When Bahubali: The Beginning
was talked up to be giving us a spectacle like we had never seen before, the names it had to reckon with were along the lines of Magadheera
, Devi, Arundhati
, Ammoru and the like. True, each of these blockbusters (standing on the gigantic shoulders of Vitthalacharya) broke new ground in their own way, whether in CGI or gigantic sets or fight choreography. We had jaw-dropping fights, incredibly realistic sets, gargantuan water hands delivering children out of ponds, colossal curly cobras and - for the love of everything that's good and sweet - housefly pull-ups!
Nonetheless, all of these films invariably stayed within a certain boundary - a boundary that got demolished in 2015. Now, when Bahubali: The Conclusion was being talked up to be giving us a spectacle like we had never seen before, there was just one name it had to reckon with - Bahubali: The Beginning.
S S Rajamouli is probably aware of this more than anyone else. He likely has a very clear (or maybe even an exaggerated) picture of what it means to not out-achieve himself this time. Just think about it. There is a beckoning bleakness at the horizon if The Conclusion, after the hundreds of crores of expenditure and even greater pre-bookings, fails to rekindle that amazement of The Beginning. This is a nightmare that can shake up the bravest of them. But Rajamouli stands tall and unequivocally manages to deliver a spectacle like we have never seen before.
It is no exaggeration to claim that The Conclusion is definitively grand. Grander than The Beginning. Rajamouli conjures up unimaginable (never mind if they are unrealistic) weapons, tools, vehicles, frames and strategies which leave behind anything you have ever seen in Indian films. Excessively large numbers of people show up on screen frequently, and on various occasions hordes of these people get washed away in water, burnt in fire, plunged into air and paraded in the skies - and in one instance, they even make the earth shake. You know how they say the five elements make up life. Here Rajamouli uses them to make up that all important and terrifying parameter - Scale. And that makes us wonder if, after that massive pressure that could make burning coal out of green plants, Scale has become Rajamouli's understanding of life.
The life in Bahubali: The Conclusion is pale in comparison to The Beginning. There's a fine story (Vijayendra Prasad) involving deceit by Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) and Bijjaladeva (Nasser), love between Devasena (Anushka) and Bahubali (Prabhas), the fallibility of Sivagami (Ramyakrishna), and the loyalty of Kattappa (Satyaraj). These characters are well-developed (the backstories of the characters are worked out in such detail that they've published a book called The Rise Of Sivagami), and all the love, loyalty, rivalry and treachery are worked into an old-fashioned but rich script. That's usually a triumph in our books, but it appears Rajamouli may have squandered some of it in his chase of the formidable spectacle. The script simply doesn't fully come to life.
Our best comparison once again comes from the first part itself. Bahubali: The Beginning was full of life. If there was a breathtaking stretch of Sivudu scaling the waterfall's heights, that stretch also tells the story of an adventure seeker going past his own limitations in pursuit of a mystery. If there's that exquisitely well-shot execution of Bhadra (Adivi Sesh), that scene also leads to Kattappa's overwhelming discovery of Mahendra Baahubali. There's that statue erection scene with a prohibitively large number of junior artistes (directing a mass of junior artistes is an Achilles' Heel for the best of our filmmakers), and that gives us that oh-so-satisfying smile of Devasena in retaliation to Bhallaladeva's earlier attacks. The Beginning was a spectacle, sure. But it was also a well-narrated drama.
And you'll find that "well-narrated" part slightly wanting in The Conclusion. There is opulence and grandeur aplenty, but the storytelling function of this grandeur is a tad undermined. The emotional beats exist, but they don't seem to have completed that journey from paper to screen. So we end up marveling at every scene pretty much, but you know that immersion you expect of a storyteller like Rajamouli? That happens barely three times through the film.
So much runtime is devoted to fights, battles, and landscapes that the story itself appears to have gotten shortchanged. It isn't about the duration really. It's about such things as the editing (Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao) that jars. That doesn't mean obvious goofs or continuity issues - we mean shots getting cut off before you really feel the character's emotion. It feels something like watching a movie on television where the channel folks confidently chop off parts of the film because, hey, who's going to notice? The score (Keeravani) is great but ends up feeling inadequate. And it abruptly ends and begins at times. You perhaps wouldn't even notice these things if you didn't pay so much attention, but then if you happen to wonder what went wrong after watching the film, we hope this lends you some perspective.
The enhanced trouble with under-direction is you start noticing things that you'd gladly forgive and forget when the emotional beats resonate with you. So things like Prabhas' lazy diction, Rana's sweet-looking face, Ramyakrishna's and Nasser's Telugu pronunciation (there's a lot more "Ballala" than is acceptable and lot less "Bhallala" than is required) start making themselves visible.
The performances are certainly intense - Ramyakrishna, Satyaraj and Anushka are almost flawless - but you can't help thinking a king like Bahubali would speak with greater command and a villain like Bhallaladeva would look more menacing.
But these end up being quibbles if you let yourself be overtaken by the visual splendour. Bahubali: The Conclusion positively glows in comparison to contemporary Indian films. The visuals are awe-inducing, the fights breathtaking, and the film overall jaw-dropping. It's just that you wish Rajamouli had cared a little less about getting jaws to drop and a little more about getting hearts to beat.