VOD Review: Baahubali: The Beginning
In the lead up to the theatrical release of Baahubali: The Conclusion, we take a look at the movie that got the franchise going, fittingly named Baahubali: The Beginning. The film has charming acting and impressive stunts, and would be one of the better films I’ve seen this year if not for a few poor choices.
When it comes to Indian cinema, I’m a newborn babe. I had no clue Tollywood was a thing, and all I knew about Bollywood was this (go ahead, I’ll wait). Neil on the other hand, had been thoroughly enchanted by Dangal. When the trailer for the second Baahubali film released, it piqued both our interests: it looks epic, and epically crazy. Before we catch that film in theatres this week, we decided to sit down and watch its predecessor. Time for me to get my feet wet!
Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)
Shiva came into his life in the usual way: a woman fleeing with him murders her pursuers with an arrow that had been stuck in her spine, carries him across a river, offers up her life to the god of destruction when said river threatens to drown them both, and is rescued by local villagers as the hand of the dead woman holds him above the raging waters. Or as I like to call it, Monday.
As you can guess, Shiva is destined for great things. That is because not only is he favored by Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation, he is the son of Baahubali, the legendary king of Mahishmati. Baahubali: The Beginning tells two tales: Shiva’s discovery of his lineage, and the epic of how Baahubali the elder met his end.
Prince of Pert™-sia
First things first, Prabhas, the actor who plays Shiva/Baahubali, is a beefcake. And he knows it. And I’m okay with it. Having once been vainly proud of both my physique and my long flowing hair, I saw a fellow narcissist in Prabhas immediately. His peacocking in the film is charming, however. From brazenly moving a shrine to Shiva to infiltrating an enemy city in broad daylight by jumping over its walls, he has the cocksure swagger of a man that knows he’s bound for greatness. It serves the narrative well and gives the tale the feel of an epic like Hercules or Conan. If everyone is going to breathlessly say your name like you’re a living deity, it’s best to walk the walk.
It’s all fun and games…
The first 20 minutes of this movie are glorious. I already mentioned Shiva thumbing his nose at the other Shiva (you know, the god) by moving his shrine, but that’s just the tip of the ludicrous iceberg. Shiva is obsessed with climbing the mountain/waterfall that separates his village from Mahishmati. He falls down said mountain and it doesn’t even phase him. The edge he needed to climb the mountain is apparently a Bollywood song and dance number with a woman that he might be hallucinating. Baahubali is all cheese and charm up to this point, reveling in its over the top story.
At the 20:23 mark however, things get problematic.
…Until the sexism shows up.
When Shiva reaches the top of the mountain, he discovers a den of freedom fighters. Their field leader, Avanthika (Tamannaah) is the spitting image of the playful goddess that lead Shiva up the mountain, and he is instantly smitten. His ensuing conquest of the young woman is some of the creepiest misogyny I’ve seen in cinema, and I’ve watched a lot of Zack Snyder movies.
He stalks her. Without consent, he gives her matching tattoos (which nearly gets her kicked out of her terrorist cell). He subdues her by force. While it tried to come across as playful courtship, dominating someone until they submit to loving you is really fucking terrible. The icing on the sexist cake is his constant referral to her as his possession. If this was a localization error (it is a subtitled foreign film), fire the translator immediately.
Much like my experience with Suicide Squad, a perfectly good popcorn film had to trip over its own dick for perfectly no good reason. Up till the “courtship”, all the women in the film were total bad asses. I did mention the woman who defeated armed men with an arrow she pulled from her own spine, right? Possessing Avanthika was only to advance the plot. Shiva takes her place on a suicide mission to rescue the captive Queen of Mahismati, who also happens to be Shiva’s mom. We then don’t see Avanthika again for about an hour. I’m sure they could have gotten him on that quest without having to be horrible.
Filial Fantasy Tactics
It’s a crying shame, as after that five minute stumble, Baahubali finds it’s footing again. The action in both Baahubali Jr. and Sr.’s tales is solid. The rescue of the Queen is audacious and brazen fun. The tale of how Baahubali Sr. won and lost his crown would be right at home in a movie like Spartacus or 300. Well, if you ignore how poor both armies in the climactic battle are at tactics.
Neil’s gripe with the film (other than 20:23, we both thought that sucked) was how cheesy the CGI could be. My gripe was how bad every soldier was at soldiering. For a tale about god-level military geniuses, a gate of flaming hay and the dumbest shield wall I’ve ever seen is pretty glaring. While the trailer for Baahubali 2 does show some large scale battles, I hope they focus more on the smaller melees. The film does those much better.
Too much swagger
I liked 90% of this movie a lot. The acting is good. The stunts are great (especially the parkour/climbing ones). It has an audacious swagger to everything that is cheesy and fun. Unfortunately, all the machismo and confidence Baahubali exudes cuts both ways. When he’s kicking ass or blustering his way through an impossible situation, it’s charming. When it shows Baahubali to be an entitled misogynist, it suffers greatly.
It’s a real shame, because it completely taints my enthusiasm for this film. My recommendation would be to watch the movie up until that problematic scene and either fast forward or call your mom from another room and let her know how much you love her while it plays. Or donate to a charity that values women in an amount equal to the ticket price (that’s how I’m solving this dilemma). This movie was so close to being a fantastic film, hopefully part 2 can avoid the sexism and just focus on the fun.