Baahubali: The Beginning, with its intriguing open-ended climax, had wound up with a teasing, million-dollar question: why did Katappa kill Amarendra Baahubali? Why indeed would a loyal soldier have betrayed his beloved master, we were left wondering. The Katappa conundrum whetted the curiosity of Baahubali fans and fanned a rare degree of craze, turning the follow-up into one of the most anticipated films in the history of Indian cinema. So here finally is the film that contains the much-awaited answer. The bigger question on our minds as Baahubali: The Conclusion unfolds is: is the sequel worth all the brouhaha? The scale and sweep of the no-holds-barred fantasy epic set in a spectacularly garish fictional kingdom are expectedly phenomenal. It is the riot of colours, the robotic action, and the resultant kinetic heat that are a strain on the senses. They suck the air out of the nearly three-hour-long film and turn it into a limply mechanical show of superficial wizardry.
Baahubali: The Conclusion is a film that is so in awe of its own grandiose canvas that it tends to lose sight at times of the need for tighter editing and more believable characterization. Just about everything in the film falls prey to the lure of excess. It has several flamboyantly mounted passages that drift in the hope that the 'magic' of the visuals would be enough to keep the audience from noticing the film's over-indulgent strain.
But are we? For all the stunning imagery that writer-director S S Rajamouli and his army of VFX artists have put on the screen, Baahubali: The Conclusion is ultimately only a lightweight yarn buttressed by flashy technical inputs designed to dazzle and disarm the audience.
If one were to take a more critical view of the film, Baahubali, both The Beginning and The Conclusion, represent status quo cinema at its most brazen. It propagates archaic notions of the divine right of the ruler and the inescapable fate of the ruled - "mera vachan hi mera shaashan hain (my vow is my royal diktat)", both Rajmata Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and Mahendra Baahubali (Prabhas) declare at different points in the film.
It is disconcerting when segments of the audience whistle, cheer and clap when blood is drawn, a severed head is displayed, bodies are impaled on the battlefield or a man has his throat slashed with a scimitar in broad daylight. Nor is that all. Baahubali 2 also pushes troubling ideas of masculinity, motherhood, fealty of subordinates, codes of honour and the valour of warriors, all the while upholding the appeal of the cult of violence and blood feuds.
While Avantika (Tamannaah Bhatia) is reduced to an extra, Devasena, the Kshatriya princess of a small kingdom has a big part to play in Baahubali 2. The girl is proud of her lineage. She is as proficient with a bow and arrow as she is with a sword. But she isn't above social expectations that are reserved for women in this film's culture of conservatism. Somebody suggests that her family should much rather be focusing on finding her a bridegroom than letting her hone her battle skills "like the men".
And when the stage is set for Devasena to accompany the besotted hero to Mahishmathi as his bride, the latter assures her sister-in-law: "Nischint rahiye ab yeh meri zimmedari hai (Rest assured, she is my responsibility from now on). Really? Devasena is as good a thrust-and-parry artist as any, goddammit!
Even in strictly technical terms, Baahubali: The Conclusion is glaringly uneven. Some of the CGI is breathtakingly fabulous, and some rather ordinary, if not outright tacky. The animals, particularly the bulls and the elephants, look like stuffed toys. Many of the backdrops conjured up for the action have a papier mache or cardboard feel.
When the key revelation about Katappa's 'treachery' is sprung upon us, it does not quite catch us by surprise. Presented as a fait accompli, it is terribly underwhelming. It turns out that the hook that held us in thrall all these months is after all no big deal.
But, all said and done, Rajamouli is an exceptional storyteller and craftsman. He packs just enough into this magnum opus for his fan base for the film not be dismissed merely as a hollow extravaganza. It is in excess that the strength of Baahubali 2 lies and it makes no bones about it, take it or lump it.
Verdict: Baahubali 2 is more of the same - actually, a great deal more of the same - minus the soul of the original. But the packed houses are bound to tell another story. Katappa has done his bit.