Watching Baahubali 2 is like being in a purportedly romantic relationship with a psychotic person who keeps saying “if you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best”. The worst in this case is basically 150 minutes and the best is around 20 minutes. After a decent first part, director S S Rajamouli seems to have got a carte blanche from his producers to let his imagination go unfettered in the second part.
He did make a wild and weird movie, but it ends up being a distended mess. As suggested at the end of the first part, Baahubali 2 hits the ground running with the back story of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) and how before his coronation as king of the ancient city of Mahishmati he meets the love of his life Devasena (Anushka) under the garb of a simpleton. The first 60 minutes of the movie are slow and the comedy track involving Subba Raju as the simple-minded cousin of Devasena barely evokes any laughs. Things pick up a little when Devasena realises the real person behind the unassuming guy in their midst and goes to his kingdom with him. A tale of mistaken identities leads Baahubali's near-real mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishna) to have a fit of rage and, instead, she anoints her other son Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) as the king.
Second half is how righteousness of both Sivagami and Baahubali lets Bhallaladeva unfurl a vortex of tragedies until his nephew (Mahendra Baahubali) returns to avenge for the deaths. For the last 22 months, we always knew that the antagonist was going to die a bad death in the hands of his blood-thirsty nephew. We has been waiting for the journey to a predestined goal, but Rajamouli disappoints. He goes offtrack way too often, and by the end we are left huffing and puffing on realising that the whole fuss around Kattappa killing Baahubali was fairly predictable.
The movie reminded me of what Sigmund Freud once said about the defining characteristic of Vienna: Schein über Sein — looking good is better than being good. Rajamouli constantly tries to dazzle but never moves the audience emotionally. The VFX effects by Makuta are top-notch and cinematography by Senthil Kumar is awe-inducingly fabulous. Right from the titles to the details of the Mahishmati kingdom and the climactic war sequenes, the movie is a visual delight. But the hollowness creeps in quickly because the story is such a paint-by-numbers revenge drama and in no time the audience will discover that this emperor has no clothes (no pun intended).
For all its flaws, at least Baahubali 1 felt more organic. But the second part is flush with adrenaline and there's a phallic-like symbolism attached to Prabhas right from the word go. In the initial parts, each twitch of his muscle sends the audience into raptures, but even he couldn't salvage the movie in the post-interval happenings. Ramya Krishna's character is an oddity. For all the strength she displays as a strong female character in a male-dominated movie, she falls easy prey to hearsay. She epitomises a character in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady: “Her love of knowledge coexisted with the finest capacity for ignorance.”
Anushka does her bit well, but she was far better in the first part, where she would be the only one hissing at Bhallaladeva. Rana Daggubati as the scheming villain and Nassar as his father are functionally good. The moments of levity that one experiences invariably have Sathyaraj in them as Kattappa, the trusted commander of both Baahubalis. While the suspense of why Kattappa betrayed Baahubali might have been a cop out, Sathyaraj's intense tumult in the whole sequence is brilliant.
M M Keeravani tries to lift up the sagging plot with his soaring background music and it seems he's over-compensating for his meh-inducing soundtrack barring the title track. Each Rajamouli movie has 30 minutes of amazing wham-bang action, with style and brio, and Baahubali 2 has that in spurts: The way Baahubali beheads a man in front of the whole court, pre-climactic sequence, the way title track was shot and the interval bang.
Barring these, the movie feels like Jodorowsky's Dune being mounted on the big screen with dollops of megalomania instead of delicious off kilter sensibility. The movie hits its stride only after two hours of a gruelling set-up and by then, you would be world weary and just going with the motions.
The movie left me asking one question: “Did Rajamouli always want to make a mere money spinner instead of investing his passion in coming up with something for posterity's sake?”
Ask someone who endured it why Kattappa did what he did, and go watch Mukti Bhawan instead, if any cinema near you deigns to show it, that is.
PS: If you can help it, watch the movie in Telugu. Watching a dubbed version would be like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat.