Consider this review to be from the perspective of a total newcomer to the franchise, the filmmaker, the stars and the industry. While Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is not the first big-budget Indian film I’ve ever seen, it’s been many years since I’ve seen any, and I’m almost certain I’ve never seen a South Indian production. Just to really underline my uninformed standpoint seeing this film, I’ve not even seen 2015’s Baahubali: The Beginning. Despite being a direct continuation of that film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was nevertheless relatively easy to follow, though no doubt there were narrative intricacies and details that flew right over my head at the time of watching.
So why am I even attempting to write this review? Because even with minimal context the film is supremely freakin’ awesome, that’s why. It’s quite possibly everything I ever wanted from a historical fantasy epic action film wonderfully melded with arch melodrama. There is not a single subtle thing about this film, and it’s all the more magnificent for that fact.
Continuing from the end of the first film, Kattappa (Sathyaraj) narrates the tale of how Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) has defeated a vast army and is in line to become king of Mahishmati, while his brother Bhallaladeva (Rana Dagubatti) will be his commander-in-chief, as declared by the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan). Baahubali and loyal guard Kattapa journey throughout the kingdom to assess the state and feelings of the people, and on this journey, Baahubali meets and falls in love with Devasena (Anushka Shetty), princess of Kuntala kingdom. Back home, treacherous Bhallaladeva, and his father Bijjaladeva (Nasser) conspire to make Devasena the Queen Mother’s choice for Bhalladeva’s bride. Returning home with Devasena, Baahubali learns of this treachery and chooses his love for Devasena over the throne. So Bhallaladeva is made king, and from there the continued decline of Mahishmati kingdom is told, through to the fate of Devasena and Baahubali’s son, Mahendra Baahubali – to whom Kattappa is telling this tale. The final part of the film rejoins the characters from the first, who, 25 years later, have freed an imprisoned Devasena and descend on Mahishmati kingdom to reclaim the throne from the tyrannical Bhallaladeva.
Alright, that’s the very short version of the plot synopsis. There are intricacies upon betrayals upon twists upon ‘who’s this, now?’ moments a-plenty (moreso if you’ve not seen the first film, naturally). I didn’t find the film particularly hard to follow, despite my limited prior knowledge of the characters. Even had the plot been more difficult to follow, I’m not sure I’d have minded much, because the story is entirely arch-melodrama, and a catalyst for spectacular action scenes. This is a near-three hour film, and yet it flies by in what feels like barely two – admittedly, maybe the mid-way intermission helped with this. The action starts from the very beginning, almost immediately launching into a spectacular introductory scene for Amarendra, wherein he soothes a rampant elephant. From therein it seems like every action sequence out does the last, leading into a climactic battle sequence which completely ups the ante into almost unbelievably giddy heights – I must have been gasping and laughing my way through the last 30 minutes of the film.
The action is wonderfully testosterone-filled, and I think it’s been accurately described as a ‘pornography of masculinity’ by some writers. I think what, for me, saves it is how damn beefcake-y it all is. There’s an inherent element of camp to proceedings that makes the more problematic elements of the story seem less important. (I should note here I’ve read that there are far more problematic sequences in the first Baahubali, but having not seen that one I don’t really feel I can). There are female heroes in this film too, but primary amongst those, Devasena, is soon enough wooed by Amarendra and thus becomes a more traditional – if strong-willed – princess character. However, I think the women of the film (not that there are many) at least get to be important and strong in a non-warrior capacity too, even if they are ultimately subservient, under-mined or manipulated.
It’s not just the action in the film that’s over-played and spectacular, of course. One of my favourite things about the film was the amount of wind being blown through various characters’ hair, even in sequences clearly taking place indoors. Coupled with telenovela levels of dramatic turns to camera and wide-eyed shock, the film is nearly exhaustingly dramatic. This isn’t a Bollywood production, but that’s not to say that music doesn’t play a large role – there are two or three explicit song-and-dance numbers (which are great, particularly one semi-fantasy sequence on a swan-boat-aircraft…seriously), but the soundtrack throughout features chorus-style songs which narrate and comment on the plot. The music is big and bold, just like the film, and is quite a significant part of the overall impact.
The performances in the film are impressive, physically, and there’s a certain endearing quality to lead actor Prabhas, who doesn’t seem to really be able to act, aside from looking a bit like a puppy – and he’s really quite hench, obviously. Shetty is wonderful as both young and older Devasena, and Bhallaladeva is a great hammy villain – though Dagubatti doesn’t chew the scenery as much as Nasser as his father, who puts panto villains to shame. These players all inhabit what is naturally a very CGI world, but it’s convincing. The film features a delightful disclaimer that action featuring animals made use of CGI and puppets, and frankly I’d rather see slightly dodgy CGI animals than worry that real animals were put anywhere near such remarkable scenarios. While some of the digital work is shonky, and the wirework is not always the smoothest, the action nevertheless is breath-taking.
All in all, diving headfirst into Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was absolutely a decision I’m glad to have made, and I can only imagine how much more entertaining the film is in the franchise’s context. If you’re a fan of superhero cinema, martial arts epics, or just wildly entertaining films, then I strongly recommend seeking out Baahubali 2: The Conclusion when it’s available to you – though maybe give the first film a watch beforehand.