Thoughts on Baahubali

I write about Hindi-language movies almost exclusively at this site, but I have to make an exception for Baahubali: The Beginning. The Telugu-Tamil fantasy film became such a huge success internationally — with collections in North America alone well above $8 million — that producers commissioned a special edition of the film for international audiences. Editor Vincent Tabaillon is tasked with trimming the nearly three-hour epic for screening at festivals and shopping to distributors. I’m hopeful that the new edition will get a run in the US, even after we already got the original version. Baahubali is a movie that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

I adore Baahubali. The world created by SS Rajamouli is so vast and colorful that it feels like a video game mashup. Its hero, Shivudu, is a superpowered version of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake, but with beefier arms and no guns. Shivudu leaves his jungle home by climbing a massive waterfall, and then finding snowy fields that border an ancient metropolis, giving the feeling of progressing through the levels of a Japanese role playing game (e.g., Xenoblade Chronicles).

And if gorgeous settings, political intrigue, and epic battles aren’t incentive enough, stars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, and Tamannaah Bhatia are all fabulous looking.

When considering the film’s re-edit, the most obvious material for Tabaillon to excise are battles and musical numbers. As cool as the giant battle in the second half of the film is, it goes on for a really long time. It’s possible to maintain a sense of the battle’s scale while trimming it rather significantly. As for the music, I’d personally prefer to see as much of it retained as possible, since the soundtrack is incredible — especially “Dhirava“.

Assuming that the goal of the Baahubali re-edit is to reach new fans who don’t otherwise watch Indian films, there are a couple of issues that could surprise or offend Western audiences, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to be satisfactorily addressed in the editing process. First is Shivudu’s “courtship” of Avanthika. Rather than just talk to her, he sneaks up on her twice and tattoos her. Not only is it creepy, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate that his actions endanger her and threaten her standing among her people. And, no, this isn’t just a case of American political correctness imposing itself on another culture. Indian critic Anna MM Vetticad wrote a thorough takedown of the sequence, going so far as to call it rape.

Another issue is the way the movie addresses skin color. Bollywood has a preference for fair-skinned heroines, and the US does more than its share of whitewashing in movies and TV shows, so it’s a common problem. But Baahubali uses makeup in some overt ways that send the message that light skin is good, dark skin is bad.

Avanthika first appears to Shivudu in a vision as a pale apparition who entices him to climb the waterfall. When he sees her in reality, she’s a warrior with sun-baked skin. During their love song, he dips her under a waterfall, washing away her tan so she looks like the pale goddess of his imagination. He isn’t content to love her the way she is. He wants his dream girl, and his dream girl is fair.

On the flip side, the villains who attack the kingdom in the film’s second half are played by actors covered entirely in black makeup. It’s not clearly identified as some kind of war paint, so this appears to be blackface on a massive scale. While blackface doesn’t have the same stigma in Indian films that it does elsewhere in the world, Western audiences — Americans especially — will cringe when they see this.

It would be difficult to make changes to the thousands of warriors who fight for the bad guys, but perhaps some CGI makeup effects could be added to the rival chieftain to make it clear that this is battle regalia, and not a bunch of lighter-skinned actors dressing up as “evil” black guys.

Nevertheless, I think Baahubali is a tremendous achievement, especially considering that it cost less to produce than most American romantic comedies. Hollywood studios are foolish if they don’t offer Rajamouli a superhero franchise to direct. I’m excited that new audiences will get to experience Baahubali thanks to this re-edit. More than anything, I can’t wait until the release of Baahubali: The Conclusion in 2016!

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33 thoughts on “Thoughts on Baahubali

  1. Yash

    Nice review! Appreciate your “outsider” perspective! I am one of the few in my friends and family circle that has not seen this movie yet! Lot of them paid $25 – $30 to watch it in the first week! Almost everyone lauded it for its technical excellence! Lot of them are planning to watch it multiple times! I am not big into this genre of movies.. But based on all the hoopla – I might check it out when the DVD comes out (in someone’s home theater, hopefully. 🙂 🙂 ).

    I have seen a couple of other reviewers (Indian women) – who highlighted the cringe-worthy “manhandling” scene. One of them who did a vlog got had a lot of exposure on Indian media. Of course, (as expected) some fans of this movie and other Telugu movies jumped on her!!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Yash! If you ever get the chance to see it theatrically, it’s worth it just to experience the huge scale of the movie. I’m really curious to see how the special effects hold up on DVD, since even something as expensive as Avatar can look a little underwhelming on a small screen.

      Reply
  2. cmvt

    Excellent commentary! Your suggestions to the editor shows your genuine concern for the movie’s outing in the west. As Indian films audience we know that Rajmouli’s intention was not to show fair skinned as good(the heroine is naturally fair and he wanted to show the invading army as barbaric) but I am afraid international reviewers might not be as forgiving.
    Let’s hope for the best. Jai Mahishmati!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, cmvt! True enough about Tamannaah, who naturally has a very pale complexion. I wish Rajamouli had found a different way to depict barbarism so this wasn’t even an issue, especially given how universally appealing the rest of the movie is.

      Reply
      1. vjay

        I think the black skin is the exact portrayal of barbaric people in India. Cause there is a lot of sun in India and those who dont have shelter really end up looking too dark. The antagonist is a part of the tribe that doesnt have a standard home like how we define. They end up tanning like crazy.

        Reply
  3. Dev Toutu

    Kathy, good to see you finally got down to watching the epic BAAHUBALI ! Sometimes, i feel bad that you have to watch all those 90% trashy over the top bollywood movies as part of your job; However, when a movie like BAAHUBALI comes along, you are once again entralled by the magic of movies and cinemas on the grandest of scales and your beliefs in the cinematic universe are reinforced.

    I stopped watching telugu movies b/c they became so predictable and BAAHUBALI is the first telugu movie i have watched since BHARATEEYUDU (INDIAN) with Kamal Hassan. I mean I had to break the spell after all the hype and I m glad I did since, this movie is on par with several great Hollywood epics. The story is not unique, but the way Director SS Rajamouli has presented it on the grandest of scales is the real greatness of the movie. This movie was made for the big screen and would be a crime to watch it on TV, you just will not feel the intensity of the scenes.

    The greatest thing about this movie is that you feel like you are teleported in time to this ancient mythological universe for the entire 3 hours of this movie and for once the movie doesn’t feel too long at all thanks to a 45 min battle scene. Anyway, those are my 2 cents. Obviously looking forward to BAAHUBALI – the conclusion in 2016 and the greatest question that needs to be answered i.e. Why did [ENDING SPOILER]?

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Baahubali was a real treat, Dev. The kind of movie that reminds you why you go to the theater. I cropped out the big question at the end of your comment, just in case anyone who hasn’t seen the movie is reading this, but I’m dying to know the answer myself! When the credits rolled, I actually yelled out loud, “That’s the end?!” It’s one of the best cliffhangers ever. I’m really hoping that The Beginning will get a theatrical re-release before The Conclusion comes out, just so I can see it again!

      Reply
  4. pavan santhosh

    I’ve observed white dominance notions in portraying kalakeyas, but missed it when shivudu dipped avanthika. Thanks for the insights. My home town is very near to that of SS Rajamouli, I’m very glad to learn that there is an indication on some hollywood studio would offer him a superhero franchise.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      I didn’t mean to get your hopes up, Pavan. There aren’t any plans to bring Rajamouli to Hollywood. I was just stating what I wished to be true.

      Reply
  5. ashokbhatia

    Good review. Great suggestions. I could see the Hindi version. Other than the technical finesse, the story did not touch me. As you have rightly pointed out, battle scenes in the second half are much too long.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      I saw it without an intermission, Ashok, so I was really struggling by the time Rana Daggubati rode in on his lawnmower chariot. 😉

      Reply
  6. Nicky

    Hi Kathy,
    Sharp insights on Baahubali, especially from American /International perspective.

    Anyway, my take is on a different subject: the background score.Am i the only one who feels that the background score in the movie isn’t getting enough appreciation?For me it was extraordinary.It reminded me of Hans Zimmer,the extraordinary music composer.

    Also, i had watched Baahubali both in a Dolby Atmos theater & a normal theater.I felt that the Atmos technology enriched the background score experience very much.I am not sure how prolific the Dolby Atmos theaters are in USA,but here in India, perhaps recognizing its potential ,slowly & steadily theaters are moving to this technology so as to offer the viewers a better experience.Just saying !!!

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks for comparing the different audio experiences, Nicky. I want to say that Dolby Atmos is pretty much the standard in the US. The score is a big reason why Baahubali feels so epic. The music is well integrated and enhances the immersive quality of the film. Kudos to composer M.M. Keeravani.

      Reply
  7. moviemavengal

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Baahubali, but I agree with you about it’s flaws. It was such an enjoyable film to see on the big screen — which is why I went 4 times!

    NIcky brings up a great point about the score. Besides the great songs, the background score does give the film an epic feeling that I don’t usually necessarily get from a Bollywood or Tollywood film.

    I had mainly watched Hindi Bollywood films, but watching Baahubali has taken me down the rabbit hole of Telugu films — especially those of Prabhas! Kathy, if you haven’t seen S S Rajamouli’s Eega, I think you would really enjoy it.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      So glad you talked me into seeing it, Mel! Eega/Makkhi has been in my Netflix queue forever. I promise I’ll get to it one of these days, since a movie about an avenging fly sounds right up my alley.

      Reply
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  13. Oscar Ortiz (@movebsas)

    The only Indian movie that I’ve seen before this one was “Who wants to be millonaire?”, I never expected to find an epic (one of my favourite genres) movie from that place.
    I’m from Argentina, country in which to find a movie that’s not American or home maded is nearly impossible (even European movies are hard to find.
    I was looking for a “popcorn” movie to see with my father, because he likes that type of movies (I prefer deep ones), and found “Baahubali”, checked the info on Imdb and got impressed by that 8.4, so decided to see it with him.
    This movie is unique in his way, even if most things that happen are scenes which appear on another movies, it manages to draw attention from the beggining, the woman saving the baby, who will grow to a powerful hero like Arthur, Aquiles, Moises, etc… Then the form in which he shows that he knows the “correct way” of life, – for example, teaching the old man and even his mother – using his rebellious spirit to transform the world that surrounds him and overcome all difficulties.
    Then the “Heracles-Like” hero climb the waterfall and the musical part of the movie (I suppose that’s a hindi-telugu cliché) appears, I liked it, but my father told at this point “I think that this movie will be stupid”. For me its the only part that will make some western public evade the movie.
    Avanthika shows her after that and my curiosity made me read the A.Vetticad critic… Seriously, if anyone can think that is the scenes of Shivudu trying to conquer Avanthika are some sort of abuse or rape I invite them to live a month or two in my country… I loved those scenes, first, a man being “childish” trying to make the girl fall in love with him, doing child things like drawing her skin. And then trying to make she remember her feminity, who she is over her “work/role” as a warrior (personally I think that we, men, have the disadvantage of being nothing without our job or role in life, we are what we do, nothing more; women can be what they do, but even doing nothing, they have presence for simply being women, and beauty is an attribute, not a punishment). But of course at the same time he tries to make her look as he dreamed the goddess after climbing the waterfall xD
    The movie advances and after some musical acts and skirmish he reachs the city, here the “banging” part starts… And I say that word because I don’t know how to explain that, from here till the end no one occidental guy will drop his eyes from the screen.
    All what happens next is great, and when Shivudu liberates Devasena one can say “good final”, but no, the history about his father is revealed and then with all the plots and the big battle, the “8.4” imdb rank shows as well deserved (hey! the battle is too short, not too long! I wanted to see 10 more hours of that).
    To close the comments, my father, a popcorn movie lover as I said, loved that one too much, he likes things like the movie with cars being robots and these ones with American bad guys which kill like one thousand enemies. So if he loved that one, it must be good.
    In my personal opinion, epic genre is (in America), going down and is getting harder to see a well maked movie of that genre, they are putting the budget on tv series. Baahubali is comparable with best epic movies, like The Lord Of The Rings, and the only thing that it needs to get the occidental audience is to put some budget on paying cinema space and promotion. I’m really waiting to see the 2nd part.

    PD: If the movie is so perfect seeing it on a smart tv, I can’t imagine how much impact can do in a cinema, I fell envious of who’ve seen this there… And about Avanthika skin change from “sun-baked” too “aryan”… I’ve think that she didn’t took a bath for too long xD

    Sorry if my english is a little ugly, I’m a spanish speaking guy.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Oscar, your English is great! No apologies necessary. I’m so glad your father ended up enjoying a movie that he thought he wasn’t going to like. I will disagree with you about the Avantika scene, as I agree with Anna Vetticad’s take completely. As a woman, I thought the scene sent some dangerous messages about what is acceptable for a man to do to a woman’s body without her consent.

      Maybe with some luck, the second half of Baahubali will get released in theaters in Argentina next year. I’d love for you to get the chance to see it one the big screen! Thanks for the comment, Oscar. P.S. My all-time favorite basketball player is Andres Nocioni. 😉

      Reply
      1. Oscar Ortiz (@movebsas)

        Logically I agree with the fact that Baahubali’s previous actions are bold and without any consent from Avanthika, I did not denied this in my previous comment, but I think that there is a big distance between being politically incorrect and being a stalker, so I compared the actions of Baahubali with those done by a child pretending to get something without considering the consequences or the third party in question… What would you say if in a romantic movie the protagonist, instead of steal a kiss from the girl, he asks “Can I kiss you?” xD
        And do not talk about basketball, I still suffer nostalgia… God, winning a gold medal in 2004 (kicking off USA in the path) to today… losing like we’re nobody…
        Greetings Kathy! In this movie you can see what is a real stalker, and why I’m not with Vetticad’s words (her opinion is undeniably real, but the words she used to describe Baahubali are like the ones who orators use to convert the steal of a cow in the equivalent of an homicide) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1305806/ if you spare time, I recommend it to you.

        Reply
        1. Kathy Post author

          Oscar, I have been stalked. I have had strange men grope me, while at work no less. This is why I have a big problem with the scenes in Baahubali. Even though we, the movie audience, know the character means well, his actions are no different than those of a predator. Please listen to a woman who has experience.

          Reply
          1. Oscar Ortiz (@movebsas)

            If a woman does the same to me (the same that Baahubali did to Avanthika), I can take it happily, or I can say “no”, and reject her, and everything ends here… That’s what men will think and that’s well if you’re in a position of equality or superiority from the another person… But what if the another person is more powerful than I? What if I have more than one people doing that to me? What if they decide to do something more than drawing my hand?… Yes, they’ll have the position of a god in my life, and the only thing that will protect me from their actions is their capacity of having empathy with me and the capacity of seeing that I suffer when they decide to put their thoughts over my freedom.
            So, a “predator” can only be known at this point, I think that Baahubali isn’t one but how can I ensure that? Avanthika said yes (she even could kill him if she wanted), and accepted him… But if she says no… What would he do?… No one knows their real personality until the situation defines it.
            I give you the reason, and, I say, sorry.

            Reply
            1. Kathy Post author

              That’s the thing, Oscar: Baahubali may not be a predator, but his actions are predatory. It’s a fine distinction, but there are plenty of men who will watch this and think it’s an okay way to act, even though their intentions are evil. The scene may also make some women think that it’s the kind of thing they should tolerate (e.g. “as long as I’m not being literally raped, I guess men can do what they want to me”). We need a world where women truly feel safe from men, and one step toward that is for movies to show a world where all men respect women’s bodies.

              Reply
  14. Rajesh John

    This movie is completely silly and unwachtable. I can believe the number of people gushing over this juvenile and painful production on the internet.

    Rgds

    Reply
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