to sealing off the cave in fear that Jesus would escape. Finally, the one-sided family rivalry between Baahubali and Bhallala Deva in which Bhallala harbors jealousy over Baahubali their entire lives growing up relates the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain, of course, kills Abel with a rock in the Bible. In BTB, Bhallala tries to kill Baahubali by letting him fall off a cliff, but he is saved by a rock that catches the rope he is holding on to.

It seems strange that a rock playing such a prominent role in life/death in both of these cases would be a coincidence. But, perhaps it is. In any case, this Eastern movie is very much up for Western interpretation. More than that, though, this Eastern gem of a movie is very much up for worldwide enjoyment. If western religion has influenced this movie, I just hope that the movie can return the favor and influence western cinema in the same way.

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