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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

The Prince of Egypt, Baahubali and the joys of Netflix

I had the pleasure of seeing the US Premiere of “The Prince of Egypt“, a musical adapted for the stage by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Originally a very successful movie by DreamWorks in 1998, this production is the US premiere of a collaboration between the live theater division of Universal Pictures, TheatreWorks and Denmark’s Fredericia Teater.

The reign of Pharaoh in Egypt, the enslavement of the Hebrews, and their deliverance by Moses to the Promised Land were brought to life on stage. My recollection of the Exodus is from the film “The Ten Commandments“ which my parents took me to see in India when I was a child. The parting of the Red Sea is the scene that has been seared into my memory. And although we read some of the Old Testament in Bible History class in elementary school in India, the New Testament was what we read more of, and thus, I didn’t remember many of the details of the Exodus. I now know that this central story of Judaism is told at very Passover.

In this production, the choreography is outstanding. The diverse cast of actors move in fluid, spectacular movements, creating astonishing scenes: rivers, camels, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea. All of this is achieved without the aid of complicated sets, using just a few pieces.

It was nice to see a South Asian in the lead role. Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, of Sri Lankan origin and raised in Denmark, was an engaging young Moses. Tzipporah, the woman he fell in love with, was simply marvelous: commanding and powerful. The singing was terrific; their voices were strong and beautiful. When Moses entreated the Pharoah “Let my people go” the weight of history behind that quote sent a chill up my spine. The story keeps repeating itself: power in the hands of a few who retain it by oppressing others, the desire of a people for freedom, and the long arduous path to it marked by many sacrifices, sometimes of life itself. The production was intense, and I found myself drained at the end.

It got me thinking of other works that carry such enduring themes. Let me tell you about Baahubali and its sequel, Baahubali 2, the highest grossing films in India in recent years.

Months ago, I was checking out the library system online for books by Haruki Murakami. His most recent collection of short stories, “Men Without Woman” was in great demand. I had looked it up at my local Menlo Park library, and learned that all 24 copies were out, and furthermore 14 holds had been placed already! So why not read an older book, I thought. “Blind Willow Sleeping Woman” was available at the Redwood City Public Library, so I headed over there.

I found the book in a jiffy. On my way out, I noticed the video collection. I thought to ask one of the librarians if they happen to carry “Midnight’s Children”, the movie, which I had yet to see. He looked it up and said they did. We headed back to the video stacks and while he looked for “Midnights Children” I browsed and discovered “Baahubali”, which I had heard about.

It is an enthralling story about the kingdom of Mahishmati, its Queen Mother Sivagami, her sons Baahubali and Bhallaladeva, and Devasena, a captive warrior princess from a neighboring kingdom. It was magical!

Months later, this is how I came to watch the sequel, Baahubali 2. Succumbing to pressure from my daughter, I subscribed to Netflix through which many wonders are streamed, not only for the young, but also for, ahem, the young at heart. A few days ago, on a Friday evening, relaxing after a long week, I watched two episodes of “Undercover,” a BBC drama about a brilliant British lawyer whose husband had masked his true identity for the 20 years of their marriage. With those episodes, I finished season 1. After dinner, I thought I would watch an episode or so of season 2 to continue from the cliffhanger that was the ending of season 1. To my great surprise, there was no season 2 – BBC had canceled the show! See how it feels, my daughter exclaimed, as she had had the same experience not long ago with a show she had grown to like: it had been canceled after the first season. I was at a loss. Back to square one, I thought glumly. As one who doesn’t watch much TV, it takes much browsing for me to land on something that ends up being worth watching. Legal show? Drama? None of the offerings seemed to hit the spot. And then! To my delight, I saw “Baahubali 2, the Conclusion”. I watched half an hour or so before I needed to sleep. Enough to make me realize that it would be good to watch the first “Baahubali” again, as I had forgotten some of the plot details in the four months that had passed. So the next night, I watched the first “Baahubali” again. I skipped through one song and dance sequence and some long battle scenes, and was once again impressed by a story well told.

In “Baahubali 2” the story is revealed about the rivalry between Sivagami’s sons Baahubali and Bhallaladeva, and how the jealousy and hatred of one for the other seals the fate of the princess Devasena.

I was telling you about enduring themes in stories and legends that we have loved for years, wasn't I?

Here’s one: a child is delivered to another family to protect it until it is old enough to correct the course of history. Often it is carried on a river or over it. Lord Krishna, as an infant, was taken to the family who raised him on a stormy night over a river and through torrential rain. His uncle Kamsa, wanted him killed as it had been foretold that one of his sister Devaki’s sons would kill him. Krishna lived, and the prophecy came true.

And so it was with Moses, carried on the river Nile in a basket into which his mother had lovingly placed him, to save him from Pharoah’s murderous orders that every Hebrew male infant be killed. He lived, was raised by Pharoah’s daughter as Prince of Egypt, was later reunited with his people, and freed them.

Karna, one of the central characters in the Mahabharata, was conceived after the young Kunti tested a boon that she could invoke any God and conceive a child. She invoked Surya, and Karna was born. Not prepared to raise a child, she placed the infant in a basket and floated him down the river. He was found and raised by a charioteer and his wife, and grows up to become a mighty warrior, and in many ways, a tragic figure.

Baahubali too was carried thus over a river, to save him from certain death at his uncle’s hands. He was raised in a village, and grew up to reclaim his heritage and restore Mahishmati to its former glory.

Netflix, I was pleased to note, offers many films that are on my (ever-lengthening) list. It was fun to stream the movie version of “Prince of Egypt” after seeing the play. The animation allows magical depictions not possible on stage, but seeing the movie made me admire even more what the actors accomplished on stage.

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