While the whole world is busy raving about Baahubali 2 and how S. S. Rajamouli and team have revolutionized the movie-going experience with their masterful execution of the Baahubali saga, it is very easy to overlook the underlying reality that what makes the story of Baahubali stand apart is the manner in which it presents its female characters.
If we look at Hindu mythology, then we will realize that women have always enjoyed a place of dignity but sadly the same doesn't reflect in the contemporary world we live in. Every day we get to hear disturbing news about sexual crimes, social injustice, domestic violence and what not. Alas, the modern Indian society doesn't treat the women with the kind of respect they deserve! And our patriarchal upbringing is to be blamed for it. We have been conditioned to live in a manner that we tend to overlook the fact that women are every bit as capable as men, if not more.
Cinema is often described as the reflection of society. But at the same time, it is very much capable of influencing the society. But the stereotypical depiction of women in Indian cinema hasn't really helped the cause much. As a nation of moviegoers, we have got accustomed to watching women in a certain kind of roles. There, of course, are exceptions but they are few and far between.
If we look at Bollywood, we will notice that almost all the major blockbusters in recent times have revolved around male characters with the female characters merely playing second fiddles. Some of you may say that Dangal was different in this regard but wasn't Dangal ultimately about the fulfillment of a father's dream? It can be safely said that mainstream Bollywood hasn't really succeeded in bringing strong female characters to the silver screen. And it's certainly because of a lack of intent. A similar lack of intent has kept the Women's Reservation Bill from passing. It is, for this reason, we need to look closely at the Baahubali saga and see how it dares to bring its women characters to the fore like no mainstream Hindi film has ever managed.
The saga begins with a mortally wounded woman trying to rescue a baby she is carrying in her arms. She is being chased by soldiers hell-bent on killing the baby. But her determination is inexorable. In that helpless state, she somehow kills the soldiers and succeeds in saving the baby's life, sacrificing her own in the process. Later on, we learn that the woman was none other than Sivagami Devi, the Queen Mother of the mighty Mahishmati Empire.
The entire sequence is so powerful that it is impossible to take it out of one's mind. But what is it that makes it so memorable? Of course, one couldn't have asked for a better character introduction. Ramya Krishnan nails it as Sivagami. The scene perhaps unpins the power of womanhood better than any other scene in cinema.
In Baahubali: The Beginning we get to witness Sivagami in all her glory. How she chooses to nurture not only her own son but also the son of her brother in law, the deceased king of Mahishmati, after she is given the responsibility to look after the kingdom instead of her crippled husband, Bijjaladeva. How she with the help of her confidante Kattappa brings an end to a coup, killing the conspirator with her own dagger before breastfeeding the two newborns in the royal court. How she chooses Amarendra Baahubali over her own son to be the new emperor of the Mahishmati Kingdom.
In Baahubali: The Conclusion, we yet again get to see the might of Sivagami. Time and again it is Sivagami and her bold decisions that continue to shape the fate of the Mahishmati Kingdom.
Here we also get to witness her follies, probably for the first time. Like all powerful individuals, her hubris costs her dearly. Blinded by it, she commits blunders that shake the very foundations of the mighty empire. But on realizing her mistake she is quick to act on it. And she doesn't think twice before sacrificing her own life for the greater good of her people. Even in her fall, she looks so dignified. That's what makes the character of Sivagami, despite the follies. I daresay no man is capable of making such sacrifices.
Any average filmmaker would have been content to offer a strong female character like Sivagami but not Rajamouli (of course, the credit also goes to his team of writers). Just consider the character of Devasena. She is chained for 25 years and is subjected to all kind of tortures and yet the sadistic Bhallaladeva can't break her. Even in her abysmal state, she is determined that she would eventually have her vengeance. A character like her can be any actress' dream. Of course, Anushka Shetty plays it to a tee.
Anyone who thinks that Shetty had done a commendable job playing an aging Devasena in Baahubali: The Beginning ought to watch her in Baahubali 2. She will completely blow your mind.
Here is a woman who is not only beautiful and intelligent but also a formidable warrior in her own right. With a bow in her hand, she is nigh invincible. Devasena reminds us time and again why a civilization needs to treat its women with utmost respect. A proud woman, she is the master of her own will. She has the right to choose her life partner and although she wouldn't back down from her wifely duties she wouldn't allow her man to let his weaknesses get the better of him under any circumstances.
Amidst a myriad of characters in the Baahubali universe, there are a couple other female characters that deserve our attention. The first, of course, is Sanga who raises the young Shiva (Mahendra Baahubali) with the kind of love and affection that one usually associates with a biological mother. There is a sequence in Baahubali: The Beginning when Sanga takes the young Shiva in her arms and threatens to choke the life out of anyone who tries to take him away from her. The scene clearly depicts the authority she commanded as a woman in her clan.
Then there is the character of Avantika who is a skilled warrior capable of taking down anybody. The fact that she is chosen by her rebel group to rescue Devasena from Bhallaladeva's bastion speaks volumes about her warrior capabilities.
It would be a mistake so see the Baahubali saga as a mere show of spectacle, for it offers a lot more than just good old entertainment. The presence of a bunch of strong female characters takes it away from the male-centric epics that we have become accustomed to watching. It is really heartening to see Telugu cinema achieve with aplomb what Bollywood has failed to accomplish over the last so many years. The issues of woman emancipation and gender equality feature among the various lessons that Baahubali offers and thankfully it does so without appearing too preachy.