The answer to that burning question – you know which one; the one that has spawned innumerable spoofs, memes and gifs – comes nearly an hour and forty-five minutes into Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. To be honest, you can spot it from a mile away. But it’s a testament to director SS Rajamouli’s unmatchable storytelling skills that he ensures the film is about a lot more than just the revelation of the suspense behind that punchline.
In 2015, Rajamouli’s sweeping epic Baahubali: The Beginning became the highest grossing Telugu film and one that effectively achieved what few regional films have, namely extraordinary pan-India success and popularity via its dubbed versions. We were instantly seduced by the story of Mahishmati’s princes Amarendra Baahubali and Bhalaldeva, by the conundrum of Sivagami who had to pick the future king between the two men, by the unflinching loyalty and subsequent betrayal of Katappa, and by the arrival of Mahendra Baahubali aka Shiva who freed the long suffering Devsena and learnt the truth about his identity.
Baahubali 2 is a king-sized sequel expressly designed to be a blockbuster. The clash between Baahubali and his cousin Bhalaldeva (Rana Dagubatti) is still at the core of this story, although everything here is bigger – from the sets, to the muscles in leading man Prabhas’ back. The comedy, mostly featuring Katappa (Sathyaraj), is squarely lost in translation, and romance remains the weak link in the Baahubali movies with way too much screen time committed to the blossoming of the relationship between a young Devsena (an impressive Anushka Shetty) and Amarendra Baahubali. Still, it’s never gratuitous like the frankly pointless courting of Tamannah’s character by Shiva in the earlier film.
Devsena, in fact, is a crucial player in the new film, a skilled warrior and, admirably, a fiery feminist who won’t let others make life decisions for her. As is often the case in stories involving kings and kingdoms, the woman is a catalyst for much of the drama that unfolds. In this case it’s two women: Devsena, but also Sivagami (a terrific Ramya Krishna) whose character, unfortunately, ends up being a bundle of unconvincing contradictions. A solid, headstrong woman who can stand up to any man in the palace, but who nevertheless falls prey to hearsay.
The simplistic, predictable story is the chink in the film’s armor. But it has to be said here that Rajamouli is a consummate craftsman who sweeps you up in the filmmaking. He skillfully uses every tool at his disposal, including rousing background music, slow-motion technology, clap-trap moments, and fantastical flights of fancy to transport you to the world of his characters. It’s impossible not to be impressed by a magnificent, larger-than-life coronation sequence. It’s hard not to cheer when a key character avenges an insult to a woman’s honor. There is also a ship that flies, a stampede of bulls with horns on fire, and palm trees that are used as catapults in a battle scene. There is virtually no stopping Rajamouli’s incredible imagination.
The other big draw, and frankly true of both films, is the committed, extraordinary performance by Prabhas, whose sheer physicality and intensity is a sight to behold. That key moment he shares with Katappa is milked to great emotional effect.
Baahubali 2 has better special effects and bigger battle sequences but its success lies in Rajamouli’s ability to turn a frankly standard story of sibling rivalry and revenge into an entertaining and consistently watchable film. Despite its running time of 2 hours and 47 minutes, I was never bored.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five. The last film felt more organic, this one throws everything at the screen, and it’s hard not to submit.