Baahubali 2: The Conclusion ****Dir: SS Rajamouli. With: Prabhas, Rana Daggubati, Anushka Shetty, Tamannaah Bhatia. 167 mins. Cert: 15
2015’s Baahubali: The Beginning, the impressive first chunk of India’s most expensive film yet, built towards a literal cliffhanger, with a strongman knifed in the back by a trusted associate on the mountain it had taken just shy of three hours to climb. Not untypical of a film hungrily synthesising centuries’ worth of sacred and secular myths, that shock was always going to be tricky to top – so it’s a relief to report that The Conclusion opens with a no less jawdropping set-to between the hero’s mother and a stampeding elephant. Here, once again, is thunderous spectacle unlikely to be surpassed in several summers, and clinching proof of writer-director SS Rajamouli’s position among world cinema’s boldest imagemakers.
With quite some explaining to do, The Conclusion’s first half rewinds back into this narrative, dispatching the Herculean Baahu (Prabhas, BeeGeean head of hair ever-billowing) to an idyllic neighbouring kingdom for a lesson or two in worldliness. If the first film inclined towards physicality – how to get up that mountainside? – this second initially steps sideways into more philosophical terrain. The courtly triangle established between Baahu, warrior princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty) and self-doubting swordsman Kumar Varma (Subba Raju) initiates a few questions about those qualities we look for in our leaders; sociologists get some substance to chew between handfuls of popcorn.
The action throughout remains joyous. Baahu’s quasi-cartoonish strength permits the film to take mightily imaginative leaps: one minute our guy’s casually surfing flaming oxen, the next he’s converting himself into a human cannonball with the assistance of a coconut tree. This time, however, we’re more aware of the stakes underpinning such flights of fancy. Rajamouli plots a nimble, broadly progressive path through an especially tangled set of court politics – setting Baahu and Deva to dodge iron fists and wandering hands alike – while alighting upon pleasing grace notes and symmetries: the coda offers a rare convincing demonstration of trickledown economics, even as it returns us to The Beginning.
Entirely absent, again, is any cynicism: it’s amazing that a blockbuster with a long pre-title rollcall of “brand partners” should then be permitted to tell a story that could have been filmed in 1917, or 917, if they’d had equipment for a Baahu to lug. This production’s triumph is the room it’s granted Rajamouli to head into the fields and dream up endlessly expressive ways to frame bodies in motion. Of the many sequences here primed to cut through jadedness, perhaps the most wondrous is that which finds Baahu guiding Deva mid-battle to shoot three arrows simultaneously – a setpiece that speaks both to a love of action, and love in action. The budget’s big, the muscle considerable, but they’re nothing compared to Baahubali’s heart.
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion opens in cinemas nationwide today.