Baahubali 2 doesn’t do a disservice to women as the first one

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Watching Baahubali was a polarising experience – while taken in by the creation of a world with sweep and power, many, including me, were shocked by a “seduction scene” in the movie, where Mahendra Baahubali disrobes a non-consenting Avanthika. There are flowers falling, drums beating, waterfalls sprinkling and the chiselled, sexy bodies of the protagonists, but nothing takes away from the horror of an unfamiliar man taking off a girl’s clothes and her identity. Avanthika (Tamannaah Bhatia), who plays a rebel guerrilla soldier, has agency only till this scene in the movie – also dubbed “the rape of Avanthika” by one critic.

The feisty, disinterested girl has berries swatched on her lips by Baahubali, her clothes – the armour of the soldier – taken off to reveal the historical equivalent of a red sports bra; her face washed and tattoos drawn on her body. Is this a spa deal? Is the male hero giving her a makeover so she can bed him? Is she a dog that needs a bath for her own “good”? Mahendra is the man who has taken it upon himself to reveal a woman from a tower of armour. Avanthika then emerges as a milky-white, red-lipped, sighing, significantly less clothed, and most importantly, a consenting woman. The shrew had been tamed, the girl/ woman put in her place.

It was thus with trepidation that I went to watch Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. While the world wanted to know why Katappa killed Baahubali, I wanted to know if this blockbuster could reconcile with more positive messages about women. How would the other strong women in the movie – such as the Queen, Rajmata Sivagami, and the long-suffering Devasana, mother of Mahendra – be treated?

Well, here’s the good news – Baahubali 2 is a much more progressive movie than the first. At a time when any feminist criticism is seen as irrelevant if a movie is a huge hit, the second movie is not a champion of feminism but is still several bounds ahead.

Popular culture often plays with the idea of the benevolent patriarch. We saw this is in Dangal, where Mister Phogat decides what Miss Phogat One and Miss Phogat Two must do with their lives and abilities. The daughters surrender to the patriarch’s training, but they are also surrendering to his dreams of breaking records. While Phogat matches the girls step by step, they still remain the vessels for his own ego. Amarendra Bahubali, Mahendra’s father, is a benevolent patriarch (much like his son).

The difference though, lies in crucial points of desire, consent and space. Amarendra desires the princess Devasena (much before she knows of his existence, as in Avanthika’s case), but unlike his son, he doesn’t force himself on her. While this could be because she’s a princess, I think this is because he is constructed as better, kinder, more heroic than his son- he is the Baahubali (both characters are played by Prabhas). The characterisation as a far more feminist man, who believes in sexual consent and decision-making parity, is an important one that stays the length of the film.

To impress Devasena (Anushka Shetty), Amarendra pretends to be a fool – a standard, slow-talking blockhead trope. He’s still in tight clothes, and with a ripped body, but a fool all the same. Through a series of fortuitous events and a short battle in which Deva and Amarendra fight as partners, the romance commences. He doesn’t talk down to her. She is beautiful and accomplished, and also a spitfire. They spar and love; he doesn’t ask her to be less opinionated, she demands his companionship and support as they go home to his Kingdom Mahishmati, there is an element of forged equality.

Enter the conflict around Amarendra’s mother, the Rajmata Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), who is an important flashpoint in the movie’s message about women. The Rajmata embodies the state and nation of Mahishmati. She rules with an iron will and a typically dominant posture on her throne. One leg on throne, strident and confident—it is not a physical posture you may see often in Indian women in cinema, further her karm (deeds) and will shape state policy. But she also thinks Devasena is a ‘choti cheez’ (a small thing) she can gift to her other son, the skulking, evil Bhallala Deva (Rana Dagubbati).

Amarendra’s intervention as the male feminist here is important. In the first divergence from his mother’s decision-making process – a decision which perpetuates the patriarchy of a bride as an object – he disagrees with her openly. When given the choice of his lover (not yet wife) and the throne by his mother, he chooses the former.

The movie characterises both Devasena and the Rajmata as thinking, independent women. What saves it from descending into maudlin saas-bahu drama is that the characters are unapologetic in their respective strengths. They fight, fail, and apologise to each other, but are unafraid to be flawed human beings. They are mothers – and this has symbolic value – but they are also very different women. The man they have in common, Amarendra, chastises neither and buttresses their qualities.

Hollywood is accused of characterising its female protagonists (especially romantic protagonists) as “ditsy” or “neurotic”. Often, these women are consumed in their clothes or little dramas, they need life to teach them lessons. In Indian cinema, women are often portrayed as sacrificing, dutiful and the epitome of an unreachable goodness – think of the mother and younger sister in Dangal, the heroine in Ek Villain, Kareena Kapoor’s doctor character in Udta Punjab, the eponymous character in Parineeta among many others. It is not often that you get women who are given space to be themselves – all anger and flourish, good and bad within themselves – and this small success in Baahubali 2 must be celebrated.

Finally, one can’t help but notice the similarities with Mahabharata. Bhallala’s character is like Duryodhana, egged on by his father, who is like a Shakuni mama character. Bhallala enslaves Devasena in Court and for decades after, and it is her wrath that keeps the embodies the quest between the two movies – the injustice against her must be addressed.

The final message is one of a Dharmayudha, much like the Mahabharata, overturning the karm or law of the state. The finale has a crowned King and the promise of Mahishmati’s persistence, but it is a vision that takes women along. Devasena exists in an imperfect world; like Iliad’s Helen and Ramayana’s Sita, she is the catalyst and centre of conflict. But like Draupadi, she keeps issues of justice and her own determination alive; her agency not only drives the story, it also counts.

I wouldn’t call Baahubali 2 a feminist movie. But in trying to flesh out some semblance of equality and creating memorable women characters, this effort counts. And you won’t ever encounter mythical Baahubalis who break iron with their bare hands and hearts with their deeds, but in making the first Baahubali, the feminist Amarendra, better than his son, Mahendra, we also have a far superior male hero.

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