The whole reason I go to the movies is for the rare opportunity to watch a film as engrossing and magical as Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Together with its predecessor, Baahubali: The Beginning, the Baahubali films are works of tremendous artistic achievement.
As the subtitles of the Baahubali (“The One with Strong Arms“) films suggest, they combine to form a single narrative and don’t work well as standalone films. There’s a tiny summary of the events of the first film at the opening of The Conclusion, but only enough to refresh the memories of those who’ve seen the original. It’s inadvisable to watch The Conclusion without first watching The Beginning (which is readily available for purchase/rent in the US via iTunes, Amazon, etc.)
With The Beginning having established the origin of the present-day hero, Shivudu (Prabhas), the prowess of his Herculean father Baahubali (also Prabhas), as well as the specific tragedy that tore apart the kingdom of Mahishmati, The Conclusion fills in the details of what led to the tragedy. As in so many epics, it was a fight over a woman.
That woman is Devasena (Anushka Shetty), who appears in The Beginning after suffering decades of torture at the hands of the king of Mahishmati, Ballaladeva (Rana Daggubati), Baahubali’s brother. The Conclusion shows Devasena in her youth, a beautiful princess with fearsome battle skills.
Baahubali meets Devasena as he and Kattappa (Sathyaraj) travel the countryside in disguise. When Baahubali falls for Devasena, it is as much for her strong will and sense of justice as for her looks. On the other hand, Ballaladeva decides to marry Devasena after merely seeing her portrait, without even laying eyes on her in person.
In The Beginning, the female warrior Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia) waas ultimately sidelined by Shivudu after he literally washes the grime of battle from her so she will comport to his idealized vision of pristine loveliness. The women in The Conclusion have more agency and are accepted on their own terms. Devasena won’t take guff from anyone, no matter their rank. Queen regent Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) is the embodiment of power, her eyes flashing with rage when the honor of Mahishmati is threatened. It’s gratifying to see two such authoritative female characters in a movie whose title refers specifically to physical strength. (Avantika rejoins the fray in The Conclusion in a satisfying return to her former martial glory.)
There is, of course, plenty of physical strength on display in the film. Prabhas is a physical specimen, and Daggubati looks like a titan. A shirtless battle between the two hulks is as satisfying as it is inevitable. Legendary fighter Kattappa is no slouch either, as showcased by Satyaraja’s nimble moves.
One newly introduced character in The Conclusion is particularly memorable. Devasena’s brother-in-law, Kumara Verma (Subbaraju), is in many ways a stand in for the audience as one of the few mere mortals in this world of demi-gods. He’s pompous and cowardly, and primarily the butt of jokes in the film, yet he rises to the challenge in a critical moment, proving Baahubali’s assertion that courage is more important than strength.
The joy of both Baahubali films — but especially the second one — is that they can be watched either purely for enjoyment’s sake or for the fun of parsing every minute detail, picking out all of the myriad influences. The story is borne out of traditions from across the globe, beyond its obvious roots in Indian religion, history, and mythology. The disguise sequence is Shakespearean. Song lyrics like, “Heart stealer, eternal enchanter” sound like epithets from Greek mythology like “Hector, breaker of horses.”
[The team behind the English subtitles deserves special kudos for their precise choices and linguistic flourishes, such as this memorable lyric: “The sky says ‘bravo’ with infectious esprit.”]
There are also modern influences. When Baahubali fights, he moves more like a video game character than a movie character. Large battle sequences clearly draw from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’d argue that the Baahubali movies are the most effective cinematic fantasy epics since LOTR.
I’d further argue that the Baahubali movies succeed in that regard precisely because they were made with greater budget constraints than similar Hollywood movies. Huge numbers of extras in brilliantly colored costumes give a life to crowd scenes that is missing from most CGI-heavy contemporary fare. Director S.S. Rajamouli employs his resources in a way that achieves a consistency of look, which in fantasy films is more important than realism.
Most importantly, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad create a world of such detail and depth that one might forget that they did in fact create it. It feels real, like an alternative history of the world. It’s so easy to be swept up by Baahubali 2, to imagine a world of superheroes who believe in justice and mercy above all else. It’s wonderful.