Baahubali
The biggest weakness of the film is the absolute decimation of Rajamatha Sivagami's character.
Screengrab

This is a part of The FItMuS Test series by The News Minute. Please read the first part here: Indian cinema needs a feminist reading: We present to you, the FItMuS Test

The dust is yet to settle in Mahishmathi as Mahendra Baahubali is crowned king after he avenges the unjust slaying of Amarendra Baahubali and the cruel imprisonment of his mother Devasena. With the film garnering popular and critical acclaim across the world – even rogerebert.com gave it a big thumbs up – we are taking a detour from our own FitMuS journey down the ages of Indian popular cinema. 

Much has been said and written about the visual treat and the storyline, and a few writers have mentioned that Rajamouli has learned his lessons well from the criticism of the first film that romanticised rape, and that the second one has more empowered female characters.  Is this really true? Do Baahubali and Rajamouli match the FitMuS yardsticks? Let’s find out.

What do the women in the film talk about?

First up, the Bechdel test. The sequel passes with Distinction with Rajamatha Sivagmai Devi and Devasena discussing politics, governance, the judicial system and the rights of women to choose a partner and that too, in no less a space than the royal court.

Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), who nurses and grooms Amarendra Baahubali to be king, is introduced as  a benevolent mother and queen. She plays her political games well, keeping her cards close to her chest and tricking rebels and wannabe kings into revealing themselves and calling it Rajathanthiram. She singlehandedly escapes the guards and saves the baby by tricking them and killing her pursuers, and sacrifices her life to save the future king.

The character is inspired by the regal queens of yore and impresses. She demands obedience, leads a kingdom in waiting for the king; she’s a just ruler who shows no favoritism and wants to do right by the kingdom and its people; she’s dressed in royal auspicious colours, bold dramatic jewelry and body language that is arrogant and motherly simultaneously; her small gestures of power are coupled with nuanced expressions of maternal love, and pride in her proteges and their upbringing.

Then there is Devasena (Anushka Shetty), the Princess of Kuntala who marries Amarendra and awaits Mahendra’s arrival to release her and avenge her husband’s death. She is held up as an ideal in many ways - bold, clear-headed under stress, arrogant but more of pride in her own abilities to quell the rash of dacoity in her kingdom, lesser than none in fighting prowess and dealing with/ anticipating trouble and holds her own in every a sphere.

Not only does she state her opinions firmly, she is also shrewd enough to detect that Amarendra’s royal bearing is at odds with his village idiot disguise. She is quick to acknowledge his superior skills in archery but equally quick to grasp on the go the complicated ‘Nadhve manibhangham Bahirmukham’ technique.

Avantika (Tamannaah), the rebel warrior owing allegiance to Kuntala, is introduced as fierce and loyal, with a single minded focus. She displays bravery, courage and skill in fighting to lure and defeat the scouts of Mahishmathi. She also shows self-confidence and humility while offering to take on the risky mission of entering the much guarded Mahushmathi fortress and releasing Queen Devasena.

Sanga, the Yasodha-like tribal chieftain’s wife is the foster mother (Rohini),  who raises Shivudu/Mahendra Baahubali in the forest at the bottom of the waterfall. 

How are the women characterised?

The films pass the basic Mako Mori test with all of them having distinctive narrative arcs that traverse notions of commanding regal matriarchal power and authority, a demanding equal opportunity mate, fierce youthful valour and a pure maternal love. An A+ is in order? But somewhere there are niggling issues such as Avantika who is easily distracted by her curiosity about her feminine side, her body and beauty according to her mentor.

She succumbs to the ‘masterful’ seduction of Shivudu in a blatant romanticisation of rape, and in part 2 we barely witness her valour which makes the character a mere convenience.

That Sivagami and Devasena, despite their upbringing in royal families, descend into the stereotypical mother-in-law and daughter-in-law roles undermines their characterisation severely. This surely calls for an F with a rap on the knuckles to boot.

Third, the Furiosa test and the Female Integrity tests are out of the reckoning since these women characters are propelled more by the males in their lives rather than any specific goals for themselves. While there is a lot of sound and fury from Rajamatha, Devsena and Avantika, their actions rarely match that stated stance.

While Sivagami rules with an iron fist, shows strategic thinking, and clearheaded decision making in part 1, she is totally devalued in part 2 – typical mother-in-law, arrogant and blinded by her superiority, petty in her handling of a future queen, takes decisions emotionally and ends up ordering the death of her beloved Baahubali. 

Why would women who have been taught the nuances of battle strategies, diplomatic negotiating skills, and ‘Rajathanthiram’ take their private legacy and throne discussions to the public arena and move into confrontational mode from the get go?

Are the women characters independent?

We expect more maturity, tact and diplomacy from all women who navigate this territory, more so from women who have been trained for the complex world of power.

Devasena demanding that her husband be made king and Sivagami buying into the conspiracy theory to order the dastardly assassination of a son she groomed to rule, are too facile to accept. But then, the story is more about the two brothers fighting for the throne and one outsmarting the other’s weakness for an almost Oedipal attachment to his adoptive mother.

Devasena’s confrontational stance is out of order when she shows no understanding of location and decorum, tactically weak, and at odds with the role of a princess being groomed to take over a kingdom.  

That she ends up being exiled with her husband only underscores the futility of trying to see things from a woman’s point of view. Also, why wait 25 years for a man to free her when she could easily escape and plan the attack? Even after her release, when they mount an attack on the kingdom, she walks up undefended to be captured again easily by Bhallala.

These and many more questions strike the women in the audience.  Ultimately, all the women are there to play out the roles that will enhance the masculinity and nobility of the adoptive son, the husband, the slave, the foster son and of course, the legitimate son and heir. It is all about the male and the rising masculine. We think a B+ grade should suffice here.

How does the film score on culture sensitivity?

In terms of culture sensitivity, the styling and performances are captivating with Amrapali jewelry, traditional silks and fabric being used and the relationship dynamics being presented well.

The rituals are seamlessly woven into the narration, such as the naming of the princes, the Rajmatha nursing the babies on the throne, the coronation ceremonies in all their pomp and grandeur, the Seemantha and the Krishna pooja serving the purpose of making this fictional space real to most Indians. The rustic terrains and practices of bullock races, the water mills and the boar hunting etc underline the leisure time activities of the days of yore.

Both Avantika and Devasena echo the mythical characters of Rudrama Devi and Chitrangadha, both princesses brought up as sons by their fathers only to be smitten by a prince who forces them to acknowledge their femininity through romance and yearning. Eerily, they resemble Rajamouli’s heroines in his earlier oeuvre such as Magadheera. 

But, some jarring notes again. The overwhelming feeling of déjà vu as Avantika looks and behaves like Katniss from Hunger Games but is easily taken up with a man who refuses to acknowledge her “no”, time and again.

Devasena shows naivette and lack of tact in asking for rightful share in authority for her husband but shows sensitivity in rewarding the slave Kattapa’s loyalty with a father’s position in their lives. And when she chops off the fingers of a lascivious Senapathi, Amarendra mansplains to her and the court that her reaction was too mild, she should have beheaded the offender. Why is it that while she took on the offender, it is he who dispenses justice?

How are secondary female characters treated?

The briefly seen women are decor such as Devasena’s mother, Avantika’s fellow rebels and the princess’s maids, but it is troubling that there are two key unseen women  - the biological mother of Amarendra who had carried the brawny baby to term and the wife of Bhallaladeva, who gave him a son, Bhadra, and what she must have gone through with a husband obsessed with another woman imprisoned in his courtyard (a la Mandodari?).

That Sanga is worried about being barren and sees this baby as her salvation reflects many a story in India. Her obsessive attempts to tame his natural instincts sees her follow him up the secret cave and then exhort her people to join in the righteous battle to free Devasena and avenge his father’s death.  She fits the marginalsied stereotype of the tribal woman in beads and baubles and a simple saree.

Conclusion

The most troubling sense of defeat and failure is the absolute decimation of Rajamatha’s character as she towers in the first film but falls quickly down the treacherous slope of being duped too easily in the second.

 The biggest tragedy in terms of narrative arcs is that of Devasena. An accomplished, talented, beautiful and intelligent woman, she chooses a man for all the right qualities but just by virtue of him being a big brawny mama’s little boy, she ends up paying the price with the loss of her best years in captivity.

All is for naught since her role is ultimately to cremate a man and to crown her son as king in the end.  What a waste of a potentially amazing life!  

We are being shown the folly of women who are conscientious, morally upright, proud and smart – they are shown being outsmarted, becoming dependent and existing merely for the pleasure of men. A resounding C-.

 In the ultimate grading analysis, although on the surface, it is heartening to see strong female characters in this epic story, the treatment from a male perspective gives it only one Distinction, an F, a B+ and a C- since it devalues these women extensively.

And so at the end of this breathlessly brilliant series, for the women and the FitMuS test, it is all spectacle and no soul.