Single file Comment

A Kshatriya superhero

The box office exploits of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion have attracted much comment. Many have wondered how a south Indian film with not a single star known to north Indian audiences could connect so well with viewers in the cow belt.

There are several reasons why the Baahubali diptych has been wildly popular. The most obvious one is that it exemplifies storytelling at its captivating best. Director S.S. Rajamouli’s singular achievement has been to translate the fabulistic world of Amar Chitra Katha into a three-hour, immersive reality experience. In the process, he has managed to accomplish something that no film-maker has done before on a scale and with the conviction that he has: fabricate an Indian superhero.

Let us unpack the cultural content of this Indian superhero. First of all, he is, quite categorically, a Hindu. He is a Hindu defined by his caste identity, a Kshatriya. And finally, by showing the Kshatriya superhero leading a Hindu army that vanquishes an invading swarm of barbarians, the two Baahubali films together represent a powerfully imagined narrative of the Hindus as a martial race. If a Hindutva advocate had wanted a propaganda film showcasing the splendours of ancient India, he could not have asked for anything better. But this is not to impute such a motive to the producers, who may well have been unconscious of their project’s subtext.

Some may argue that the religious and caste identity of the warrior hero in Baahubali are incidental to the story. Not really. His character and world view are defined by the Kshatriya ethic. The Hindu ethos of the characters and the kingdom of Mahishmati, where the action is set, is reinforced right through the film. The dialogues, landscape, costumes, and even subplots are steeped in Hindu edicts, iconography, and symbolism — from giant elephants and lingams to ubiquitous Brahmin priests performing yajnas, chanting shlokas, and offering astrological counsel at crucial moments. Interestingly, the film depicts the barbarians who attack Mahishmati as a dark-skinned, aboriginal race. Given that Mahishmati is located in the Indian subcontinent, the story, in effect, communicates that the warriors of an ancient Hindu kingdom led by fair-skinned, Aryan-like, Kshatriya superheroes successfully subjugated an army of the casteless/Adivasis that was much bigger in numbers but short on acumen.

Rallying around the perfect Hindu

Beneath the expertly paced plot and glossy production values, the subtext of Baahubali glorifies the caste order. It seeks to unite a putative Hindu community divided by caste, not by picturing the elimination of caste divisions, but by exhorting people to rally around the perfect Hindu as embodied by the Kshatriya warrior. Even as it presents the Kshatriya code of honour as an aspirational ideal for all Hindus, it leaves no doubt that the dharma of the lower-caste Hindu enjoins him to recognise the Kshatriya’s right to rule, and to obey his commands.

Superheroes are cultural tropes by which a people relate to their world, to others, and to themselves. The Baahubali films, coming at a time when Hindu nationalistic sentiments are at a fever pitch, constitute a significant cultural intervention.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 16, 2020 7:23:38 PM |

Next Story