To understand the phenomenal success of Baahubali 2 and what it means for Indian viewers around the world, we must think about not only the historic role played by Indian popular cinema in representing political and ethical visions, but also about what has been happening in terms of stereotypes and misrepresentations of Indians and Hindus in particular in news and popular culture.
The same week that Baahubali 2 stunned box-office watchers by earning enough revenues to become the third biggest movie in the United States that weekend (a first-time record for an Indian production), a young Indian American boy, an eleventh grader from Palo Alto, wrote a piercing commentary on the utterly dehumanizing stereotypes that populate the American television landscape at the moment.
A few weeks earlier, hundreds of Hindu Americans in several American cities had come out into the streets to protest CNN’s inaccurate, stereotypical and cheaply sensationalistic Believer episode on cannibals and caste in India. Their fears were not simply about getting better press for Hinduism. The community was, and still is, facing widespread (if often understated) fear about their safety and future in America following the killing of a young Hindu engineer from my hometown of Hyderabad in Kansas City.
Hindus in America, especially of a younger generation, can see something is not right. Hindu American children have spoken up against errors and biases in the school textbooks in California. There is a problem when the story about being Hindu is told by others, or by some alienated and poorly informed South Asian elites who tend to blame the victim. We are neither Slumdogs, nor people who use slurs like “Slumdog.”
An Indian Vision of India’s Past
Baahubali is an audacious celebration of being not just Indian, but being Hindu. Its popularity has to be understood in relation to not only the timeless tradition of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, but also in relation to a newer pop culture genre in India of historical fantasies inspired by the epics. The genre stormed the market in 2010 with the runaway success of the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi. The important thing about this genre, and this is evident in Baahubali too, is the the evocation of modern and liberal sensibilities in the social world of their characters. Women fight, speak up for their rights, and authority is constantly questioned. Heroes are rarely preordained prophets or avatars, but ordinary human beings who struggle to earn their place. Critics see this genre as a right-wing fantasy, but as I wrote some time ago in Foreign Affairs, that view is shallow, and the popular rediscovery of India’s civilizational heritage is better understood as a generational process of decolonization from a British-Mughal view of Indian history.
Baahubali tells the story of two generations of a royal family set at an unspecified time and place in India’s past. It is a tale of palace intrigue and war drawing on the epics as well as a modern Indian cinematic idiom of male-star-worship. But what sets it apart from virtually any movie made in India is the absolute panache of its production. The cities and palaces tower up to fill the screen, as do the gardens and the battlefields. Every one of the hundreds of actors is in character, and the screen invites you to soak in every frame like a graphic novel panel (albeit a serious and dramatic one, in the vein of 300, right down to muscular heroes and villains facing off with chariots and spears and explosions of splinters and rubble).
The movie is an experience of beauty, most of all, and it marks, in some ways, a return to Telugu cinema’s artistic roots from an earlier era. But unlike the older movies, it is not gentle at all, but breathlessly adventurous and violent. It is so sure of itself, and what it is doing to its viewers, that the intermission is preceded by a sign saying “let’s give the people of Mahishmati (the imaginary kingdom in the movie) a chance to breathe.” It takes absolute bravado to say that, and it is justified.
That confidence, in some ways, is part of the desire to self-represent that Baahubali’s global Indian audience perhaps wishes to see fulfilled. Unlike most Indian productions that cut short on detail, Baahubali shows muscle literally and otherwise in its grandeur and vision. It speaks to and from an aspirational Indian generation that can announce itself, and say it can speak to the world on its terms. This is a desire that has been circulating in Indian media and popular culture since the early years of economic liberalization in the 1990s, of Indian success, and “arrival” of sorts in the global marketplace.
However, what makes Baahubali important is the fact that it is explicitly, enormously, and exuberantly Hindu in its vision and expression. Its popularity topples every chic theory about South Asian history and cultural politics currently being taught in universities around the world. It is a non-Hindi, non-hegemonic, South Indian, regional (and “Dravidian”) language vision of Indian civilization, and it is Hindu. It is as effortless in its sweeping recognition of diversity as it is of its underlying spiritual-ethical-cultural architecture. Simply put, it challenges the “idea of India” as a modern, secular post-1947 invention fashionable in academia and increasingly in India’s dominant film industry based in Mumbai, the Hindi language industry known around the world as “Bollywood” (the Telugu industry that made Baahubali is based in my hometown of Hyderabad and is known locally as “Tollywood”).
The cultural tensions between Bollywood and Baahubali are accurately reflected in a popular meme going around in social media that suggests that films that respect Hinduism will earn a lot more than films that disrespect Hindus. The image contrasts Baahubali with an earlier Bollywood blockbuster, P.K., a comedy about an alien who mocks Hinduism. In P.K. the wide-eyed alien (played by activist actor Aamir Khan), who supposedly exposes the failings of all organized religions tip-toes around Islam but hits Hinduism ruthlessly. For example, one scene in P.K. depicts Hindus mistaking red-colored paint (from chewing paan, or betel leaf) on a rock for a sacred mark and offering worship to it as if it were a deity. It is exactly this sort of ignorance about the cosmology, aesthetics, and practices of India’s largest religion by Bollywood elites that has turned the loud celebration of Baahubali into a representation of an India long mocked and derided by its postcolonial elites.
The nation, it seems, no longer belongs to those who believed they had a monopoly on its definition.
Generations Change, Dharma Remains
What kind of a vision then does Baahubali present about India and Indians? Unsurprisingly, critics have accused it of ignoring Muslims (although a brief scene in both movies alludes to friendly contact and trade with Muslims in other lands), and of celebrating the conquest of “Dravidian deities” by Aryans (a strained effort to perpetuate the old colonial Aryan Invasion Theory that no honest scholar supports any more). We see references to many different deities and forms of worship in the movie, and religiosity as a force for courage and justice (there is a tremendous, Ozymandias-like symbolism that appears in the last scene of the movie, as if to say all tyranny will fall ultimately before the good deeds and legacies of our ancestors). However, the central idea of the movie is that of dharma, which implies not blind faith but a constant search for knowing and doing what is right. In one of many majestic royal palace scenes, the good prince argues eloquently in the presence of the queen mother and the courtiers for the supremacy of dharma over scriptural law.
And how dharma is depicted in the movie is a fascinating statement on generational change in how it is seen and practiced in India today. Dharma evokes both the continuity of traditions in some ways, and its rejection. For example, Baahubali refuses to behead a buffalo for the mother goddess on the cusp of a major battle in the first movie (and offers a drop of his own blood as offering instead), but in the second part we witness a fleeting and soaring image of bulls being raced by young men through the farms in a lush, green landscape (a reference to the controversy last winter in India over PETA’s attempts to ban a traditional Tamil bull-racing festival). Baahubali (junior) also doesn’t hesitate to uproot a sacred stone icon of Shiva (an act normally considered sacrilege) but also restores sanctity, and love, by carrying the heavy stone Lingam to the river where his devout mother can offer water-worship to it more easily.
But beyond the cinematic symbolism designed to spectacularize the hero’s muscles as much as his heart, is the narrative around dharma as selflessness, sacrifice, and living for the well-being of others. Baahubali sacrifices his throne in order to marry the princess he has given his word to, and then, when pushed to the corner even more by his jealous and powerful cousin who has replaced him as the ruler, walks away penniless into the world of the common people (a reference to the predicament of both Rama and the Pandava Princes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, respectively). While in exile, he does what the Indians of Silicon Valley and the global Indian workforce like to do, and designs machines to help the poor farmers do their work with less back-breaking toil. But the warrior-engineer-sacrificing hero’s real backbone in the story comes not from his own goodness, but from the fierce courage ultimately of the women in the story. Even as Baahubali readily accepts his cousin’s conniving in order to please his adored queen-mother, his wife speaks up for him and insists that he be restored as King simply because that is what the people want.
One of the most powerful moments of Baahubali 2 is the coronation scene of the evil prince, about halfway into the story, when a massive palace courtyard with stratospheric staircases and pavilions is overrun with the faces, and the political will, of the people. Baahubali has stepped aside for his cousin to be crowned, but when his turn comes to be appointed as the chief of the army, the people cheer him so loudly (and the digital war elephants too), that the royal umbrella above the throne breaks loose. The symbolism is incredible. What India sees, and feels there, perhaps is the powerful hope that even if the corrupt, cruel, and undeserving assume power over others, the strong arm of the selfless ones is what holds the real power in the end.
Baahubali has been described as the rediscovery of India’s traditional ideal of kshatra, or warrior-spirit, after decades of its suppression by Gandhian notions of pacifism. It is that, and a lot more too. The rest of the world accustomed to dogmatic and dated textbook theories and pop culture stereotypes about what the Hindus are supposed to be like might find it hard to get used to or understand at first. But in the end, it has to return to the inevitable, to the vision of the infinite that has sustained the life of a people threatened with extinction more than once before in history only to find the people and their lives surviving, and rising, again and again.