As we enter the darkened space of a cinema theatre, we undergo a transformation. We consciously or sub consciously commit ourselves to that cinematic space. In the brightly-lit world of the real, the joy and sadness we experience in equal measure are inextricably connected to who and what we are. But in the lightless world of cinema, sharing, arguing, laughing and crying with the actors, we remove ourselves from the real.
But how true is this separation?
Whether the film is comedy, socio-political commentary, science fiction, parody, satire, thriller, mystery or a super- hero fantasy, every frame is textured and shot through and through with that very reality that we think we left outside those guarded sound- and light-proof doors. Cinema makers and actors often do say that they are here only to entertain. But let us not forget that this ‘entertainment’ is nothing but a reflection—strong or weak—of who and what we are.
A week ago I walked into a theatre to watch Baahubali and to rejoice in what seems to be a film that has acquired a pan-Indian cult status. I was told that Indian cinema had finally created a magnum opus comparable with the grandest of Hollywood films, with special effects that make us proud and not cringe with embarrassment as they have made us do in the past. And I was not disappointed. There is no doubt that in scale, visual finesse and extravaganza, I had not seen such an Indian film.
But as the film unfolded, I could look beyond the extravaganza. As a story, Baahubali can be referred to as a period, fictional drama of epic proportions. The movie has been discussed and reviewed numerous times, and there is no point in once again comparing the characters, scenes, symbolisms, motifs or the whole narrative itself with mythological parallels, of which there are many. Similarly, enough has been said about what can only be labelled a ‘friendly rape’ scene (I use this grotesque expression on purpose), which is without doubt the lowest point of the film. But leaving behind all these specifics, the ‘truth’ of the film became apparent: its huge and undoubted strength lies in the times we live in. The film is about us as we are.
We discuss the success of a film in terms of how people have accepted the star, characters, storyline, visualisation, music and suchlike. But we also need to explore what drives the reaction of society. Is there a collective subterranean consciousness that guides receptivity? In the case of Baahubali, it is no ordinary reception.
Much like what we see on the 70 mm screen, real life is largely a product of imagery. From the time we awake, we voluntarily and involuntarily come into contact with people, words and actions choreographed and packaged to elicit certain emotions. This choreography is not just a product of the ‘day’; it is motivated by the urge to highlight the present against a weaker, lesser, poorer recent past. It is deemed a success when we accept, embrace and celebrate the ‘today’ that is being projected. When an idea of the present is unable to convince us that the recent past was worse off, it fails and we look around for alternatives.
The emergence of Narendra Modi as the unquestioned leader of what is seen as a resurgent India is one such choreographed success story. I neither approve nor disapprove of the choreography; this is only an observation. India is today experiencing a political narrative that is blowing itself to a larger-than-life scale; it is truly mega-budget, invading every social media stream, on your TV screen, mobile phone, computer and newspaper. Modi just needs to sneer or scowl and we go into a tizzy about its import and repercussions. Keeping aside our own political affiliations, if we were to ask ourselves what adjectives come to people’s minds when they think ‘NaMo’, I am certain ‘strong’, ‘decisive’, ‘nationalist’, ‘patriotic’, ‘powerful’, ‘doer’, ‘visionary’, ‘incorruptible’ and ‘dynamic’ will be among the words articulated. A majority of urban and semi- urban Indians believe that we finally have a real, strong, impregnable and—I should stress—‘Hindu’ leader. Undeterred by criticism, he is proud to celebrate his ‘Hinduness’. The image of Modi is today larger than the largest Rajinikanth poster. His name, attire, walk, dramatic phraseologies and slogans define India. With a weak, speechless, powerless Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister in the recent past, Narendra Modi is certainly a successful sell.
We also live in times when there is the emergence of what we can call the ‘justified Right’. I say ‘justified’ only because they hold the grudge that India’s political and cultural quarters have consciously kept their view to the fringes of academia. Now, they are out there rewriting all the wrongs of the Left-intelligentsia. Co-accused are Western Left-leaning intellectuals who in their view have only further propagated a perverted view of Hindu India.
Add to this the unfortunate conflation of secularism with atheism in political discourse, subconsciously pressuring the Hindu believer into displaying an outward appearance of an apologist. There are many hues to the ‘justified Right’, from the symbolic ritualist to the scientific tantric, all giving the Hindu space and allowing him to vacillate from one end of the spectrum to the other, depending on the context. This is another successful sell in the imagery market. The philosophical interconnectivity between these two successful products cannot be missed.
Baahubali in many ways represents Modi’s India and the vocal Right’s assertion of the ancient. The visualisation of Baahubali is definitely the only major attraction in the film. But it is the narrative that is hidden behind the obvious that arrests us. Baahubali is a fictional story with common motifs. Yes, it is fictional, yet the digitally created city is not born out of thin air; it is aesthetically representative of ancient kingdoms. The visual design is embedded in Hindu temple architecture. But this is not as important as the fact that the creations are also exquisite. An Indian film for the first time has brought alive Hindu architecture without the use of ugly artificial sets. There have been films in the past that have used special effects to create rajyams (kingdoms), but these attempts have been utter disappointments, apologetic. Here, Baahubali has given us another reason to celebrate ancient architecture, and crucial to this celebration is the fact that this has been possible using digital and scientific methods. The ‘smart city’ has met Varanasi’s Ganga aarti. For the first time, Indian cinema has been able to celebrate the Hindu past in a way that modernity must do so, and the film’s makers did not leave any stone unturned to achieve this feat. The modern Indian mind has used technology to deify the ancient. Some may call this reclaiming the past. Is this not similar to the Right’s agenda and its proclamations on our ‘hoary past’ that are doing the rounds on social media?
In sheer intentionality, the film Baahubali is very similar to the grandiosity of Modi and the present dispensation. As we sit in a theatre and watch Baahubali, we realise that everything in the film is colossal. There is not much that is understated or subtle. The magnitude of the film, its canvas and investment are as enormous as Modi. The media build- up around Baahubali and that which has surrounded and surrounds Modi are strikingly similar. We were told about the large vision, the scale, the technical achievement, the investment and the quality of the product. Now, even after they have respectively taken over our consciousness, we are still reeling under that spell.
There is an aura that lifts both of them beyond political or cinematic accountability. But they are making a statement that is anchored in the need to capture our erstwhile glory in the present: a seeking to do something no one has ever done before and to change perceptions of India. It is also not just about local constituencies; there is a larger bombastic international agenda. Modi has displayed this urge for all of us to see from the very first day in office, looking to present himself and India as an international power. Similarly, Baahubali on the whole is not about the story or the characters, it is primarily about telling the world that we can make visually monumental films. Both are seeking some kind of international validation. Certainly, many in this country do believe that Modi has given us global respectability by his sheer stature and presence. Baahubali is no different.
The fictionality of the story is a masterstroke (though not really intended in this sense). Baahubali (father and son) is not a person who is constricted by what we already know of him through tales. Being fictional, he borrows freely from many heroes, but is not bound by them. In a sense he is a contemporary re-telling of many mythological characters. We watch Baahubali and know very well that the context is not today, yet we cannot nail him to any specific katha (narrative), therefore allowing us to adopt him into the present. Baahubali is no ordinary hero; he is as macho as one can get, constantly displaying his bare muscular torso. But this sexual physicality is only symbolic of his super-human personality, something that is emphasised through many incidents in the film. In a few scenes, we see a thin and wiry boy transform into a broad-shouldered man trying to climb steep mountains. Is Baahubali symbolic of the 56-inch chhaati (chest) demanded by our Prime Minister to transform India? The physique is exaggerated to convey the courage and bravery that are needed to achieve one’s goal. Is this not what Modi was referring to in early 2014? His speeches are like that 56-inch chhaati; they are loud, out- there, chest thumping, intimidating and overpowering. The impact of Baahubali is not very different from Modi; the personality takes over completely and, subsumed within, you forget all about the specifics.
As with the aggressive Right’s over-zealous attempts to describe ‘Bharat’ as being originally a perfect grand Hindu rashtra (state), the makers of Baahubali too have tried to create a fantastic visual fantasy of equal proportion. And interestingly, both narratives lack nuance and are unable to bury the ugly underbelly of that very same Indianness. In Baahubali, the misogynistic and racist nature of our society is evident. The dark-skinned make-up and the deliberate effort made to characterise the enemy king and his forces as repugnant are a distressing cliché. But it is also true that most of this goes unnoticed since we are captive to the film’s razzmatazz. Once again, we have a parallel with how we are so enamoured by the jingoistic retelling of the ‘Hindu’ that we are blind to its obvious faults.
And one cannot but note that Baahubali coincides with the appearance of ‘modern’ re-tellings of Hindu epics and mythologies at the ‘smart’ hands of writers like Amish Tripathi and the emergence of ‘fanatical’ self-proclaimed Hindu activists such as Rajiv Malhotra.
One may argue that the aspects described by me are found in many other films. That is true, but the coming together of all these in one film in our present political context is unique. A film that has no mega national stars, a run-of-the-mill storyline, made by a Telugu director, has taken over our movie halls. This is significant. Once you watch the movie, you realise that the special effects are wonderful but that cannot be the reason for its appeal. The movie has struck a chord with an Indian majority, one that reaffirms its traditional identity and extols its present.
It is a politico-mythic film or, to coin a phrase, a polimyth, which has unwittingly given us an insight into how we are feeling and what we are yearning for as a society.
There is no doubt that Baahubali is a victory symbol for the Hindu Right and specifically for Modi. They seem to have won this round, but let us wait for Baahubali: The Conclusion in 2016.