Baahubali 2: A Review

My last movie review of Baahubali was about the VFX in the movie.  It’s time for a review again and this time it’s about the concluding part of this movie.

No, this review is not going to be about the story; because, the story itself is wafer thin and can be summarised in a few sentences. At times, while watching it, you couldn’t help but wonder if it needed 2, almost 3 hour long movies to tell such a simple story. And this is probably the reason why many reviewers have rated the movie as an average one.

This is going to be about the various other aspects that I noticed about the movie. Some very good and some not so good.

Before I begin, I’d recommend you to see the movie in large screen cinema, because it is made to be seen on one and is definitely worth one see at least.

The broadly good – VFX:

The movie starts off on a right note, the story of the first part is summarised rather well in the title slates and it made me look forward to the VFX work to follow.

But almost from the first shot, you tend to notice the CG and green screen work. In any given frame, you can make out which part was CG just by looking at the contrast – the high tones of the backgrounds – the mountains, the palaces – and many a times the colouring in the foreground – flowers, foliage, boats et al. –  stand out and tell you that there is something unnatural in a frame. Like last time, where ever CG was used to extend backgrounds, they were rather very well done, it’s those long shots that were rather comic-bookish.

There was one shot towards the climax where I couldn’t help but notice tall palm trees placed against clear blue skies. They stand out like sore thumb and I wondered if they were placed there for a purpose and in the next scene I knew why.

The CG animals, are good in parts and bad in parts. And it starts from the first scene, where the hero tackles and tames an elephant. While you can tell which is a real elephant (close ups) and which is not, the one which is CG is rendered rather well in some parts and not so well in some others. Then there are the bulls and bisons, again rendered well in parts (the front and side shots) and the not so well (the back shots). There is one where Bhallaladeva‘s chariot is exiting the frame and you can make out the bisons leg’s are floating in the air. It made me wonder if his chariot was pulled by bisons in the first part though.

Like last time, the scenes with crowds aren’t rendered well. The foot soldiers and people on horses and the horses themselves sometimes are stiff and move unnaturally at times. Enough for you to tell that it’s a bad CG job.

The worst of the CG has to be the golden statue of Bhallaladeva which is part of an extended climax. I never liked the way it was rendered in the first part and didn’t like it in this one either. Something that’s so critical to building a  character should probably have been done better. Plus it’s a non living thing, how difficult could it have been to blend it into the scenes it was in.  There was also a scene with a lens flare added which made me laugh out loud.

Then there is the hamsa naava song  (which probably vies with the waterfall song – Dhivara – from the first part), where the CG is rather cartoonish. But I’ll completely forgive it for the fantasy it depicts and the terrific lyrics, music and choreography  which accompany it.

To summarise, the CG is rather well done for most part of the movie – you just have to tell yourself that it was done in India on a limited budget and time and not in Hollywood. While it is on par with what was done for the first first part of the series; I just hoped it had been better. Nonetheless, I am sure, the CG done for this movie will be a benchmark for an Indian movie for years.

The good – The characters:

I think all the lead and supporting characters, did they parts uniformly very well. I couldn’t help but wonder what would Rana have done with more dialogues – he was menacing enough without them. The only wee bit of issue I had was when in some closeup shots, his face looked dried out while in some it wasn’t (an issue of continuity given such a long schedule?). The revelation of course was Prabhas, who built a body more beefed up than that of Rana, truly living out both the characters he played in flesh.

Then there are the women characters which are extremely strongly written; but with some minor flaws. There were moments when I wondered why a character blurted out what they said in critical sequences (especially Devasena) but I would presume that’s because not enough time was given to finely etch their characters.

The good – The screenplay:

As I mentioned right at the beginning, the plot is wafer thin (read it’s plot) and has some glaring holes, but there is not one moment when you are bored (and here I must admit that I was bored when watching a few Harry Potter / LOTR films). The director, Rajamouli surely is a wonderful storyteller and knows how to keep the viewers glued to their seats. Even during the song sequences, he keeps the storytelling on and adds those wonderful little details building the characters. By the end of the first half, I knew I had my money’s worth! Everything in the second half was a bonus!!

The good – the music, songs and background:

Not having heard any song before I stepped into the theater, I had moderate expectations from the sound track. But must say the music was a pleasant surprise (review here). Like in the first part, the songs stay with you after you step out of the theater and you want to listen to them again and again for a few days after. Many reviewers (especially of the Hindi version) panned the background score as being relentlessly loud. But, I’d say it is one of the best parts of the movie. The background score builds up the overall experience on the big screen.

The good – the action sequences:

As I wrote in my previous review, Baahubali 1 action sequences reminded me of 300, Matrix, Gladiator, Zorro, Avatar and The LOTR. I think most of the copying was done in that part. So, a number of action pieces in this part looked very original. Especially some slow-mo closeup action shots had this graphic novel framing and feeling to them – very 300 in framing – but still very original. And, it is where the cinematographer stands out and tells you how good a job he had done in both the movies.

The bad – The marketing:

How can I end a review without commenting on this one! I think Dharma and it’s team have gone overboard in promoting  the movie with a simplistic ‘why Kattappa killed Baahubali’ (#wkkb) tag. Sure, the first movie ended on a cliff hanger of sorts and gave rise to a thousand internet memes. But, that doesn’t mean you reduce the entire marketing of the second part to this lowest common denominator. I think this simplistic marketing and over hype created also led to a lot of bad reviews which came its way. Personally, I would have loved if Dharma and its team pushed the Telugu version with subtitles rather than peddling the Hindi version – at least in top Metros in rest of India.

Net-net, the good adds up; the grandness shows. Go watch the movie on the biggest screen with the loudest speakers!

ps: the images in this post are all screen shots of videos I found on YouTube.

Why critics got Kabali wrong…

I watched Kabali in Telugu on Sunday with around 1000 people. After the shouts in the first 10 minutes, they were very subdued. Guess they were expecting a more ‘mass’ movie.

I had read some reviews already so my expectations were already tempered down. Firstly, it’s a very different Rajinikant movie…

  • No comedy – The director held his guns on this one when pressurised by Rajini’s daughter to have some comedy added.
  • No Rajini style / stunts / mannerisms  – There is probably one where the rod (& later in the movie, a gun) comes out of his sleeve. You can hardly call it a signature style / stunt.
  • No “punch” dialogues – I don’t know how it was in Tamil, but except for one dialogue, you don’t remember many.
  • No songs – Despite the music earning good praise, there are only 2 songs that play out to some extent in the movie. Even those, I am sure the director was pressurised into adding and he relegated them to the background.
  • Slow paced – The movie was definitely slow in parts. I assume it was to let the acting take precedence. In other Rajini movies, these slow parts would probably have been filled with slapstick comedy to keep audience (and critics) attention.
  • Shock ending – The  ending was a bit of a shocker. Even to me – I mean, how can you end a ‘superstar’ movie like that?! But, it sunk in slowly that it was a directors movie and not that of a ‘superstar’.

Secondly, it was a story that was difficult to understand – was it a movie about a don searching for his wife, was it a dons revenge story or was it a story about the Malaysian Tamils? Too many characters and too many sub-plots with a number of unexpected twists in the plots. I will admit, I didn’t get many parts of it. One, because of the screaming crowds. Two, because I didn’t have much background of the history of Malaysian Tamils and indentured labourers. And three, because my 9 month old kiddo who was watching his first movie and I had to keep him from screaming once in a while.

Before (or after) watching the movie, I think it’s worthwhile reading about how Indians, especially Tamilians, settled in Malaysia. Here’s a nice article on the nuances of the movie with respect to Malaysian Tamils.

I don’t think many people got the nuances in the story. Worst still, I don’t think many critics got it either. The average critic panned Kabali, the movie and praised Rajinikanth, the actor (as an aside, they couldn’t afford to alienate the average Rajini fan by panning him). The Telugu reviews averaged 2.4 / 5. The Bollywood reviewers didn’t get the story and panned the pace and plot. Of these two, I think the reviews of the Bollywood guys were quite off. Most wrote the review with no understanding of the background that made up this plot of this movie, many didn’t know the directors capability and many don’t know the real extent of Rajini’s stardom and the compromises the director would have made to accommodate it (far worst, they didn’t watch it in Tamil. Many parts were lost in translation even in Telugu and I am sure in Hindi it would have been far worse). The Tamil reviewers were a little more nuanced as they had the necessary background of a terrific director and actor but many probably didn’t get the story either.

In any case, I don’t think many people are going to watch the movie multiple times to understand the nuances in the plot. Which is such a shame.  The plot, the direction and the acting definitely deserve a second look.

My review – a) The acting of the lead character is brilliant. The supporting cast not so much. b) The director probably compromised quite a bit on how he wanted to tell the story to accommodate the superstar. I would have loved to see a directors film. c) The plot was engaging enough for me to read a little bit more about  the history of Malaysian Tamils (and I do want to see the other movies of the director – Attakathi and Madras). Given a chance, I’ll probably watch the Tamil version of Kabali with sub-titles and before that brush up on history of colonisation in Malaysian.

Before I conclude, this movie is probably going to smash all box-office records in India and abroad for an Indian movie. It has already earned Rs.400 crore – Rs.200 crore pre release and Rs.200 crore in 3 days. Which goes to prove that  critics got this movie wrong.

And finally, this tweet says so much about the legend of Rajinikant…

Rudramadevi movie review: a little promise, a lot of comedy

Unlike Bahubali, there were not many reviews of the new Telugu movie – Rudramadevi. The ones that exist, were not up to the mark [read some of them here – 1,2,3,4]. So, I decided to write my own…

Firstly, the movie itself is based on a very well known Kakatiya queen called Rudramadevi covered in  Andhra Pradesh (erstwhile) state text books. I haven’t read the story, so I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this film. But, it’s evident that the director has taken huge liberty in retelling it on the Telugu celluloid.

The story is pretty straight forward and is told that way – linearly (unlike Bahubali)… The king of Orugallu (current Warangal) called Ganapatideva, wants a boy to both succeed him as the king as well as keep the scheming ministers and chieftains at bay. With a girl being born, he is forced to introduce her as a son – Rudradeva –  on the advice of his Prime Minister,  Shivadevaiah. Rudradeva is groomed as a boy, sword-fight and everything, and seems to be excelling at it, until one day, she realises she is a girl! She decides to play along for a number of years and rules the kingdom as co-regent to her father, until her true identity as a woman has to be revealed as a political ploy to preempt scheming courtiers. She is then scorned by her subjects and citizens for some time and finally recalled to defend them in one final battle against Orugallu’s chief nemesis, the king of Devagiri.

While unfolding this primary plot, the director takes a few side tracks – a love story between Rudramadevi and her childhood friend Chalukya Veerabhadra; one with another childhood friend, a robin-hood-ish Gona Ganna Reddy;  another one with Mukhtamba, who Rudradeva ends up marrying; and finally one with Marco Polo narrating the story to some Italian king!

Well, that’s the 158 minute long movie. Coming at the heels of Bahubali, with a similar theme, two of the same stars and similar high production value and budget claims, the comparisons are inevitable.  Sorry to say, this movie falls flat before the former.

But before I go into its negatives, there are a few things which work in its favour. Almost. The 3D is fairly good and this is probably because it was shot in 3D. All scenes and especially the forests have a clarity in depth that I haven’t seen since Avatar. This is great considering that the last two big budget Hollywood movies I saw in 3D – The Martian and Everest – were dark and left me with a niggling headache after 2 hours. The next thing which works are the animated storyboards that are used in between to quickly move the story along. And, the last thing, that works, is the frantic narrative and dialogues especially in the first half. There are a few noteworthy performances as well. For me, Prakash Raj as the Prime Minister Shivadevaiah stood out ahead of Anushka (Rudradeva, Rudramadevi) and Allu Arjun (Gona Ganna Reddy).

Apart from the above, everything else is a big let down…

  • VFX: The first scene starts (sailing ships over a river /  sea) with absolutely bad CG.  It gets a little better in between. The elephant fight is comical but passable. And then, it goes downhill as the movie progresses to end with a very comical CG battle. I was laughing seeing the funnily rendered and huge battle formations turn into a handful of people to surround the warrior queen. I guess we have to define something called the law of conservation of people and then teach it to the VFX guys who worked on this movie. The matte painting / backgrounds are equally bad. Most of the time, you feel that the set and foreground are very high up. Overall the VFX in the entire movie is very cartoon-ish and I guess the producers ran out of money and patience towards the end.
  • Fights: Like all Telugu movies of late, this one has gravity defying action. Some jumps are comical. You can make out the actors are being pulled or waiting to be pulled and sometimes they are just hanging from and holding the digitally erased wires.
  • Makeup: Like the first scene of the VFX, the makeup too starts on a wrong note. Almost all supporting cast have patchy makeup. The Italian king with a noticeable stick-on beard right at the beginning makes you question the person in charge of this department as soon as the movie starts.
  • Props and Costumes: I thought these were fairly okay till half way into the movie, I noticed a compound bow being used. Weapons other than swords are also bad, I wondered if the spheres used in the final battle scenes could  actually kill some one. Towards the end, the heroine uses golden gloves that look very suspiciously like gym ones! Then there are the micro mini saris or saris with thigh high splits in songs. All in all, a very bad job by this department as well.
  • Sets & Supporting cast: I counted a handful of sets and I guess the whole movie had no more than 15 of them, 20 at best. Every 5 minutes, these sets would repeat. The same goes for the extras. I mean you notice the same guy playing the vocal citizen a dozen times through the movie!
  • Continuity: I am sure there were many, but I noticed a beefed up Rana Daggubati at the beginning of the movie turn into a lean one towards the end.
  • 2nd Half: The first half had a couple of sloppy scenes, the entire second half is a big one. I read some of the other reviewers state this and was wondering about it after the first half. The second half was pretty much what the reviewers wrote about.
  • Subtitling: I have to end on this one. From whatever little I read of them, I thought they did a great job with the subtitling and translation. The problem is that if you try to read the subtitles, you don’t notice anything in the rest of the scene / frame. I am not sure if it was the problem of the 3D or my being seated in the front half of the theater. But, never did I realise that proper subtitling is an art in itself. You either find it intrusive like in the case of Bahubali or taking away the focus like in the case of this movie.

To summarise, I would give it a 2/5 stars. The makers had the right intention but goofed up big time on the delivery.