Women actors needn’t be the aesthetic must-haves, they must reflect the women in society who are beautiful, soulful and badass.
At the end of this decade, if one were to look back and pick a movie that not just set the money bell chiming like never before but also rearranged the entire equation of commercial cinema in India, that search would end at this very point. Today, the present. With Baahubali.
Perhaps the list of ‘firsts’ will help us understand why.
Baahubali 2 is the first Indian film to have grossed more than 201 crore INR (approx $32 million USD) on its opening day alone. The first weekend collections are expected to double that number. Baahubali was screened in 9000 screens globally, 6200 of those in India, a first for any Indian film, according to film analysts.
It is the first regional language film (originally made in Telugu) to have its dubbed versions in various other languages including Hindi, Tamil and Malyalam be released on the same day.
Beating Records: Baahubali: The Conclusion opens to much fanfare across India. Photo Location, Hyderabad-India. Pic Credit: G Narasaiah
It is the first regional language film to have broken records of the scale on which a film had been made till date. With more than 600 crew members, spanning over 5 years and an estimated budget of more than 450 crore INR, Baahubali is as big as it gets.
It is also one of the very few non-Bollywood films to unite audiences across the length and breadth of India to stand in long queues for tickets to the first day first show. From an unprecedented early morning show in the laid-back town of Kolkatta to houseful premiere shows in the US, UK, Dubai and East Asia, Baahubali bedazzled one & all.
It is a film whose creators believed in the product so much that they did not wait for the success of Part 1 to follow it up with a part 2. The story, in its original design, was seen as 2 part series, given the length of the drama was well over five hours. A first again.
It is also perhaps the first film to have raked in all the crores of rupees without having to arrange its release date with a national holiday, have a Bollywood superstar in its cast or piggy back on any festive fervor. The only name it counted on was its own. A refreshing change in itself.
As the market would say, these are the ‘commercials.’ But you are reading this and I am writing this because the film is doing more than just breaking records or breaking the rules of filmmaking as we know it. It is, in fact, laying down new rules. And among those is the confidence of a filmmaker in placing his story squarely and boldly on the shoulders of his female actors, even if it is a period drama. If there’s one thing common between Bollywood and regional cinema in India, it is the exasperating belief that female leads overshadowing male counterparts will undermine the commercial success of the film. It’s the same old glass ceiling, just a glossier one, this.
Almost two years ago, the first part of this magnum opus released in July 2015. Baahubali: The Beginning, revolves around Mahendra Baahubali (or Baahubali Jr, played by Prabhas), who is raised by a well-knit tribe after they find him miraculously surviving in the nearby river. He grows up to realize he must play his part in rescuing his mother Queen Devasena of the Mahishmati kingdom (played by Anushka Shetty) for his lady love Avantika (Tamannah). Devasena has been captured by the evil Bhallaladeva (played by Rana Daggubati) who is guarded and flanked by the loyal guard Kattapa (played by Sathyaraj). The remainder of the 2 hour 39 minutes of this film unravel the drams of love, loyalty and revenge and leave you with a cliffhanger. When the loyal guard Kattapa, who would do anything to protect Baahubali senior, stabs him in the back. For the uninitiated, this should explain the thousands of memes of “why did Kattapa kill Baahubali?” that went viral afterwards.
While Baahubali 1 did little to challenge the status quo of male dominated storytelling (barring the character of the Queen mother, Sivagami), it is with the second part, that director Rajamouli, chose to set the tone that’d rattle a few of those glass ceilings.
Apart from the grandeur of graphics and some heavy-duty battle scenes, Baahubali: The Conclusion relies heavily on its female characters to deliver the punch.
Sivagami, the Queen mother, is brought to life by the flawless performance of actor Ramya Krishna. Sivagami’s character is a heady mix of grace, power, pride, strength and love. She governs the kingdom of Mahishmati when the heirs are too young to rule. She chooses between the two princes Baahubali Senior and her own son Bhalladeva and appoints the king. She sits in the court hall exuding power and dispensing justice. She is the mother, the queen, the rule and the last word.
The other female lead, princess/ Queen Devasena, played by Anushka Shetty, is a formidable warrior. Much like Sivagami, the character of Devasena too, reeks of righteousness, pride and self-worth. She is a warrior, fearless and fierce. She sings for Lord Krishna and she wields the sword to protect her kingdom. She is assertive and unafraid to speak out against injustices. A welcome change from the usual coy, fragile and silent portraits of women that most commercial films tend to paint. In this context, Baahubali and its team, kept Sivagami & Devasena more real, moving away from characters that women in the real world don’t relate to anymore.
As the movie resets the parameters of a film’s success to content and performance, its success also pushes forward the idea that strong female characters can be the biggest takeaways of a revenge battle drama. Sitting in a small theatre that screens regional Indian cinema in UK, the audience around me clapped each time Devasena plunged a sword deeper or Sivagami barked orders of reign change, celebrating the portrayal of women in power positions, even in a film that is titled after its main male protagonist.
After the dust settles over why Kattapa killed Baahubali, after the memory of the grand sets, the opulent costumes begin to blur, after the paeans for the visionary team have been sung, it may bode well for filmmakers to remember that backing real and strong women characters is not a bad deal. Solid plots can have Sivagami and Devasena share ample screen space with Baahubali and Bhalladeva. Women actors needn’t be the aesthetic must-haves, they must reflect the women in society who are beautiful, soulful and badass. As Sivagami would say, Idi na maata. Na maate shasanam, this is my last word, and the new rule!’
(Preeti Singh is an Indian journalist and a graduate in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She is currently in the UK and writes for Indian and international news publications. She can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @singhpreeti08)