SS Rajmouli’s Bahubali movies are a great example of how to tell a patently Indian fantasy story. It takes a lot from epics like the Mahabharata and then weaves a completely new story with those strings. For an Indian storyteller, being influenced by the epics is sort of inescapable, but it is always refreshing to see something that is more than a simple retelling.
Rajmouli’s epic takes many things from the Mahabharata. Not all of these influences are plainly visible. I will try to list out some of these parallels.
1. Amarendra / Bhallaldev = Pandavas / Kauravas
The Mahabharata is the story of a blood feud. The five brothers who are the sons of Kunti fight their one hundred cousins the Kauravas, who are the sons of Gandhari. The Pandavas are virtuous and try their best to do the right thing. The Kauravas, by contrast, are slaves to their baser instincts and frequently indulge in deception and violence.
In Bahubali, this dichotomy is demonstrated in the characters of Amarendra and his half-brother Bhallaldev. Amarendra is righteous, just, and kind. Bhallaldev is cruel and unfair. In true Mahabharata fashion, just like the Kauravas, Bhallaldev makes a play for the kingdom of Mahishmati as well as Amarendra’s love, the princess Devasena. Every conflict between Amarendra and Bhallaldev is reminiscent of similar fights in the Mahabharata. Like the Pandavas, Amarendra usually says “I don’t want any trouble” and backs off because he does not want to fight (unless he has to). In the Mahabharata too, the Pandavas put off war in the interest of keeping the peace for a long time before it could be avoided no longer. Within the single character of Amarendra, is contained the sum total of all the Pandavas qualities. He is wise like Yudhisthira, strong like Bhima, and collected like Arjuna. He even has the occasional naughty streak that is associated more with Nakula and Sahadeva.
2. Katappa = Bhishma
The character of Katappa has devoted himself to the ruling family of Mahishmati. He serves and protects them with complete devotion because his ancestors had promised themselves to this pursuit. He carries out his duties even when his own conscience disagrees with the actions of the royal family. During the years when Amarendra’s son Mahendra was assumed dead and Bhallaldev was king of Mahishmati, Katappa served him dutifully.
In the Mahabharata, the character of Bhishma has sworn himself to serving the throne of Hastinapur in a similar way. Bhishma, whose real name was Devavrat, gave up his right to the throne of Hastinapur (which was his by birthright) so that his father could marry. Bhishma stood by the throne and protected the kingdom as three generations of Kuru passed him by. When Duryodhana (the eldest Kaurav prince) became the king of Hastinapur, Bhishma stood by him too, just as his duties dictated. In due course of time, Bhishma (like Katappa), even fought the Pandavas for him.
3. Prince Uttar = Kumar Verma (The Agyaatvaas)
There is an episode of the Mahabharata when the Pandavas have to spend a year in agyaatvaas (in hiding). They pretend to be commonfolk and get employment in the royal household of Matsyadesh (literally translates into fish-country). As part of this disguise, Arjuna, the greatest archer, spends the year as a eunuch who teaches the princess of Matsyadesh how to dance. At the end of the agyaatvaas though, he reveals his identity to Prince Uttar (who might be described as somewhat cowardly) and inspires him to face his enemies.
In Bahubali, Amarendra and Katappa hide their identities from the people of Kuntala and start making themselves useful in the royal household. Amarendra even pretends to be a village idiot. They reveal their identities when Kuntala is attacked. Kumar Verma receives a similar lesson in courage from him, just as Prince Uttar had from Arjuna.
4. Bijjaladeva = Dhritarashtra
In the Mahabharata, the generation that would have been Bhishma’s children if he had ever married, was made of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. They both had their failings — Pandu was weak and pale, but a great archer. Dhritarashtra was strong and learned, but he was blind. His handicap prevented him from becoming king and he never quite got over this fact. When Pandu died due to a curse in the forest, Dhritarashtra did become the king of Hastinapur and he was very happy about it. But his focus remained the crown and the throne and not the welfare of the people. It was Bhishma who made sure Hastinapur functioned normally. And the people’s loyalties remained with the now-dead Pandu. Dhritarashtra was aware of this and knew that when his reign ended, he would have to pass the crown on to the eldest Pandava prince Yudhisthira. But his son Duryodhana contested the Pandava’s claim and what followed was the Mahabharata war.
Bijjaladeva suffered from a handicap too, and remained convinced that it was because of that that he never became king. Katappa even reminds him that the reason was actually a handicap of his mind. Like Dhritarashtra, Bijjaladeva is partial to his son’s claim to the throne of Mahishmati. Like Dhritarashtra, Bijjaladeva also turned a blind eye towards his son’s misdemeanors — he even encouraged his hostile ambition.
5. Mahishmati = Hastinapur
In the Mahabharata, Hastinapur was an elephant-themed kingdom. It’s right there in the name. Hastin means elephent in Sanskrit. The kingdom was ruled by a long line of Chakravartis — kings who effectively ruled the surrounding areas by influence as well. Because of Bhishma’s fame and strength of character, many kingdoms in the region paid their respect to Hastinapur and allied with her in times of war.
Similarly, Mahishmati is a powerful kingdom of the same sort. It too is themed after an animal — the Mahisha, or buffalo. Alternatively, it could also be the case that the kingdom is named after the goddess Durga, who is called Mahishasur Mardini for slaying the demon Mahishasura. The character of Sivagami certainly feels like a Durga.
6. Sivagami = Kunti
In the Bahubali movies, Sivagami is a key character. I found her mirroring the qualities of more than one alpha female of the Mahabharata, but the one she comes closest to of course, is Kunti. Yes, despite being married to our Dhritarashtra analogue — Bijjaladeva. She is not Gandhari because she was not blind to her son’s flaws. She is not Satyavati because she did more than just look for an heir to the kingdom — she sat the throne. I consider her Kunti because of one particular scene in the first movie.
The kingdom was in crisis. The king had died. Sivagami stepped up to the throne and sat down without consulting anyone. She did what she has to do — her husband was no good. She had her son Bhallaldev in one arm. She then takes the second child — Amarendra Bahubali in her second arm. Both babies feed on her milk and are brought up as equals.
In the Mahabharata, after Pandu dies and his younger wife Madri chooses to die in the fires of his funeral pyre, Kunti takes her sons Nakula and Sahdeva as her own children and brings them up as her own children. So equal is her attention that the two motherless children grow up to be known as Kunti’s sons. Never once is anything made of the fact that they were not actually born to Kunti.
7. Mahendra Bahubali = Karna
In the Mahabharata, Karna is a son of Kunti who she has as a young maiden. His birth happens due to a mistake and in her shame, she puts him in a basket and lets it float down the river so that no one may ever know about him. The basket is discovered by a childless couple — a charioteer and his wife — who adopt him and bring him up as their own son. Karna grows up confused about his identity and seeks out his origins, eventually landing up in Hastinapur.
Mahendra Bahubali or Shiva, is an abandoned child too. Though the circumstances of his abandonment are different. He was found on the river by a kindly tribe and brought up as their own. He too, grew up asking about his origins and he too found his answers.
8. Devasena = Draupadi
In the Mahabharata, princess Draupadi was courted by many and eventually won over by Arjuna, one of the five Pandava princes. It was her humiliation in the Hastinapur court that acted as the final straw on the way to the Mahabharata war. It was she who shamed the elders of Hastinapur and asked them where their conscience was when she — the future queen of Hastinapur — was being stripped naked in front of everyone.
Devasena comes to Mahishmati as its future queen after falling in love with Amarendra. She takes no shit from anyone. She speaks her mind and does what she believes is right. In fact, it was an attempt at her humiliation that sparked the fire of Mahishmati’s division into two. When Amarendra was banished from the palace, she accompanied her husband into their new life, just as Draupadi did when the Pandavas were banished.
I would like to say I have covered all of it, but I most certainly have not. Bear in mind that these are parallels from the Mahabharata and not copies of the Mahabharata. A parallel comes from genuine understanding. A copy comes from shallow understanding.