Bahubali, the movie, is outraging the liberals, this is fairly noticeable. The first part of the movie had also outraged them, but the second part, which is breaking all trade records, is hurting them even more. They can barely conceal their petulance as people are trooping into the theaters across the country and even abroad to savor this ripping length of yarn.
‘What ignoramuses!’ they are exclaiming while turning up their haughty noses. But the masses are not paying heed. They are enchanted by the graces of the beauteous and brave Devasena, the proud Sivagami, and the heroism of the mighty armed father and son – Amarendra and Mahendra Bahubali.
Since their upturned haughty noses failed to stem the tide of Bahubali fans flooding the theaters, the liberals took to spreading canards about the film. Never before, in my memory, a film, a mere film, has elicited such a quantum of intellectual effort from so many.
Sundry commentators and social justice warriors hectored us ignorant folks on left-leaning news portals. We ought not to watch this film, one of them told us, because of its ‘casteist, supremacist logic’ and the ‘reek’ of ‘Aryan supremacy’ that rises from it. Apparently, the film provides a poor olfactory experience because it has ‘fair skinned heroes and heroines’ who uphold the rigid caste hierarchies of their land. Well, to my eyes, the skin tone of all the principal actors of both the Bahubali films is a smooth and (very attractive) shade of South Indian brown. The liberals, however, seem to wear oddly tinged spectacles which keep their eyes from discerning the true shades of the people and things around.
Secondly, the narrative does not ever even hint that its chief characters are striving to preserve the primordial hierarchies of caste. The villains are motivated by their jealousies and the hero by the desire to realize his destiny. The only allusion to caste in both the films is the Kshatriya status of the principal characters. But if that amounts to consciously promoting caste than probably William Wyler’s Ben Hur showing the enslavement of its Jewish protagonist Juda Ben Hur is a promotion of both anti-Semitism and slavery.
Our liberals, I assume, are familiar with the tropes of literary criticism (being generally privy to an elite liberal education) and might do well to remember that depicting a situation in a narrative does not necessarily amount to countenancing it.
The Bahubali films have also been faulted for their portrayal of the Kalakeyas as these ‘dark skinned savages’ who refuse to accept the ‘beautiful civility of the caste system.’ Yes, the Kalakeyas are indeed shown to be dark skinned savages but neither of the two movies tell us whether they accept or reject the ‘civility’ of the caste hierarchy. We do not know, but somehow the liberals do.
A film meant for popular consumption needs villains to establish the heroism of its hero and the Kalakeyas serve precisely that purpose. Also, talking of the pales of caste, isn’t Bahubali junior nurtured outside it? After all, in the first film we saw him being raised by a forest dwelling tribe outside the limits of both Mahishmati and caste. The liberals, since they choose their examples with a casual liberality, conveniently ignore this detail.
What about the roar of the praja (people) bringing down the royal chatra (canopy) at a point in Bahubali 2? That is another radical moment that seems to have completely escaped the notice of our outraged liberals.
Why are the liberals so outraged? The reasons, in my understanding, are several.
To begin with, the story’s setting, the Kingdom of Mahishmati, seems so like a polity straight out of a classical Sanskrit political treatise or epic. Like the characters in the Mahabharata, those of Bahubali 2 debate and etch the tensions between vidhi (the law of the land) and dharma (a very protean term which in this context could mean ‘realizing and doing what is just in a given situation’).
I do not know if it does so consciously, but Bahubali 2 evokes India’s classical literary heritage and does so unabashedly. Afflicted with a deep rooted, and to me incomprehensible, self-hatred as they are, this is seemingly somewhat unacceptable to our liberals.
Then there is the film’s visual platter. It is a gorgeous feast for the eyes overlaid with a creative mingling of classical South Indian art and architecture and an aesthetic imagining that seems to derive both from the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and the panels of Amar Chitra Katha. Bahubali 2’s visual platter is a very effective fusion of the classical and popular strains of Indian art. It is so very Indic. But that is not the chief reason why it is not appealing to our liberals.
Presumably, Bahubali 2’s canvass is offending and wounding the delicate liberal perceptual faculties because the deities – Shiva, Ganesha, and the Devi – periodically flit through it. Bahubali 2’s aesthetics are perceptibly suffused with a sense of the sacred.
The film’s normative landscape too is so Indic. It is a polity wedded to a socio-religious order which honors the gods. Warriors offer sacrifice to the Devi before commencing a battle, the queen mother walks barefoot to a temple to keep a vow.
However, implicit in this alliance of the polity and the socio-religious order is the assumption that it lasts only as long as it upholds and sustains dharma. In the end when it ceases to do so, the praja and even the ‘slave’ Katappa rebel and help Mahendra Bahubali defeat and kill his evil uncle.
The ethical concerns of Bahubali 2 are deeply rooted in the cultural unconscious of our people and they are resonating enormously with them. Our liberals, however, are incapable of understanding the underlying logic of this resonance.
In the end, while being aware that this is probably too big a complement to bestow upon a mere film, Bahubali 2’s pan-Indian success indicates the essential civilizational oneness of all India and our liberals’ complete disconnect with the ethical foundations of this oneness. They are, after all, not quite Indians. They are South Asians.
Bahubali 2 is no more just a film; it is a social and political phenomenon. The overwhelming approval that the ‘Bahubbali phenomenon’ has received from the Indian masses makes it a part of the enormous and curious something that has been unfolding around us since 2014.
Liberals, please take the next available flight, train or bus out of your la la land. It is about time. All your censorious reviews have not helped. The people, across the length and breadth of our vast land, are just loving Bahubali 2. Repressed or nearly effaced cultural memories and aspirations are perhaps indeed contributing to its popularity. We can expect Bahubali 2 to remain on a mighty roll for the next few weeks. The mighty liberal disapproval of it notwithstanding.
Saumya Dey is an Assistant Professor of History at O.P. Jindal Global University.