There is something about watching a movie in the new generation of multiplexes. The gentle slant of the seat that draws you in, the collective expectations of the other movie-goers and finally the screen and sound, which suck you in so you become a million nerve ends ingesting, absorbing, feeling and being part of the film you are watching.
On any given day, Baahubali is the kind of extravagant film I make it a point to watch in a theatre. Somewhere, I feel a resurgence of a sense of hope when I see and hear good triumph over evil in hi definition and Dolby Surround Sound. A week before Baahubali was released at my neighbourhood PVR cinema, I saw a trailer of the film and was transfixed. “When it is released, we are going for this”, I told my cinema club – that’s what we call ourselves, my team – Nitin, Hareesh and Akhil- and I. We treat movies like a religion and movie watching as the most sacred of rituals. Carefully chosen seats, no chit chat, only the crunching of popcorn and dainty sips of Coke, and we watch till the last credit has rolled.
The thing about Baahubali is that I went into the theatre expecting to like it. It had precisely the kind of ingredients that I love about cinema of this type: the scope, the VFX, a simple storyline, extravagant sets and costumes, drawn out battle scenes and plenty of heart-in-the-mouth moments. Besides, the trivia fed to me by the cinema club about the making of the film, the song sequences and its hero Prabhas had me intrigued. Ours is a movie industry where it’s possible to script, shoot, do the post production and release the film in a matter of six weeks, so the very notion that S. S. Rajamouli had taken over four years from announcement to release had me very certain that this was going to be quite something.
And it was. Prabhas, who plays Baahubali and who I was told consumed 40 eggs and burnt 4000 calories daily on gym equipment worth Rs 1.5 crore, set aside two years for this film (including postponing his wedding) and is as hunky as hunky comes. He is all muscle and smug-smile-of-the-righteous, so typical of the mariada purush of Indian mythology. I actually liked Baahubali for his mischievous ways, which everyone else seem to be getting their knickers into a twist about.
I am as empowered as they come, but I would love a man in my life who paints on my hand and helps me with my makeup and clothes, as long as he tells me that as you are mine, your problems are mine too. Being a superwoman 24 x 7 is tiring, as any woman will tell you. I think of Marilyn French’s The Bleeding Heart here- And something inside her sank, sank, and she let it sink, she surrendered, she let herself lean against him just a little, just a breath. This is why ordinary women, having to deal with extraordinary situations pretty much on their own in their lives of quiet desperation, tend to get all warm and gooey during the scene which has drawn the ire of her more urban and aware sisters – the waterfall scene where the warrior woman is reduced to pliant putty in Baahubali’s strong arms.
As is the case in epic movies, there are cameos that outshine lead characters from start to finish, there are throwaway lines and there is even a murderous, invading tribe with stone axes, who seem to have appropriated the click-click language of the Khoikhoi and Bushmen. The film was total paisa vasool, and it ended so abruptly that I continued to sit in my seat while the boys guffawed, asking me if I was waiting for the sequel. It was such an effort to relinquish that world, where heroes climbed waterfalls that soared into skies, wooed warrior maidens and prevented animal sacrifice by spilling their own blood. Outside the theatre was a world where men expected you to open a door yourself, make the first love /lust move and screamed and leapt onto the nearest chair if they saw a spider.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan was an entirely different proposition, as a film. In fact, the only reason I went to see it was because the editor of this magazine wanted me to. When it comes to Tamil and Malayalam cinema, I can sit through pretty much any rubbish, but I do tend to be choosy when it comes to Hindi and English movies; I avoid the mass flicks and tend to veer towards more edgy films. The only Khan I would normally watch is Irrfan, and even then it would have to be a Lunchbox rather than a Jurassic World. And yet almost everything about Bajrangi Bhaijaan grabbed me. Just as writers who write delightful books needn’t be delightful people for real, I have stopped judging an actor by who he or she is in real life.
The most important caveat to watching Bajrangi Bhaijaan is to forget everything that Salman Khan has been in the news for, and to watch the film for what it attempts to do. There is so much to revel in: the little girl, Shahida, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the roving Pakistani reporter, Salman Khan as Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi (who doesn’t take his shirt off even once on his own), the earnestness and the total lack of humour in the character despite it being one of the most comic roles that Salman Khan has played (I grinned each time he said the word Mohammedan – disdain married to political correctness) and somewhere, running through it all, a thread that beneath who and what we are is a goodness that will surface if only we let it.
Apart from the fact that KV Vijayendra Prasad (SS Rajamouli’s father) wrote both screenplays, these two B films that have set the box office cash registers ringing have nothing in common – except in the response they have elicited from people everywhere. Somewhere within the tattered and demoralised Indian heart is a great need to see the emergence of a leader who takes charge, the negating of caste and religious boundaries, the triumph of right over wrong even if the right may not be exactly legit. Both in Baahubali and Bajrangi, the pulse of this nation is heard: a leader isn’t about might, but right; ask a leader about what he can do for the people, rather than vice versa.
We are a nation going through a moral crisis. Our political regimes have failed us, and so we must seek faith and hope at least in the cinema we watch. What else can explain the juxtaposition of the two groups I travelled with in the mall’s lift, last evening? I was playing lift operator as I stood wedged between a group of ‘Mohammedan’ women in burkhas and a very traditional north Indian family, including a dadaji with a little tuft of hair at the crown of his head, who kept getting off at each floor when the lift paused. Neither of the groups had been to this mall before, they said, but they had heard great things about Baahubali and Bajrangi, and so here they were. As they watched one of the B films, I knew that for a while, this crazy country of ours, with its complexities, differences and horrors would seem all right. They would emerge from the theatre feeling as I did: perhaps things would get better, after all.