SS Rajamouli delivers the epic action goods in BAAHUBALI 2: THE CONCLUSION, starring Prabhas and Rana Daggubati
Indian director SS Rajamouli is ready for his close-up.
For years filmmakers in India have toiled in international obscurity, only occasionally emerging from the shadows when something strikes a chord with international - largely arthouse - audiences. The stereotype of Indian film as interchangable with the Bollywood film industry is slowly giving way to a newer, more prograssive image of India as the home of what some critics like to call "poverty porn", the cinema of struggle.
The problem with this angle is that India is not only the largest democracy in the world and the second most populous nation on the planet, it is also far and away the biggest producer of cinema there is, with nearly 2,000 productions every year. So what exactly is it that gets lost in the shuffle?
What so often gets lost in translation from local audiences to international ones is the many peculiarities and nuances of local and regional cinema. Since the beginning of Indian cinema's long history, each region of the country has formed their own localalized film industries to cater to the desires and cultures of the dozens of distinct groups that find their home there. One region that has been long undiscovered by western eyes is the Telugu language film industry of Andhra Pradesh.
Tollywood, as it is known locally, is India's second biggest film industry in terms of finances, but it's also one of the biggest industries in the world that really only cares about its local audience. Films are made for the Telugu people, with little concern for audiences outside of that sphere. Or at least they were until visionary director SS Rajamouli discovered that there was a world outside of his region that was hungry for something different, and he delivered in spades with 2015's breakout hit, Baahubali: The Beginning.
Baahubali: The Beginning not only broke box office records in the Telugu regions of India, it broke all-India box office records and made at least $8 million dollars at the US box office alone. So when the marketing machine for the sequel, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, began to ramp up, all eyes in India turned to Rajamouli to see if he could do it again, and I'm happy to say that he's not only matched the grandeur of is first part of this epic diptych, he's surpassed it by a wide margin.
Unfortunately for newbies, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion gets off to a running start, picking up right where the previous film left off without so much as a courtesy recap of that film's actions. To be fair, the film is mostly aimed at an Indian audience, and based on the box office of the first film, there are not many of them that missed it. However, we arent' given time enough to be confused as we pick up the story with our hero Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) and his mother, Sivagami (Ramya Krishna) beginning their reigns as the crown prince and queen mother of the mythical kingdom of Mahishmathi.
The Beginning ended with a gloriously shocking cliff-hanger that sucked the breath from the theater both times I saw it, and inspired a meme (#wkkb, you'll have to look it up) that swept India. The second part is an attempt to answer the question posed by that cliffhanger, and even though I can't in good conscience say any more about the specifics, I can say that Rajamouli handles the story so well that by the time the question is answered, it is a revelation worthy of the two years of speculation it created.
Essentially, the story follows the rise of Amarendra Baahubali from crown prince to king of Mahishmathi and the (sometimes literal) trials that he faces along the way. We learn how he meets his wife, Devasena (Anushka Shetty), we see how his mother changes her point of view toward Baahubali and his brother, Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati), and we follow the journey that Baahubali takes with his protector and surrogate father Kattapa (Sathyaraj). All of these characters appeared in the first film, but in The Conclusion they are given a remarkable amount of depth as the story unfolds.
Having learned from the success of the first film, Rajamouli gives the audience what they want, and what they want in this case, is more of everything. The Beginning ended with an insane forty minute battle sequence that blew the doors off of The Lord of the Rings in terms of creativity and emotional heft; The Conclusion one-ups itself by bookending the film with spectacular and mind-bendingly inventive battle sequences that had my cinema audience losing its mind with excitement. The Beginning had a skeletal romance between young Mahendra Baahubali and a warrior princess named Avanthika (Tamannah Bhatia) puncutated by saccharine romance that had audiences batting their eyelids; The Conclusion takes that romance and cranks it up with the romance between the elder Baahubali and warrior princess Devasena, only this time Devasena is given a ton of awesome action of her own, correcting one of the first films few flaws. The list goes on, if Baahubali: The Beginning did something well, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion cranked it up to eleven.
Even the kingdom of Mahishmathi is a fully lived-in and thought out character in the film. Its people have a culture and a look that is unique to them. India has made period films before, but they've mostly been very contained chamber pieces that take place inside of palace walls, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion takes its story to the streets of this kingdom and gives us a better all around idea of who the people are who worship and adore Baahubali, which is key to building not only his character, but also to the audience building sympathy for his kingdom. It is storytelling of the highest level, and while the seams do show from time to time, it rarely has any impact of the film.
If Baahubali 2: The Conclusion were simply an amped up version of its predecessor, the Crank 2: High Voltage to The Beginning's Crank, that would be success enough, but Rajamouli and his team are master storytellers to begin with, so the results are epic on a scale rarely seen outside of major Hollywood productions. So mush so, in fact, that I believe it's only a matter of time before the studios come calling on Rajamouli to helm a big action franchise. He has the chops, all he's missing is the access to top tier facilities and technical talent.
Over the last decade I've watched as SS Rajamouli, revered by his home audience, has evolved as a visual filmmaker and storyteller into as important as any working in mainstream cinema today. While Telugu cinema is a largely insular industry that rewards repetition and hero worship, Rajamouli has struggled - and succeeded - to push the boundaries of what his audience is willing to accept, both technically and in terms of story.
In Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, it would be easy to say that audiences should go see it for the visuals - they are frequently insane - or the action - also, frequently completely bonkers - but, really, it's the total package that Rajamouli has put together that makes this film just an invigorating experience. He's a storyteller first, and he and his writers do an excellent job not only making you care for these characters, but moving the story along at a quick enough pace that three hours with them doesn't seem like long enough.
A cross between Lord of the Rings, classic musicals of the '40s and '50s, Kung Fu Hustle, and a superhero film without the spandex, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is an easy recommendation to film fans looking to expend their horizons. It's a bit daunting because it does begin in media res immediately following the complex actions of the first film, but astute viewers will put together the pieces soon enough. Having seen many of Rajamouli's films, I know that I can count on seeing at least a dozen things on screen that I've never seen before when he is in the director's chair, and after seeing hundreds of films every year for years on end, that's an exciting thought.
Mark my words, people are going to know SS Rajamouli's name, don't you want to say that you knew it first?
Edit to add
I gathered my thoughts a bit more, and while I'll leave the above review unchanged, I think I elaborated with a bit more clarity on Twitter this morning. Check the thread below if you're interested:
The Baahubali series has a beautiful symmetry. Characters grow, smaller stories have a beginning, middle, and end within the larger frame— Josh (@HatefulJosh) April 28, 2017