The success of Baahubali is not the spectacle within the film but the one outside it.
The genius of Baahubali phenomenon is that it has overtaken Donald Trump in the number of seconds it takes to pop up during a conversation. Thus, Notwithstanding all the brouhaha I see the success of Baahubali as a charade which i thought has to be said because, like the topic of Trump i’ve fucking had enough of this. Let me at the outset be apologetic and say I did enjoy the first film. It was entertaining, with a decent story to tell. I would say it was a good film. Furthermore, i have been looking forward to watch the second one, you know to find out the answer to the now 500 crore over a weekend question. But let me pose some not so expensive but surely important questions. Is it path breaking for cinema? Hell No. Indian cinema? Umm No. Business of Indian cinema? Oh Yes!
So, to understand the success of Baahubali, its charade, what it means to Indian cinema and the schadenfreude of Rajamouli, we need to go beyond celebration of mediocrity as path breaking cinema. Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One about business and entrepreneurship says innovation happens when we go from 0 to 1 and everything that happens after that, the process of going from 1 to n is scale, or merely following a path created by someone else. This I believe applies to every aspect of creativity. Any idea that breaks new ground has to and does go from 0 to 1, Rest is replication.
Baahubali is a period fantasy drama that tells you the story of a bygone era. The characters, the world, the drama is as age-old as many of our epics. In that context, one would not be mistaken to call it an epic film. But certainly not in the literal sense. The idea of fiction is that it fulfills our need to experience a reality that we ourselves hitherto may not be exposed to. To follow the journey of a character in his or her shoes, to feel what they feel. To cry when they are hurt and to feel elated when they succeed. I believe for cinema or for any art to be considered great, it sort of has to transcend the boundaries of time and space. While I agree that the experience and appreciation of cinema is purely subjective, most artworks that tend to be regarded as great are the ones which have withstood time, so i take it as a barometer and of course there are many parameters to rate art with. A great example for this would be Orwell’s 1984 which was written in the year 1948. Of late you would have definitely come across an article or an op-ed of how eerily relevant it is even in today’s world. There are several such pieces of art which are relevant across generations. The mightiest are what we call our religious epics. The reason it has to transcend the boundaries of time if not space is that, we as humans inherit our values from the stories we are told. Art defines human values in the world by addressing them and inspires change. Many movies that have been hailed as great cinema in Indian history, fall short of this including Lagaan. A few however do, like Deewar, Swades, DCH etc., which while being commercially successful, also tackled the existential or social dilemmas of our everyday lives which hadn’t been touched upon before. It might seem like a reductionist argument, but for the sake of it let us say Baahubali does talk about values and human nature like greed, betrayal that are eternal. But does it address anything new that we can apply to our lives today? Does it go from 0 to 1 in why the story is being told in the first place? In this context, all the hype around the extravaganza of Baahubali is just that. A spectacle, but of mediocrity.
Aristotle in his book Poetics lists out 6 parts to a tragedy. A ‘Spectacle’ he says is very much a part of tragedy, but he ranks it the least in importance. He says a tragedy does not need to be performed to have its intended effect on the audience. While this may be true, let us not go by what Aristotle says. Because cinema is much more than just a story, it is a visual art. Moreover, there have been many movies which have broken new ground in terms of spectacle. Here are some names, big names you might say but let’s see what all they have in common. Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Avatar. Each of these movies pioneered a certain new technology in defining visual art. VFX in star wars, CGI in Jurassic park, Animation in Toy story and 3D in Avatar. These are just a few names, each with a visionary at its helm. Lucas, Spielberg, Catmull/Lassetter, Cameron have not been regarded as pioneers in cinema for nothing. Baahubali’s so called spectacle and I am not even commenting on the quality, relies on green screen compositing technology which has been around for decades. These days even the cheapest of the cheap hollywood’s summer films are just made on sound stages with green screens and CGI. Like everything in software outsourcing, Hyderabad and Bangalore have become body shops for such work. Taking that into context, the single biggest achievement of Baahubali, like many of ours in recent times happens to be the cost at which something is being made. Wink wink Mangalyaan. (Alright it takes a lot more to create a freaking satellite that travels to Mars than just throwing money at it, but hey that was how it was sold. Nevertheless, i guess the argument still stands.)
Now to my least favorite part of this bit. I would have liked to refrain from commenting on the individual as I believe it is his prerogative to make what he wants or get inspired from what he likes. If the entire film industry is applauding Rajamouli by calling him a visionary, he might as well be laughing at your expense. Because this entire technology has been around and not a lot of people, except may be Shankar bothered to use it even though it has been affordable. Yet it has to be said and I firmly believe that he is miles away from being an original film maker, which surprisingly seems to be a lot to ask for in a creative field. Most of his works in Telugu cinema before Baahubali have been accused of plagiarism in either parts (Sye, Eega) or whole (Maryada Ramanna). Here is a youtube clip that shows some of his inspirations and compares them with the originals. It is for you to judge. A similar allegation had come up during Baahubali 2 promotions and the reaction to it from Rajamouli was not surprising to say the least. He has often dismissed these accusations and defended himself by using the words “inspirations” or “coincidences”. Such condescending answers indicate an attempt to undermine the intelligence of one’s own audience who call him a master, a genius, a visionary to the extent that it amounts to narcissism.
Having said all this, does Bahubali break any new ground at all? To be honest it does. Like many who have rightly said, it expands the scale of regional cinema as well as bollywood. The master stroke was partnering with a studio such as Yash Raj to give it a pan indian brand appeal. Projects and successes like these create new markets and bring in more money into the business. In short, the success of Bahubali is not the spectacle within the film but the one outside it, the spectacle of Marketing. Studios need such big spectacles to bring people into the theatres so that they can fund the smaller, indie films. So, there it is, finally, the 0 to 1. And the answer if this can be scaled from 1 to n can only be given by the studios. Their willingness to fund big projects which cater to a pan indian audience and use all the tools available and eager to find new ones for film making is what will actually be the takeaway from Baahubali.
Ultimately, it does definitely take something to replace Donald Trump from being the major topic of discussion, unfortunately it is not anything ‘great’.
P.S. I have not watched the second part and any reference to Baahubali should be considered a comment on the entire project 1 & 2. Also awaiting any donations to collect $40 which apparently is the going ticket price in the US.