In Telugu ‘Baahubali’ means ‘the one with strong arms’ and, indeed, everything seems Herculean about this Tollywood blockbuster from S.S. Rajamouli, whose previous feature film, Eega, was shown at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and swept up awards all over India for best special effects. This nearly three-hour film is but the first half of the Baahubali epic, and the second part that is due to follow next year will doubtless be as long. Yet when the lights came on again at its European premiere, the Etrange Festival audience was unanimously crying for more.
Baahubali has also set a new record for the costliest budget for an Indian film, the diptych nearly doubling the previous record of $21 million, invested in S. Shankar’s science-fiction flick Endhiran (2010).
Rajamouli’s inspiration is as ambitious as the budget, loosely drawing on the longest epic of all, the Mahabharata. Baahubali tells the story of the kingdom of Mahishmati and the feuds and intrigues that accompany a contested succession to the throne. Its narrative is divided into two nearly separate parts. In the first one we follow the coming-of-age of Shivudu (Prabhas), who was saved as a baby from the arms of a drowning woman, chased down by the king’s soldiers. Growing up to be an exceptionally strong young man, Shivudu is obsessed by climbing up the immense waterfalls whence he originally came. When he finally succeeds, he falls in love with Avanthika (Tamannaah), a beautiful rebel warrior whose mission is to rescue the Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), kept prisoner for 25 years by the cruel tyrant Bhallala Deva. Shivudu takes up her mission, confronts the tyrant and successfully delivers the Princess, who turns out to be his real mother. The second part takes us half-a-century back to the embedded tale of two cousins, Amarendra Baahubali and Bhallala Deva, who are competing for the throne. During the war against the barbarous Kalakeya kingdom, it is ultimately Baahubali who earns the throne by thinking more about protecting his people than killing the enemy, but the evil cousin has him treacherously murdered soon afterwards.
The war against the Kalakeya tribe, for whom a whole new language was invented, gives Rajamouli the opportunity to out-Jackson Peter Jackson in a 45-minute battle scene involving 2000 stuntmen and real elephants. His larger-than-life characters prove to be incredible tumblers and fighters, but Rajamouli also demonstrates his skills in the way he deals with romance. The film is worth seeing if only for the bravura of the magnificent seduction scene, which features the only song in the film, quite unusual by Indian standards. During what is actually a sword fight between the two budding lovers, Shivudu manages to undress Avanthika, to wash her, to dress her again in much sexier clothes, and even to make up her face, transforming the raging warrior into a stunning beauty.
Baahubali: The Beginning ends with Kattappa, the faithful slave devoted to the Princess Devasena, confessing to Shivudu/Baahubali that it was he who slew his father. Rajamouli has learnt many of his tricks from Jackson’s handling of The Lord of the Rings, but the suspense is much harder to bear as we do not know how the story will unfold. The date to find out is set for next year’s Etrange Festival.