Re-presenting The Epic Characters in the Film Franchise, Baahubali

Rajamouli’s two-part epic film – Baahubali broke many-a-record in Indian film industry. So much is written and said about the film – its cast, storyline, special visual effects, settings, dialogue, music, costumes, stunts, and more than all about the amount spent on the movie and the records that they broke in box-office collections. The use of new technologies has no doubt enhanced the quality and the visual impact of the film. But what appears to have touched the hearts of the viewers the most is the art of narrating the story.  Millions of viewers queued up in the theatres to find satisfactory answer to the one question that agitated their minds since the release of the first part of Baahubali two years back. It is enough to view the film once to get the answer for the question, “Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?”. More than the answer to the question, the film attracted repeat audience and sustained the viewership mostly because of the emotions that the lead characters in the film could arouse. 

Baahubali is one of the rarest Indian films where the characters have become more important than the cast. In many an interview that Rajamouli has given, he admitted that the characters in Baahubali are inspired by the Epic characters in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.  Anyone who has seen both Baahubali 1 and 2 can relate the characters in the films to one or the other Epic characters. All central characters – Shivgami, Baahubali, Kattappa, Devasena, Bhallaladeva, or Bijjaladeva, are inspired by heroes or villains in the Epics.

The character Shivgami, the de-facto ruler of Mahishmati, somewhat resembles Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarastra, a blind king, who nurses a grudge as he was initially not allowed to become the ruler of Hastinapur because of blindness.  Being the loyal wife of the blind king, Gandhari blindfolds herself and shows no active interest in family or public affairs. She was no doubt kind to the sons of Kunti, the widow of her husband’s brother, but she had soft corner for her first son, Duryodhan. In the film Baahubali also physically handicapped Bijjaladeva, the husband of Shivgami, was denied the right to become the emperor of Mahishmati. He envies his brother who becomes the king. When the reigning king and his wife die, leaving behind them a son. Shivgami, who already had a son by then, volunteers to take the responsibility of bringing up the son of the dead king and queen. Even though she had political acumen and military leadership, respecting the law of the land, Shivgami chooses to run the administration as a care-taker. She pays no heed to her husband’s proposal to declare their son Bijjaladeva as the crown king. Shivgami in fact does not discriminate between her own son Ballaladeva and her nephew, Amarendra Baahubali, whom she treats as her another son.

She declares that of the two, whoever proves to be more talented and more acceptable to the people will become the king of Mahishmati.  After successfully defeating the army of Kalakeya, much to the disappointment of her husband and own son, Shivgami declares Amarendra Baahubali as the crown prince.  She does not allow her maternal love influence her rational choice.  However, in the second part of Baahubali, the same Shivgami feels offended when Amarendra Baahubali stands by Devasena who refuses to marry Ballaladeva and in a fit of anger decides to make Ballaladeva the king of Mahishmati. She remains a spectator when Bijjaladeva removes Amarendra Baahubali from the position of the chief of the army and subsequently she even orders him to leave Mahishmati. More than the love for her own son, her fear of the impending civil war compels her to become a party to the conspiracy to execute Amarendra Baahubali. True, she does err in her judgments and fails to understand the conspiracy that her husband and son together have hatched and becomes the cause for the death of Amarendra. But when she realizes her mistakes, she does not hesitate even for a moment to apologize to her daughter in law.  She names the new born son of Baahubali as Mahendra Baahubali and introduces him to the public as the future king of Mahishmati.  She takes up on herself the responsibility of protecting the new born child and in the process, sacrifices her own life.

Devasena is another important female lead in the film. The character of Devasena is akin to Draupadi in the Mahabharata.  Draupadi, the daughter of the king of Panchala, marries Arjun, a Pandava, who exhibits his archery skill and wins Draupadi in swayamwar. But after her marriage with Arjuna, at the advice of her mother-in-law, she accepts four other Pandav brothers of Arjun also as her husbands.  Later, in the Epic the Yudhishtar, the eldest son of Pandav, pledges Draupadi in gambling and allows the Kauravas who won her to humiliate her in public.  None of the husbands come forward to stop the Kauravas from disrobing Draupadi in the royal court. It is a different matter that several years after the incident the battle of Kurukshetra was fought and the Kauravas finally get defeated. But the immediate cause of the battle was not to avenge the humiliation of Draupadi, but to protect “Dharma’ and to restore the kingdom to the rightful heir, i.e., to the Pandavs.  Interestingly, in the battle it was Bheem, another Pandav, not Arjun, who kills Duryodhan and Dushyashan who had humiliated Draupadi in the royal court.  Like Draupadi in the Mahabharata, Devasena becomes a central character in the film Baahubali.  Devasena, the daughter of a small kingdom, Kunthala, is a warrior herself.  She is beautiful and has a mind of her own. She does not hesitate a bit to refuse Shivgami’s offer of marriage to the prince of Mahishmati. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi refuses to consider marrying Karna, the king of Anga, on the pretext that he did not have a royal lineage. Unlike Draupadi who looks at lineage to decide on the life partner, Devasena gets attracted to gentle and brave Amarendra Baahubali without knowing his antecedents.

Becoming the queen of the powerful kingdom of Mahishmati does not enthuse her.  She accepts to marry Amarendra Baahubali, not because she comes to know about his real identity, but because she loves and admires him and his qualities. Devasena is not any traditional pliant Indian housewife who blindly follows her husband and takes refuge at his feet.  In an aesthetically crafted romantic scene in the film, much to the appreciation and amusement of by-standers, Devasena gets into the boat literally stamping and walking on the shoulders of her beloved, with a mischievous smile and without any apology. In Mahishmati when she comes to know that Shivgami had in fact wanted her to marry her son, Ballaladeva, not Amarendra Baahubali, she defies Shivgami and flatly refuses to marry the person she does not know or love. Later when Bijjaladeva removes Amarendra from the position of the Chief of the Army, Devasena shows guts to question Shivgami’s silence and even exhorts her husband to respect the people’s wish and fight for his right to become the king of Mahishmati.  She feels the pain when her husband, who came in support of her, was denied kingship and subsequently banished from Mahishmati, but she proudly walks shoulder to shoulder with her husband, voluntarily relinquishing the comforts of royal life to live the life of a commoner.  It is somewhat like Sita accompanying Lord Rama, but at the same time, it is also different. Sita has no role in Rama’s banishment, but Devasena becomes the cause for banishment of Amarendra. Her compassionate nature comes to the fore when she, knowing very well that Kattappa is a slave, gives him the honour of performing rituals as grandfather of the child she was going to give birth to and wants him to bless the child. Subsequently, when Devasena learns about the murder of her husband, she refuses to run away from Mahishmati and rather opts to wait for her son to come back and avenge the murder of her husband.  The caged and enchained Devasena reminds us of Sita confined to Ashok vatika. But she is different from Sita; never weeps and keeps her anger, dignity and self-respect intact.

The characters of Amarendra Baahubali (the father) and Shiva alias Mahendra Baahubali (the son) also have shades of different Epic characters.  The son, portrayed in Baahubali 1, is a mischievous, adventurous, romantic boy brought up in a tribal hamlet. He resembles the younger Krishna, brought up by Yashoda in Mathura and Brindavan. Some  feminist critics rightly criticized the way Shiva stalks, harasses and gropes Avanthika taking the plea that she needs to realize that she is after all a woman that deserves a male like any other woman. In substance is it not something similar to what the young Krishna did in Brindavan to the ladies taking bath in a lake? Yes, it is the responsibility of man to show to the woman that she is after all a woman! Later when Avanthika also reciprocates, Shiva, acting like benevolent patriarchal male, takes up on himself the responsibility of fighting for her cause, virtually disempowering her.  In contrast, in Baahubali 2 the director Rajamouli presents the Amarendra Baahubali in a much more dignified manner – as a gender sensitive lover, a caring husband and a popular leader.  The senior Baahubali resembles different Epic characters like Arjuna, Rama, and astute Krishna.  But the director Rajamouli takes care to ensure that Amarendra Baahubali character does not suffer from the fragilities of those Epic characters.  Amarendra sees and falls in love with Devasena, but he chooses not to reveal his identity to seek her love. He presents himself as persona non-grata and wins over her love with his demeanour. He appreciates Devasena’s individuality and respects her love for her kingdom.

He is not a typical Arjun to accept passively his mother’s advice to share his wife with his brothers. He keeps up his promise to protect the dignity and self-respect of Devasena and accepts to give up his claim to kingship for her sake.  Despite his immense love and respect for Shivgami, the mother who brought him up and taught him the ‘sanskaras’, Baahubali does not hesitate to point out that what his mother trying to do to Devasena was wrong. Unlike the Pandavs, he does not keep mum when Devasena, his wife, was forcibly brought to the court and was tried for cutting the fingers of a molester.  When the trial was going on, Amarendra enters the royal court to stand by the side of Devasena and punishes the culprit, slitting his throat right there in the court – an act of instant justice which even Lord Krishna did not contemplate while saving the honor of Draupadi! Again, unlike the Pandavs, Amarendra does not invoke his royal lineage to claim the crown. He is a natural leader, who loves and cares for the people.  When banished from Mahishmati he chooses to live in the midst of ordinary people, sharing their joys and sufferings.  He is humane, never looks at Kattappa as a slave. He addresses Kattappa affectionately as “Mama” (uncle) and shares intimacy that a growing boy has with his maternal uncle. He tells Kattappa that none on the earth can take away his life as long as Kattappa is alive. But when Kattappa finally attacks him from behind with his sword, Amarendra does not exclaim like Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser, saying, “Et tu, Kattappa!” He understands the dilemma of Kattappa and requests him to take care of his mother, Shivgami.  Even at the time of dying, he sits erect with the support of the sword. The scene reminds us of the legendary Bheeshma, another epic character of Mahabharata, who dies on the bed of arrows in the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Another endearing character in the movie is that of Kattappa, a slave, duty bound to protect Mahishmati Empire.  His character takes inspiration from Bheeshma and Hanuman.  There is nothing which could stop him from becoming a freeman, yet he chooses to remain a slave and serve the kings and the kingdom of Mahishmati.  He has soft corner for Amarendra Baahubali who has lost parents and trains him in the art of warfare.  The scene in Baahubali 1 where Kattappa bows down and places the foot of the young Baahubali on his head demonstrates his feudal loyalty.   However, in Baahubali 2, Rajamouli portrays Kattappa also a bosom friend, jovial companion and affectionate uncle to Amarendra.  Shivgami’s command to kill Amarendra traumatizes Kattappa and that makes Ballaladeva suspect his loyalty to the kingdom. When Baahubali comes to rescue him, Kattappa requests him not to remove his chains. But once his hands and legs are freed, Kattappa executes the royal command by killing Amarendra Baahubali. Later when he meets Shivgami, Kattappa who loathes his own act, addresses her by name and accuses her for murder of Baahubali – an act which the Epic characters Bheeshma and Hanuman never did to their masters.

In addition to these leading characters, there is one more important character in the film that one tends to ignore. The character is not an individual person, but collective nameless multitude that we see all around.   In the Epics the suffering peoples are usually the wailing Brahmins, who are ever willing to pray for divine intervention to protect them from the Asuras and sing paeans to the kings who patronage them.  But in Baahubali the people are the ordinary labouring masses, the victims of the foreign invasions or the misrule of their own king.  In the Epics such people hardly have any voice. There the kings fight battles to settle their personal disputes, without the consent of and with little concern for the plight of the people. In contrast, the battles in Baahubali always invoke the peoples and their interests. The masses also become important character in the film. They no doubt sing songs in praise of their saviour, as in any Epics. But they don’t end up as passive victims, or bystanders. The people in Baahubali are active and rational agents, who can distinguish between a good and bad ruler, openly express their choice, organize themselves and participate in the wars and rebellions, expressing their love for the motherland.

Ignoring these various dimensions in the narrative, some left minded critics slate Baahubali as a retrogressive movie romanticizing and reifying feudal ideology and practices. Baahubali is a period film about kings, queens, knights, slaves, priests, religious rituals, superstitions, love, jealousy, hatred, palace coups, wars, strategies and killings. When the film is about feudal kings, one cannot expect the characters to behave like modern day liberal or socialist characters.  But within the limits of his plot, the director Rajamouli introduces liberal ideas and advocates reforms.  Amarendra Baahubali is no Spartacus that led a revolution from below. The hero is very much a part of the ruling elite, but one with empathy for the poor and the downtrodden. It is obvious that the director Rajmouli seeks reform from above, mediated by the active support of the people from below. This is something not possible if the characters in the film remain the replicas of the Epic characters.  Hence while taking certain elements and attributes from the Epics, the director also infuses democratic and egalitarian values that the Epic characters lacked and makes Baahubali characters interrogate and re-present the Epics in much more complex ways. Naturally, his characters in the film are akin to and at the same time different from the Epic characters. Within the limits of the plot that the director has set, the characters in Baahubali problematize the divine right theory of kingship, uphold the dignity of the women, justify the revolt against the unjust rulers and call for the state elite to be responsible to the wishes of the people.  The reformist liberal patriotic agenda that the lead characters in the film espouse is indeed one of the important reasons why the film Baahubali could strike a chord with the audience of all ages, classes and regions in the country and enabled it to break many a record in Indian film industry.

-H.Srikanth

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