Baahubali: The Beginning quickly became the new standard for filmmaking soon after its release. Till that point, south Indian films were known outside the five states only when they won awards or were controversial in some way. The Baahubali juggernaut, on the other hand, managed to capture the imagination of audiences across the country.
However, the film also came under heavy criticism for its problematic portrayal of love and romance. SS Rajamouli, the director, may not have seen this coming - after all, he'd created what he believed were three strong female characters. A queen mother (Sivagami) who holds the reins of the kingdom, an enslaved and majestic queen (Devasena) and a warrior who is entrusted with the mission of freeing the enslaved queen (Avantika).
All three female characters were shown to be powerful, with Sivagami even slaying enemies while carrying a baby in one hand. However, the film fell back on a common trope in Indian cinema to show a man winning a woman's heart - by mansplaining womanhood. A playful Shivudu dodges an angry Avantika's sword as she tries to punish him for painting tattoos on her body without her knowledge. And then, he rips apart her clothes and uses berries to paint her eyes and lips...thereby turning her into the "woman" who was hidden beneath the warrior. Big surprise, Avantika decides to reward him for this appalling intrusion by falling for him.
Not only that, Avantika is sidelined from her own mission as Shivudu appropriates it because she now "belongs" to him. However grand a film the first Baahubali was, it remained disappointing when it came to its portrayal of women. Avantika was mercilessly objectified by the camera's gaze, as it focused on every part of her body. A completely unnecessary "item" number in the second half didn't help either.
Watching Baahubali: The Conclusion, though, one cannot help but think that Rajamouli has considered the criticism that the first film generated seriously. Devasena, played by the gorgeous and regal Anushka Shetty, is head and shoulders above Avantika in terms of characterization. Though the princess of a small kingdom, Devasena is a woman with pride. And interestingly, she is never castigated for a moment for this. Rather, Sivagami tells her that "ahankaram" is "alankaaram" for the family, meaning "arrogance" is a "decoration".
Devasena's introduction scene is similar to that of Avantika's from the first film. Her life in danger, Devasena wields a sword to put an end to enemies. And the watching Amarendra falls for her grace and nimble skills. The moment is the same, but where Avantika became Shivudu's plaything, Devasena remains a woman with a mind of her own. The camera understands this, too. Devasena's navel is of no importance whatsoever.
Even though she never manages to win a contest with Amarendra, Devasena is not projected as his inferior. In fact, the former goes to great lengths to win her regard. When Sivagami's messenger tells Devasena that she should be overjoyed that such a wealthy kingdom wants her as bride, Devasena doesn't hesitate to turn down the offer. You can see her face turn steely with rage as the messenger reads out Sivagami's high-handed proposal. Why should I marry a man without knowing anything about him other than his wealth, Devasena asks.
Later, when Amarendra tells her than Sivagami has asked him to capture her and take her to Mahishmati, Devasena is angered. Both of them are under the wrong impression that Sivagami wants Devasena to be Amarendra's bride but still, even though Devasena is already attracted to Amarendra and knows his real identity, Sivagami's attempt to strip her off her agency annoys her to no end.
It's at this point that Rajamouli breaks away from the usual my-mummy-greatest stance that most heroes in Indian cinema adopt. Amarendra grows in our eyes as a man worthy of becoming an emperor because he is impeccably just - he's even able to see through his adoptive mother's wrong. Hallelujah!
Amarendra promises to stand by Devasena and doesn't attempt to control her as she fires back at Sivagami when the latter orders her to marry Bhallaladeva. There's none of that "Control your tongue, you are a woman!" attitude in Amarendra which is, frankly, more attractive than that awesome body he has. Sivagami tries to do a Kunti but Amarendra is thankfully not Arjuna to share his "prize" just because mummy said so.
Devasena, however, is Draupadi in temperament. Don't you know the dharma of a kshatriya, Devasena asks Sivagami. Later, too, she has a face-off with the queen mother, demanding that Amarendra become the rightful king of Mahishmati. Devasena's ambition, usually given the taint of "selfishness" in Indian cinema, is celebrated as justice in the film. The "good wife" trope is about being patient, all sacrificing, and obedient to elders. Devasena is the opposite of all of this and she's Amarendra's beloved all the more for it.
Though married to a man with superhuman abilities, Devasena's battle skills don't go for a toss just because she married him (like Avantika's did - right after she sleeps with Shivudu, she's captured by an army and breaks her leg too!). When the commander of the army, Bhalladeva's man, attempts to molest her, Devasena chops off his fingers without a moment's hesitation. She doesn't need Amarendra to spill out of the skies to defend herself.
And lastly, Devasena rips apart the idea that femininity and compassion are inextricably entwined. When her husband is cruelly killed on the day of her child's birth and she is enslaved by Bhallaladeva, Devasena plans a terrible revenge. Like Draupadi who took an oath not to tie up her hair till she drenches it with the blood of Dushasana, Devasena's thirst for vengeance keeps her alive and she succeeds in her mission with single-minded devotion. And oh, she's perfectly comfortable in her own skin despite all her "masculine" skills unlike poor Avantika who needed a make-over from Shivudu to like her own image.
People often dismiss feminist criticism as "missing the point". When you're given such a beautiful film to watch, why do you nitpick they ask. How does it matter what Shivudu does to Avantika when there's such a gorgeous waterfall in the backdrop? It matters because it's the characters who make a film, not the scenery. It matters because when you have a well-defined female lead, the film becomes all the more interesting. It matters because if Devasena wasn't who she is, Amarendra wouldn't be who he is either. To quote a saying that Baahubali would appreciate, without Shakti, Shiva is Shava.
Thank you, Rajamouli: what you did with Avantika in the first film still gets our goat but you have redeemed yourself with Devasena. And if you do make a third film, allow your female lead to best the hero once in a while. Surely, if he can take mountains crashing on his shoulders, he can handle a woman's victory with equanimity.