A series of porcelain figures stretch across the screen as the opening credits introduce S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The credits retell the story of Rajamouli’s 2015 film The Beginning through still frames, rendering key images in porcelain and marble, already reinforcing the colossal scale and linking myth to the film’s sense of historical significance before it begins in earnest. It’s an apt approach, for The Beginning stands as a mythopoeic origin story, but with the two years passed before The Conclusion, the film is almost being re-carved out of time immemorial.
Launching a major Indian franchise which wasn’t funded by the Bollywood studio system, Baahubali: The Beginning was a stunning success story. While it may have only grossed $100 million around the world, it did so as a South Indian film not made in the dominant language of Indian cinema, Hindi, instead made in both Telugu and Tamil. Built up from the cratered impact of its predecessor, The Conclusion became the second highest-grossing Indian film of all time, and had one of the largest foreign-language openings in North America.
The first film introduced Shivudu, played with a rascally charm by Prabhas, as he barely escapes death as an infant from the hands of his murderous uncle, Bhallaladeva, whose unerring villainy Rana Daggubati relishes with aplomb, and discovers his own identity as son of the revered former king Amarendra Baahubali. Gorgeously covered in CGI, with colors and vistas splashed across the screen without moderation (a superhuman scaling of a waterfall stands out: a new Herculean labour which alone is worth watching the film), The Beginning landed with a thunderous impact in 2015, garnering a massive following worldwide. Yet besides its breathtaking opening thirty minutes which feature the waterfall, the strength of that film—as well as with The Conclusion—lies not with Shivudu, but with the flashbacks recounting the exploits of his father, the righteous Baahubali (also played by Prabhas). Hordes of enemies clash à la Peter Jackson’s Return of the King; catapults hurl unfurling canvas through the air like flying carpets, lit aflame in midair; thousands of arrows rain down from the sky from ingenious machines; scythed chariot contraptions whirl blades through flesh and bone, and the marriage of hand-to-hand combat and larger-than-life CGI rivals that of the films of Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow. The Beginning ends, now infamously, on a cliff-hanger suitably melodramatic to match the epic played out before it: the great Baahubali is slain not by an enemy, but is betrayed by his loyal uncle-figure, Kattappa.
The years which passed between the films hyped the question of why Kattappa would betray a man he raised almost as a son, culminating in countless articles and speculation while generating anticipation for ways in which the sequel would top its predecessor. The Conclusion may be subject to the narrative demands of its predecessor’s cliffhanger, but Rajamouli digresses for half of the film’s runtime, continuing to tell the story of the rise of Baahubali before chronicling his downfall. Prabhas as Baahubali outshines himself as Shivudu: here his stately presence calls to mind a classical sculpture of a Greek god, his statuesque face and body on display as if the opening porcelain credits have sprung to life.
Rajamouli revels in melodramatic political intrigue; from the cackling, bumbling evil of Bijjaladeva (Nassar) to the sociopathic, cunning machinations of his son Bhallaladeva, Baahubali’s half-brother. It bears a faint resemblance to some of Shakespeare’s historical plays, not to mention strains of Hamlet and Macbeth. Even as The Conclusion never scales the same heights of tragedy or drama, it banks on their established conventions to sketch the scene. While the film cuts back and forth between courtly intrigues to create the stakes, it also allows Baahubali space to go off and explore his future kingdom in disguise as a commoner, learning how to rule his people by living amongst them. Here is where The Conclusion opens up and thrives. In the small kingdom of Kuntala, Baahubali falls in love with the Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), launching a charming, wry pursuit of love which provides some of the film’s best moments: Baahu adopts the guise of a clumsy yet kind-hearted oaf, replete with pratfalls and uproarious sight gags, before shedding his mask to fight side by side with Devasena to defend her homeland from bandits. It stands in stark contrast to the troubling romance between Shivudu and Avantika in The Beginning, in which Shivudu seduces her by removing her warrior’s attire (and, consequently, her agency for the rest of both films) and forcibly giving her a feminine makeover against her will.
The sheer joy of an impromptu courtship between Baahubali and Devasena as he teaches her how to string and fire three arrows at once plays out with a balletic grace, adrenaline building as the two bodies move in harmony defending her homeland. The Conclusion banks on moments such as these—it doesn’t rely solely on over-the-top physics-defying stunts and sheer spectacle, but allows for small, tender moments where CGI and character work together in tandem, spinning new images layered over familiar thematic territory. The clichés of both young lovers finding their chemistry together and the warrior rescuing the princess feel like fresh cinematic spectacles in the hands of Rajamouli. Baahubali and Devasena’s relationship finally flowers and bursts forth in a glorious fantasy set-piece: while sailing a swan-shaped ship back to the capital city, with the couple at the helm, the ship rolls across hills of indigo blue only to crest a wave and emerge in the sky, the rest of their journey taking place amidst wild herds of horses rippling through the clouds. It’s one of the few scenes in The Conclusion to surpass the beauty of the endlessly cascading waterfalls in The Beginning.
The Baahubali films have emerged as the standard-bearers of period-set epics, refurbishing the stale Hollywood sword-and-sandal film with the possibilities of creative digital effects. Tangled amidst skeins of mythic storytelling are a series of images and choreography which belie expectations and have the capacity to renew faith in cinematic epics. The film’s approach to CGI accounts for much of its success. While it often does not hold as realistic under scrutiny (particularly egregious is an elephant in the opening scene), The Conclusion has an abundance of what so many CGI-driven films lack: an understanding of its effects’ limitations, and thus a sharper understanding of how to use what it can do well, which is manipulate images with new and unseen imaginative fantasies.
While the visual allure of Baahubali’s grand set-pieces revel in the various wonders of fantasy images, often paradoxically adding a sense of gravity to accompany the film’s gravitas (even when the film literally defies the laws of physics), the simplistic story often explores dichotomies which go deeper than many blockbusters care to dig. The film is embedded in a traditional, antiquated worldview which rarely attempts to link to modern notions of politics. It’s a world of politicized heroism, where strength rules. Yet it’s engaged in the age-old dialectic of justice vs. law. The Queen Mother Sivagimi (Ramya Krishnan) is bound by her own adherence to the law, falling for a trap laid by the Machiavellian Bhalladeva, while Baahubali and Devasena recognize that justice supersedes the law, meting out justice by virtue of righteousness. Set alongside the film’s action and epic imagery, its seemingly insignificant politics are bound up in the images; ill-begotten golden statues are torn down and tossed over cliffs; the people cheering for Baahubali over his half-brother Bhalladeva so loud it causes the foundations of the city itself to shake, the righteous anger of Shivudu battling Bhalladeva, splayed against a stormy sky streaked with lightning—these images are bound to the film’s conceptions of strength, justice, law, and just rule, casting a more complex context to a film which has been treated solely as spectacle.
The Conclusion never reaches the heights of The Beginning, following a similar plot structure and repeating some of the first entry's images, often with diminishing returns. Yet while it may be unwieldy and on uneven footing—the strength of the flashbacks shouldn’t overshadow the epic finale—there’s a vibrant buoyancy which belies disenchanting critiques. Not only does the film achieve a level of spectacle that rivals its Hollywood counterparts, but it does so with an artistic vision that makes use of less than realistic special effects to create emotionally resonant images over pure realism, pursuing the mythopoeic atmosphere of half-true history. For Western audiences, it’s stunning how a single film can encompass shades of the Old Testament, Greek and Roman Epics, and Shakespeare throughout its running time. Few films, much less epics of this scale, actually attempt to graft new images upon classical myth and nationalistic history.