At times a worthwhile talking point precedes the reputation of a film so much that while it doesn't quite color my viewing, it does hamper me with preconceptions. This was the case with Baahubali, the first part of the big budget Tamil/Telugu two-parter fantasy action film, and its alleged sexism. Yet, there are a lot of other facets that deserve discussing, too. In a year where I barely watched Indian films (and also neglected this poor blog of mine) it makes sense to begin the new year by breaking down the biggest blockbuster of the previous year.
Shiva (Prabhas) grows up below a magnificent waterfall, above which he knows there is a land he must get to, even as his mother forbids him not to climb it. But climb he does, to discover the warrior Ananthika (Tamannah) who he has been besotted with ever since he found her mask on the bottom of the waterfall. Ananthika's mission in life is to free the queen Devaseva (Anushka Shetty) from the clutches of the evil king Ballavadeva (Rana Daggubati), and Shiva joins her in this mission, unaware it is all his destiny.
In terms of the good, the look of the film is spectacular. The bombastic Southie masala style has always fit the fantasy-history stories, and it does here as well. The story never stops moving, and is so vast it can't be contained in this single film. I absolutely loved Rana Daggubati's horrendous villain and thought all female leads did fantastic. Prabhas is an actor I've never quite become a fan of, but he continues to be just fine in my books.
I liked how well incorporated the visual effects were, though not flawless, particularly in the massive crowd sequences. These scenes owe a lot both in terms of technology and inspiration to the scenes in Jackson's Return of The King, and while the inspiration is cringeworthy, it feels okay to place such a scene in a new, Indian fantasy concept. The racism in depicting the enemy as human but distinctly dark-skinned savages who seem to speak a language aping an African language is so offputting it turns comical.
Then there is the sexism, which has inspired criticism better written than mine, as well as counter-criticisms. It is gross and objectionable but it is also just so tired. The reduction of Tamannah's Ananthika from a woman with a mission, a skillset and if not a fully fleshed out characterisation then at the very least potential for one, into just a pretty young thing would be annoying in and of itself but it goes further. This change is brought on by the hero, sneakily, because his infatuation with her looks renders all other facets of her unimportant.
I suppose there are more forgiving interpretations of this that one could conjure up, but the film is pretty content in this laziness. It's strange how I've never been that annoyed with the overblown masculinity of Southie heroes, or even the casual sidelining of the heroines that comes with it. It is only these extreme cases that truly get under my skin.
The next installment in the Bahubali series promises more backstory on Anushka Shetty's character, which I am cautiously optimistic about because she is among my favorites in the Southern industries. Naturally the sequel could be as bad as the first film in the exact same ways, but I'm hopeful. As it stands, Bahubali: The Beginning is a decent spectacle elevated by its visuals and success, but not the story or its characters.