Baahubali: aesthetic let down

This is a comment I have been working on for quite some time, now. It is regarding the movie Baahubali. This was the first time I had difficulty in obtaining  tickets for an Indian movie, in the US, hence I was naturally curious about the movie’s global appeal. However, I was highly disappointed. The following reasons, I think, might have lead to the aesthetic let down.

  1. The look: The incongruous color grading of the digital output and the exceedingly video-like look of the movie, in my opinion, did not do a good job in drawing me into the world of Baahubali. At times it made me feel like I was watching a video game on a large screen. I felt that the director, with so much of finances at his disposal, could have shot it on film stock (IMAX if possible). I do understand that we do not have many IMAX theaters in India, but even normal digital 2k renderings of movies shot on IMAX or any film stock, for that matter, have far better contrast, resolution and color depth, than movies shot in digital (recent movies of Nolan, Aronofsky, and PT Anderson’s are examples). This film look, I feel, is more relevant in mythological and fantasy movies where the audience needs to be offered a portal to achieve a heightened state of suspended disbelief. To illustrate this point I could suggest Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Noah by Aronofsky, John Woo’s Red cliff, and Santosh Sivan’s Urumi as examples, these movies shot on film, where far more effecient at drawing me into their narrative world than Baahubali did. Another option would have been to adopt a graphic novel like ambience, à la Frank Miller’s 300,  to impart a more mythological or fantastical feel. When a filmmaker is dealing with such non-mimetic scripts; he has to find various ways through which he can impart a sense of generic verisimilitude, if he fails to do it, all he ends up doing is detaching the audience emotionally from the story and the spectator is marveling at the grandiosity and not feeling for the characters.
  1. Injudicious use and integration of CGI: CGI, Chromascreen, motion capture are all great technologies that a filmmaker of the 21st century is armed with. However, these are just tools, you need to excercise caution and creativity in equal proportions to realize a cinematic vision. CGI, in my opinion, was indiscriminately and injudiciously used in this movie. The falls, for instance, in Baahubali was a big let down. The falls plays an important role in the screenplay, in my opinion, it is the first obstacle that the protagonist has to over come in order to attain his goal. Of course, it did appear enormous and fantastic, but in my opinion, it was not seamlessly composited and integrated. If, as I had mentioned earlier, the whole background and the look of the film were that of a graphic novel this falls would have accentuated the appeal, however, since the director has gone for this part realistic and part fantasy look it stands out like an artifact. It is apparent that he has shot some scenes on location, some on set, and the rest with green or blue screen, but, post production they have been unsucessful in merging and compositing all these images into an authentic wholesome. I also felt there was indiscriminate use of CGI for things such as fire and gore in the battlefield, which could have been easily replaced by physical props. This once again kind of detaches you rather than drawing you into the narrative. One of the best scenes of battle that I have watched in recent times is from Gladiator, the battle in which the romans defeat the Germanic tribes. It is relatively short, but it gets into you, you start to feel for the soldiers. The much hyped bull scene was once again a disappointment. I am compelled here to compare this scene with that of the wolf scene in 300, were the young Gerard butler kills the wolf. I am sure that the CGI used for creating the Bull was much more advanced than that of the wolf (given that 300 was released in 2006), but the graphic novel background complemented the wolf’s appearance, it made it more emotionally, and narratively relevant.
  1. Inferior casting: This I felt was the “unkindest cut of all”, a big let down. Prabhas, pardon the expression, sucks as the protagonist. Movies such as Gladiator, 300, and Urumi affect you not just because of the filmmaking but also due to the acting of the protagonist, the intense eyes and expression of Gerard butler, Russel Crowe and Prithviraj keep the audience glued to their seats. The actors seem to have concentrated more on body building rather than working on their histrionic skills. In such mythological movies, it is but natural that you would have a lot of solemn speeches and melodramatic moments, to carry such narratives you need actors who can perform effortlessly; with immense screen presence, persona, and loads of charisma. If this is not the case the whole movie appears mannered and stagy. Other actors such as Tamannah and Anushka are laughable to say the least. I felt even seasoned actors such as Nasser were ill directed and miscasted. Ramya Krishnan was the saving grace; she has all the screen presence and histrionic skills to carry out her role. She oozes in confidence when she sits on the throne nursing the two babies simultaneously.
  1. My fourth qualm has to do with the script in general, mythological movies shot on such grand scale are made more emotionally relevant when they are allegorical and metaphors are entwined as leitmotifs into their narration. This was one reason I was highly impressed by Urumi. This is not the case with Bahubali, it just comes across as a visual spectacle that is used by the film maker as a device to flaunt his technical achievements. I wish a director such as Santosh Sivan could have been armed with such a huge budget, just imagine the visual treat that would have been on offer.

I have also attached some relevant web links to this comment.