The story has been told many times before — a child is born destined for greatness and as a man vanquishes the forces of evil — but in the confident hands of accomplished South Indian director S.S. Rajamouli, the tale gets potent new life in Bahubali: The Beginning.
Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to Telugu superstar Prabhas, who elicited cheers and whistles when he emerged bare-chested from a waterfall in his first scene at a sold-out XD screening near Silicon Valley on the film’s opening Friday.
Although he isn’t as well known to Hindi film fans as that other famously shirtless star Salman Khan, Prabhas has a presence grand enough to transcend language. His Bahubali is more than a superhuman leader of men able to heft a two-ton stone Shiva lingam; the muscle-bound, bearded actor manages to imbue him with vulnerability and pureness of spirit.
It’s possible to enjoy the film as pure entertainment even without being privy to the superlatives surrounding it: Bahubali boasts the largest film poster in the world (a 50,000-square-foot billboard in Kochi), the highest budget of any Indian film to date (a reported $40 million), and is now expected to break box office records in India and around the world.
Shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu and released in a dubbed Hindi version overseen by producer/director Karan Johar, the film opens alongside a huge waterfall, as a young mother being pursued by a band of marauders sacrifices herself in rushing waters to save her infant. A local village woman raises Bahubali as her own, but when he learns that he is actually a prince, whose estranged brother is now a brutal ruler of a sprawling kingdom, he is called upon to bring justice to his people.
Some confusing flashbacks, shaky CGI, and hammy overacting by Rana Daggubati as Bahubali’s brother and rival Bhallala Deva, water down the film’s potency, but performances are otherwise strong (especially Tamannaah Bhatia as a lissome rebel warrior).
Notably, M.M. Keeravani’s score captures the epic scale of the story, and the songs are a welcome — at times even erotic — diversion from its equally epic seriousness. Senthil Kumar’s cinematography makes excellent use of the film’s jungle and desert locations.
Although he leaves the ending of the film open (Bahubali: The Conclusion is slated for 2016), Rajamouli, with his gift for cinematic rhythm, is assured an eager audience the next time around.