In 1948, when an obsessive SS Vasan, owner of Gemini Studios, spent everything he had to make Chandralekha, the costliest film outside Hollywood then, it took the country by storm by its sheer spectacle, scale and creative daredevilry. Indian cinema, still in its early stages with limited budget and equipment, hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Thirty years later, Telugu director B Vittalacharya, another celluloid visionary, drove his audiences crazy with visual illusions in his Jaganmohini. In an era when everything had to be done on film, Vittalacharya dreamed big and broke new ground with his camera tricks, clever lighting and sets to create unprecedented visual effects in India.
With Baahubali, Telugu director SS Rajamouli has reclaimed the legacy of Vasan and Vittalacharya with his audacious vision of the art of entertainment cinema. It’s an astonishing sensual experience, not only because of stunning spectacles and high definition grandeur, but also because of the riveting drama of cinema that only a master can unravel.
The story of Baahubali is no different from the age old mythological rip-offs that we had read and re-read in and Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama magazine – of kingdoms, valorous men, fratricidal strifes, invasions and wars.
A benevolent royalty, with its exaggerated magisterial aura, and its loyal tribes make the picture complete. Rajamouli takes this thread and goes wild with his imagination. What rolls out in front of us is a 4K Dolby Atmos spectacle that is both stunning and endearing, something that we have never seen in India earlier.
Undoubtedly, at the core of Baahubali is the art of cinema, an Indian story and highly skilled narration. Without them, the movie would have fallen flat like the VFX misadventures such as Ra One and Kochadaiyaan.
Everything that Rajamouli uses in the film – grand production design, luxurious visual effects and foley, elaborate period costume, great music, classic photography and well choreographed fight and war sequences – are in fact only incidental and hence do not stand between him and the viewer-experience. There are situations and sequences that are so dramatic and imaginative that they offer brand new experiences for the same old stories and emotions.
The song sequence, for instance, between the hero (Prabhas) and his female co-star (Tamanna) is a brilliant example of Rajamouli’s unbridled imagination and how he summons up the right resources – charming music, delightful performances, breathtaking locations and poetic visual effects – to make it work. It’s such delectable fantasy. Similarly, every scene played by Ramya Krishnan reeks of regal authority, thanks to the right camera angles and movements, and consistent expressions. Action sequences, particularly the hand-to-hand combats, are crisp and outstanding.
Tamanna, who had had a bad run in Bollywood despite her roaring success in the south, looks very good in those fight scenes in the jungle. Also noteworthy is how good looking human bodies are in this movie – look out for the shots of a lean and well-built Prabhas with a bare torso and the dance sequence featuring three great looking women in a bar.
There is no point in restating the quality and scale of Baahubali’s spectacle that everybody is talking about – the sweeping landscapes, the enormous sets and multiple locations (within in India and in Bulgaria) that dovetail with high quality visual effects, breathtaking fights and convincing war sequences. Yes, it’s really true that every scene is dripping of grandeur and it rarely dips in consistency.
The film is equally engaging in terms of emotions and drama. Specially notable are veteran composer Keeravani’s music, that displays a diverse repertoire, and Senthil Kumar’s camera. Performances of the main cast, drawn from Tamil and Telugu film industries, are measured and not over the top. There are occasional flashes of Telugu kitsch, but they mostly embellish the scenes.
By his own admission, special effects is only a tool that Rajamouli uses to enhance the quality of his narration. In his last movie Eaga (Makhi in Hindi), he used copious amounts of visual effects to tell an emotional tale featuring a cute fly in the lead. The movie was so well-crafted that it worked both as a love story and a revenge-thriller. Prior to Eaga, he had made another epic tale titled Magadheera that too had a lot of special effects. In Baahubali, he seems to have found a better balance between big spectacle and human emotions, while raising the bar of quality manifold.
Ultimately Baahubali is the triumph of Rajamouli’s fearless imagination and command over the medium, and the skills of Indian technicians. Although the visual effects have been put together by graphics specialists in studios across the world, it’s a film designed and realised in India. And in character, it’s Indian to the core.