The disappointing women of Baahubali

At first, it may seem absurd to consider that the women in Baahubali could be thought of as anything but unassailably strong. After all, before the usurper Bhallaladeva took control, it was a matriarch, Sivagami, who ruled the kingdom with an iron fist. You also have Devasena, the wife of Amarendra Baahubali, and the fierce warrior princess of Kuntala kingdom, who is able to kill several soldiers with a single swish of her sword. And then, of course, there’s Avanthika, the female warrior, who has a perennially furious face, which suggests she wants nothing more than to kill Mahishmathi soldiers by the minute. They all seem like fierce, strong portrayals, and yet, if you care to brush aside this veil of strength, you see that all of them are dealt quite a weak hand by the Baahubali universe.

Perhaps the most important feat of Sivagami, in the interest of the Baahubali story, was keeping baby Mahendra Baahubali alive, despite having an arrow planted in her back. And yet, you have to remember that it is established that she brought it all on herself. As you’re shown in the second film, she’s apparently gullible and easily manipulated by the rather unconvincing plans of the men around her. Two decades of proof of her son’s nobility get overwritten by some pretty obvious scheming (and by a man who has consistently exposed his favouritism). For fear of spoiling the film, I’ll just say that the second film undermines the strength of her character by portraying her as an over-impulsive, domineering, insecure, hypocritical leader.

“Here’s the son of the man who I just got killed because lol, I don’t know, my husband, who’s always hated him, had some bad things to say about him.”

If that be the complicated case of Sivagami, Avanthika’s is a straightforward case of underwriting a character. For all her contorted fury, all she does is kill some insignificant men. It appears that her chief contribution to the cause of Mahendra Baahubali’s revolution is inadvertently luring the hero into the climb by dropping her mask, and later, getting coveted by him. Avanthika’s surprising lack of serious contribution is, however, not half as shocking as Devasena’s. The latter, a warrior princess of Kuntala, is shown to dig bows and arrows, but yet, apparently is not skillful enough to rival Amarendra Baahubali. Even when in a position of great discomfort, Baahubali easily defeats her when they set out to hunt wild boars.

There appears to be some promise when Devasena questions Mahishmathi’s laws, when she ridicules Sivagami for presumptuously making her choices for her. There’s even a small case to be made for her strength when you are shown how violently she responds to a man’s bid to outrage her modesty. But these are minor crests. Remember that this is the woman who’s been wronged the most. She is forced to spend thousands of days chained up outside Bhallaladeva’s palace, exposed brutally to the vagaries of the weather, and the unfulfilled promises of a life that never was. You must remember that it is she who deserves the vengeance more than anybody, including Mahendra Baahubali.

“Could you teach me this incredible archery technique, so I can never use it ever?”

And yet, when the time for revolution comes, this erstwhile warrior princess is a dead-weight. Bhallaladeva makes a mockery of her lack of strength as he lugs her around in his chariot. And ultimately, her biggest contribution, apart from begetting a son with Amarendra Baahubali, is the twigs she painstakingly collects over 20 torturous years. Well, that, and the flaming pot she carries on her head as part of Mahishmathi’s long-observed ritual. And remember that this is a woman who has never really had too much respect for the customs and traditions of Mahishmathi. She makes her contempt quite evident at least once, and once, even sniggers at the concrete jungle she believes Mahishmathi to be.

While I suppose you could say that her physical strength was likely compromised by all the years of wasting away, it’s inexcusable that she doesn’t even have any tactical advice to provide to the cause of Mahendra Baahubali’s revolution. And if it weren’t for the ever-reliable Kattappa, there’s a good chance that her foolhardy son would likely have embraced his death, considering how he bares his dogged chest at a sky full of descending arrows.

“When Lord Shiva is by my side, of what use is my mother’s advice…”

In perhaps one of the best action sequences of the film, Baahubali teaches Devasena how to draw and release three arrows at once. Yet, it eventually becomes clear that the sequence was written—much like Avanthika’s track—only to further romance. Never ever does she use this skill again. Never ever does she get to display her fighting prowess when important. Never ever does her mental acumen come in to  save the day. Make no mistake, the Baahubali films are terrific achievements in filmmaking, and have some tremendous whistle-worthy moments, but you wish the women in them had not been reduced to being mere spectators, even as the big boys slug it out.

This column was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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