Baahubali critics, get a grip, please

BY ARUNODAY MAJUMDER| IN Opinion | 25/05/2017
Critics who have got their knickers in a twist over the film betray their ignorance and expose the poverty of cinema commentary,
Says ARUNODAY MAJUMDER

Kattappa in Bahubali-2

 

“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier – Flaubert, right?”

The protagonist in Birdman got back thus when confronted by a bully - his critic. But S.S. Rajamouli is unlikely to respond to his critics because their criticism of his magnum opus is  so chichi. Film critics, particularly the blinkered ones, do not know that they must critique i.e. engage in fact-based assessment. Instead, they offer fanciful criticism. Commentaries on Baahubali have revolved around the following: indentured slavery, caste supremacy, gender stereotypes, class insensitivity, tribal prejudice....blah, blah, blah.

Critics of indentured slavery fuss about the bonded servitude of Kattapa. Had they researched carefully, they would have found that indentured slavery to the royal throne is a recurring motif in Rajamouli’s films. In his founding opus on the mythic-Magadheera (2009) - the hero and next-in-line to the throne of Udaygarh is somewhat similar to Kattappa. Kala Bhairava too is sworn to kill and die in defence of the crown. This should have prompted careful consideration of Rajamouli’s oeuvre.

It is unfair to demand that the film make Kattapa “free” because that will run contrary to the ethics in Mahismati, much like that in Udaygarh. In small and non-‘modern’ societies, social bonds are personal - a fact that is established anthropologically and historically. Here, the Hobbesian contract has equal value though founded on verbal promises. In fact, it is a fatal transgression to disrespect it. Even a contemporary plot in another classic, The Godfather(1972) , will testify to this.

"To state that Kattapa is not free is to infer the literal. It is to miss the wood for the trees, or the very reverse in this case."

 

Nevertheless, Kattapa is entitled to question the terms of such a promise in both Baahubali films. He quizzes Rajmata Sivagami when she orders the murder of Amarendra Baahubali. On more than one occasion, Kattapa tries to release Devasena from the fetters of his king, Bhallaladeva. He bows to Mahendra just after the latter beheads Bhadra - Bhallaladeva’s son and heir of Mahismati. Kattapa also rebels against Bhallaladeva under the leadership of Mahendra Baahubali and realizes only later that he has still kept his promise.

To state that Kattapa is not free is to infer the literal. It is to miss the wood for the trees, or the very reverse in this case.

Some critics have cried hoarse about the undertones of caste supremacy in Baahubali. But where is the evidence? In fact, a striking comment on caste in the film is that India has loved and cheered a man of proven prowess with zero consideration of his ‘lower’ order status,  a fact laid out in Baahubali I. (duration 1:44:45-1:46:35). Kattapa is not only a servile bodyguard but is also the in-charge of royal ammunition who commands the royal army on several occasions. Finally, he is godfather to Mahendra.

The flexibility to achieve professions irrespective of birth was another actuality in India. Doyens of history such as Nicholas Dirks have clarified that knowledge production about a rigid “caste system” (a phrase of extreme historical complexities) fit the colonial ploy to justify the White Man’s Burden in India. That members of the post-colony are still hesitant to recognize this fact demonstrates the continued success of orientalism ushered in by the likes of Thomas Macaulay.

Also, the royal priest of Mahismati - the only important Brahmin in the film -  sides with Bhallaladeva. How can that be ignored when critics comment on caste in Baahubali?

Next, there is the unending yap about domestication of women warriors in Baahubali. Some have gone as far as to call it masculine porn. One wonders if these critics would use the same description for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill trilogy.

As far as the criticism of domestication is concerned, Avanthika and Mahendra are married only in the final minutes of the second part! Besides that last scene, she fights valiantly. The exceptions are two songs in Baahubali I where mighty Mahendra is also serenading her.

Not surprisingly, a critic and headline hunter called it The Rape of Avanthika. But even a far-fetched case of molestation is unlikely since Mahendra responded flirtatiously to Avanthika’s attack in the much maligned sequence. (duration 40:35 - 47:00).  So here is an apt piece for those who wanted Erin Brockovich in Baahubali. Context, dear critics!

It is also hard to understand how Devasena is "cut down to size". She is introduced as the warrior princess. Devasena spends a brief while as wife to Amarendra before he is killed.In that short period she challenges the Rajmata, puts Amarendra in a situation where he chooses her over the throne of Mahismati, maims army commander Setupati, gives birth to Mahendra and survives 25 years as a vengeful prisoner. Surely, Brienne of Tarth is not the only way to ooze feminism?

Now to class. Critics of class binaries in the film rue that “… superhumans are the only characters in the film, the rest are faceless masses.” A binary is a restrictive relation of neat opposition. In Baahubali, it is that between the father-son duo and Bhallaladeva and not between the superhumans and the masses. The common people are not a part of ‘this’ narrative and the director is at absolute liberty not to make another Lagaan.

It is also noted, rather absurdly, that ‘It is a narrative that does not rely on or draw upon any lived or recorded past or any kind of memory …” Besides the fact that art has every right to invent narratives, one wonders if the same standard will be applied to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Perhaps a brown director is still easy game.

Again, critics assume, “… the dreaded dushman from across the border are blackened faced tribals’. Does the film mention anywhere that the Kalakeya are what our colonial masters, in their spirit of ‘civilizing mission’, coined ‘tribal’? Can they not be an ethnic or a clan-based band of raiders like Chengiz Khan or the Maratha ‘bargis’ of the 18th century?

No doubt there are problems in Baahubali. First,the exaggerations in the final battle of Baahubali II are tiring and the point has been made rather hilariously. Second,Mahendra beheads an injured Setupati during trial on the basis of flimsy logic and hyper-masculinity. That is only as dharmic as Ram killing Vali. What it dispenses is not justice but perhaps a sort of stree-raksha modelled on the current version of gau-raksha. Like these, there are more elements in Baahubali that can encourage violent Hindutva.

But they require serious analysis instead of recourse to unverifiable chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” – that too in unnamed cinema halls heard by amateur critics who take their own imagination more seriously than what is in the film. Corroboration instils trust in journalism and it is best to adhere to it in what many think is a ‘post-truth’ era.

 

Arunoday Majumder is a doctoral candidate (provisional) in JNU and an independent media-maker.

 

 

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