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India’s Most Expensive Film, ‘Baahubali,’ Broke Barriers for Telugu Cinema

Where to Stream

Baahubali: The Beginning

When the box office results rolled in last Sunday, nearly everyone in Hollywood’s jaw dropped. The Circle, starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and international superstar Emma Watson, came in fifth place after grossing a disappointing $9MM despite being released on over 3,100 screens nationwide. Meanwhile, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, a sequel to 2015’s Baahubali: The Beginning, shocked all of the box office prognosticators with its 3-day haul of $10.3MM —on only 425 screens, no less!— setting a record for the South Indian film industry. How did this happen?

The story starts two years ago when Baahubali: The Beginning, rumored to be one of India’s most expensive films, changed the image of the South Indian film industry, bringing Telugu films on the map of mainstream Indian Cinema.

The warrior tale, which cost an estimated $28MM to produce, quickly gained popularity and was released in the Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam languages. Described as India’s version of Troy or 300, the film featured Indian superstars Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty and Tamannaah.

While South Indian films are often overshadowed by Hindi language Bollywood films, Baahubali broke the norm. Its Telugu and Hindi trailers surpassed over 1 million views, 300,000 likes and 200,000 shares, setting a record for most views, likes and shares on social media each within 24 hours.

The film has beautiful cinematography and a great use of computer-generated imagery. The natural scenery is mesmerizing, while the battle scenes will leave you on the edge of your seat. (Get ready for goose bumps as you witness some of the gory graphical details.)

Translating as “the one with strong arms,” Baahubali is set in ancient times and tells the story of two cousins battling for control of their family’s kingdom.

The film begins with a mother seeking to protect her child as she is chased by a group of marauders. Ultimately she loses her life in a waterfall, holding her child up to avoid the rushing waves. The infant is rescued and raised by local villagers, who lack the knowledge of the child’s royal past.

Named Shiva, the child grows up with unusual strength and curiosity of what lies above the waterfall and within the mountains. While his foster mother pleads with him to stop trying to climb the waterfall, Shiva becomes more eager when a wooden mask falls in his arms from above. He then succeeds in climbing the fall and searches for the woman he believes is behind the mask.

Upon meeting the woman behind the mask, the film takes a turn towards the the problematic, thanks to its portrayal of love and romance. You see, Shiva seems to lack the understanding of the importance of consent.

While the film’s director SS Rajamouli created three strong female characters —a queen mother (Sivagami) in charge of the kingdom, an enslaved and majestic queen (Devasena), and a warrior entrusted with the mission of freeing the enslaved queen (Avantika)— he didn’t exactly portray the love and romance between Shiva and Avantika in an appropriate fashion.

All three characters were shown as strong and independent until Avantika was portrayed as the stereotypical submissive female as soon as Shiva confessed his love for her. The cringeworthy ‘romantic’ scenes show Shiva not only giving Avantika tattoos without her knowledge or consent, but also undressing her in midst of a fight. He rips apart her clothes and uses fruits to apply makeup onto her face and depict her as a “woman.” He follows this up with the following piece of grossly underwritten dialogue: “You are a girl. I am a boy. I have come here to love you.”

To no one’s surprise, Avantika embraces Shiva for this realization and becomes romantically involved with him. This romance sidelines Avantika from her mission to save the queen and Shiva takes it upon himself to complete the mission, as the injured Avantika now “belongs” to him.

Another questionable scene occurs in the main battle scene where the opposing enemy army seemed to be depicted in black face. While the war was described to be against a tribal army, the portrayal of the opposing characters and language they spoke seemed to be a stereotypical depiction of Africans.

The film’s imagery, epic battle scenes, plot and Prabha’s amazing job in a dual role, were all undermined by the film’s poor portrayal of woman and objectification of Avantika, alongside the underlying racism present.

The film concludes with a plot twisting confession (that we’re not going to spoil for you) that leaves a suspenseful open ending, assuring an eager audience that a sequel will be coming.

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Reviews suggest that Rajamouli has redeemed himself with the sequel by taking the criticism the first film generated to heart. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion reportedly does a much better with its portrayal of women, thanks to its inclusion of stronger, feminist characters.

Aysha Qamar is a freelance writer interested in theories of sustainable development, gender politics and international law. When not goofing around or talking non-stop, Aysha can be found writing poetry in the kitchen, while pretending to rap-claiming her cooking is better tasting than your favorite restaurant. Follow her on Instagram: @ayshaa17.

Where to stream Baahubail: The Beginning

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