The Real Baahubali: Legend Through The Lens of History

#SpoilerAlert for Baahubali 1 & 2. Don’t read if you haven’t watched. 

When we talk about Baahubali and we talk about history, it’s easy to get caught up in the fact that this duology of historical-fantasy/action/drama/romance movies has become the first in the history of Indian cinema to gross a 1000 crores rupees worldwide. It also just happens to be the most expensive Indian film ever made which goes to show that huge investments lead to equally huge payoffs if everyone’s heart’s in it (Peter Jackson wink wink nudge nudge). It also happens to not be a Bollywood film and not star any of the Khans.

The film also fundamentally presents itself as a history. Or does it? That’s what this post is going to explore.

Broadly, Baahubali is the story of a particular phase in the history of the fictional empire of Mahishmati (not to be confused with the real 13th century city of Mahishmati which was the principal city of the Avanti Mahajanapadha). It follows the lives of two members of the royal family, Bhallaldeva and Amarendra Baahubali who are raised together by the Queen Mother, Shivagami under the promise that the one who is wiser, stronger, more just and more fit to rule will eventually become king. Bhallaldeva is very evil because he has a scary scar and a nasty mean look and his father looks like the Grinch.

The Grinch Who Stole Navratri

Baahubali is awesome because he’s got a very friendly looking mustache, fighting skills second to none, abs, unparalleled strategic skills, more abs, the love and respect of the entire kingdom, yet more abs, the ability to charm anything sentient and did I mention the mustache?

Basically, things go south for the good guy. He wins the test, mommy says he’s going to be King, stays awesome for a bit, goes on a tour, falls in love, gets schemed against (by the grinch, no less), loses the throne, gets married, creates a fetus, loses admission to the palace, lives with the proles, stays awesome, gets schemed against by the grinch again, gets killed by his uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor.

The aforementioned fetus grows up in the bottom of a waterfall, gets raised by an old Malayalam movie actress, moves a Shiva lingam with this bare hands to the bottom of a waterfall, sees a butterfly woman in a bikini, chases after her up the mountain, finds out she’s real but not in a bikini, proceeds to get her into a bikini, goes sledding with her, takes up bikini-girl’s mission of saving the old woman tied up in the middle of Mahishmati, gets chased by Bhallaldeva’s son (in other words, the grandson of the Grinch who is still very much alive by the way) and the uncle/slave/best-friend/mentor, kills the prince, gets told the whole story by the slave, goes into battle with evil meany king, burns him and becomes king.

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The real reason people climb mountains

That’s about it.

I wasn’t a big fan the first time I watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. The whole thing was very unrealistic. The Baahubalis, father and son, were both morally perfect beings of mustachioed physical and mental puissance par excellence. Nothing could ever kill either of them (other than betrayal by daddy’s closest ally, of course). Because one sword can kill a man when fifty arrows can’t. The villains were irredeemably bad, grinchy looking, brutal, uncivilised, lacking in strategic capability and cartoonishly sadistic.

On a rewatch, I got it. I understood what all of it meant.

Baahubali isn’t a history. It’s a legend. What’s the difference, you may be asking? Well, for the purposes of this discussion, think about it like this: it’s the story of this phase in Mahishmati’s history written by a dude hired Baahubali. Who happens to be the emperor of a very powerful empire with a lot of soldiers and pointy things that kill so you really don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. So obviously, he’s handsome and upright and perfect and loved by everyone and can be killed by no one. Also obviously, his rivals are evil and mean and grinchy looking.

The movies don’t really try to hide this fact. Literally half the overall story is narrated by a very guilty man who killed the main character of his story to the son of the man he killed. And the other half is so over-the-top it’s obviously trying to be mythic or legendary.

One of the  ways the director Rajamouli pushes this theme through is with the use of divine symbols. This was very common with the myriad of rulers who established themselves through ancient and medieval India. Many of them would try to associate themselves with a particular god. Many would, without trying to outright suggest it, say that they were gods themselves. The way they would spread these messages would be through paintings, carvings and, of course, legends passed on from generation to generations.

The movie uses divine symbols not directly but not subtly either. Baahubali the Younger is named Shivu by the Malayalam actress who adopts him. The Elder uses the same sobriquet when he’s trying to charm the princess he falls in love with (so that she can see his true character instead his riches or whatevs). The musical theme that plays when Baahubali does something awesome translates to “Hail Shiva!”. There’s an extended song sequence in the second part where the princess sings a lullaby for the god Krishna as part of a festival. The song cuts between Baahubali and the idol of Krishna, some of the offerings being made to the latter reflecting to the former.

This changes the way you look at the entire story of Baahubali because you can sort of assume most of it is skewed in the favour of Baahubali & Son. But, the broad strokes of the story probably did happen, just not in the way the legend describes it.

So how do we uncover the real story? The usual approach is to find other sources. No historian in her good senses would consider a mythic or legendary story as being anywhere near authoritative. The historian would dig around for material remains (like Indiana Jones with less swag), find sculptures, reconstruct ordinary patterns of life and collate all that information together to find something that approximates to the closest extent what actually happened.

But with Baahubali, we don’t have any of that because the story didn’t actually happen. Instead we have a multi-crore budget cinematic exaggerated legend of a story that was in reality probably very different, if it would have actually happened.

So the next idea is to de-exaggerate the legend and try to come up with a more plausible version of the events that could have happened. To do this, we use the metrics of other examples from history and a fair bit of common sense.

The Baahubalis were not perfect. We know that because we know from common sense that literally no one is perfect, especially not rulers of vast empires. On a less abstract basis, we know Amarendra wasn’t perfect for the apparent reason that he died. In fact, if you trace his political history, devoid of its mythic backstory, you’ll find the story of a classic failure rather than the wounded martyr figure the legend presents to us.

Things started out pretty good for Amarendra Baahubali. We can assume that he was probably better loved by the general public than his more politically minded half brother. He was probably not loved unanimously by every living human soul in Mahishmati as the legend would have you believe but he was probably the more popular among the two. That was probably what would have swayed the Queen Mother to initially crown him King, not a moral lesson after a very cinematic battle sequence.

From there, the legend says that he falls in love with Devasena, the princess of the Kuntala Kingdom south of Mahishmati. Romance makes for delightful storytelling (and equally delightful dance sequences on lotus boats in the sky) but from what we know from the political history of India, love had little to do with marriages among royal families. We can assume a more plausible turn of events. Amarendra attempts to enter into some sort of alliance with the southern kingdom. The Queen Mother is not pleased (probably because she warned against it by the Grinch) and demands that he either break the alliance or give up his throne. He goes for the latter option for what could be a variety of reasons. Perhaps he favoured the more absolute control over the smaller kingdom rather than puppet authority over the empire. Perhaps he really was a little in love with the beautiful princess. Perhaps it was a fit of youthful rage that was not very strategically thought out.

So then, he accedes his throne to Meany McMeanypants Bhallaldeva and becomes the Commander of the Army. Then, he loses that position as well. Why? Was it because of a passionate outburst by his fiery bride like the legend says it is? Not likely, given the social position of women (especially the wives of powerful men) in early Indian history. Influential? Certainly but rarely directly. Which is why the character of Shivagami is a bit implausible as well but it makes sense as an exceptional circumstance. Things like that have happened.

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No, he’s not a Power Ranger.

So why was Baahubali exiled? A conflict of interests is the most likely answer. His dethronement was because of what was most likely an alliance with a subsidiary state. If a political figure became closely linked with both the ruling hierarchy of one kingdom and the military of another empire, the rulers of that empire would obviously get a little testy.

So, Amarendra’s response was to live among the people. Again, possible but not entirely likely. What is more likely would be that he established base in his wife’s kingdom. A downgrade, for sure given the prestige he previously enjoyed.

This also explains why the new king would want to kill him. Given the guy’s general awesomeness and popularity with common folk, an uprising of the Kuntala kingdom under Baahubali’s command would be very very possible. Was he killed of by his uncle-slave-buddy? Again, great storytelling but unlikely. It could very well have been just a random assassin.

So the end result is that this person was first the most powerful person alive in a very powerful empire and eventually ended up dethroned, weakened, exiled and finally killed. Doesn’t sound very perfect to me.

Machiavelli would have called him a bad prince.

So Baahubali the legend is flawless. Baahubali the man is quite obviously flawed. What are those flaws?

We know for sure that he wasn’t the real son of the Queen Mother. Perfectly plausible there. People get adopted all the time, even into royal families. That fact was most likely a psychological complex, clouding Amarendra’s political judgement with this strong sense of loyalty and adoration to the woman who elevated someone who wasn’t even the fruit of her womb to the highest position in the empire. The Queen Mother had Baahubali wrapped around her finger. Any order that came from her would be followed without question. That is quite a strong weakness in a man with the hopes of ruling over the empire.

Added to that is this naivete about the people around him whom he expected would all follow the dharma or righteous law his mother had so earnestly taught him.

He probably never saw it coming. The literally-on-fire sequence where he gets stabbed in the back probably never happened. It is much more likely that he was lying on a hammock in the Kuntala backyard, combing his mustache and thinking he wasn’t a threat to anyone in the world out here when he was shot by a poisoned dart or something. Idk.

So Baahubali isn’t perfect. By extension, Mahishmati probably isn’t perfect either. This is openly alluded to by Baahuballi’s waifu in a fiery, impassioned speech which is just the kind of thing that would get you exiled. The empire was operating on the basis of an extrapolated edition of the dharma that left plenty of loopholes for characters like the grinch to manipulate to achieve their own ends. Bureaucracy outweighed righteousness. Protocol trumped justice. The popular choice was chilling out with waifu while Evil McEvilpants was allowed to rule.

Speaking of Mister Evil, the reality is that nobody could really ever be that evil. In brief chinks in  the fabric of the legend, Rajamouli gives us a glimpse of the real Bhallaldeva behind the grey highlights and abs. A political man, perhaps. A lot more ambitious than his adopted sibling and a lot more aware of the people’s love for said sibling than the sibling himself. A little insecure. A little too much of a daddy’s boy just as Baahubali’s a little too much of a mommy’s boy.

And what of daddy himself, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas? He was probably just very resentful. Resentful that the throne went to a woman instead of him. Resentful of his disability. Maybe he suffered from the same ailment most Indian parents suffer from: the need to vicariously live out their fantasies through their children. My beta will be an engineer/King because I couldn’t be.

And that leaves us with Baahubali the Son. He suffers from essentially the same character flaws as his dad (probably because he is the same character as his dad). His obsession with what his mother(s) want him to do and truckloads of naivete. We can envision a similar future for the real Mahishmati, backseat ruled by Devasena instead of Shivagami.

Which is why the ending of the movie is rather curious. The movie is expected to end when the S.S. Rajamouli seal is stamped right next to Baahubali II’s face at the end of his speech. But it doesn’t. It’s followed by this sequence where the golden head of the statue of Bhallaldeva rolls down the same path that Shivu followed up the mountain to chase his destiny. The statue eventually comes to a stop in front of the Shiva lingam that Shivu moved with his bare hands so long ago in Movie 1. Plaintive, sad music plays throughout this sequence and you’re left a little confused. What does that mean? That good triumphs over evil? That the will of God prevailed over human greed and ambition? Or is it trying to draw attention to the fact that this is the legend of a god among men? But who decides who god is? The person who tells the story, of course. But like I said, the story is obviously skewed in Baahubali’s favour.

Baahubali is a treasure trove for the amateur historian. It is the work of a confident film-maker who operates on multiple levels. The legend of Baahubali is a stirring story of good triumphing over evil. The history of Baahubali is a more complicated affair concerned with the politics of managing a large empire, the ambitions of two aristocrats and the women behind them and human flaws in human beings on both sides. And both stories and in there. It’s just that one of them takes a little digging.

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