In British-occupied India, a village protector travels to the city to rescue a kidnapped girl and an ambitious policeman is tasked to stop him.
Directed by S. S. Rajamouli
Starring N. T. Rama Rao Jr and Ram Charan
Review by Jon Kissel
RRR is no Rashomon, but it does require adapting to the long and prolific filmmaking tradition of India, specifically in this case the Telugu region of southern India where Rajamouli is a Tollywood staple. Historical epics aren’t supposed to have repeated song-and-dance breaks whose lyrics break down the internal dilemmas of the main characters, nor are they supposed to have raucous crowd participation for a film that Rajamouli has described as partially influenced by Inglourious Basterds. It’s impossible to imagine audiences hooting at Mel Gibson in Braveheart, a movie that would absolutely have been made worse if William Wallace stopped to sing about his broken heart.
However, for the Telugu equivalent of Braveheart, complete with elongated torture scene and mustache-twirling English villains, nothing is more appropriate. RRR is a sweeping epic of righteous justice, fraternal love, and national awakening, huge romantic themes that so invigorate the characters that they can’t help but burst into song. Rajamouli imagines a world where anti-colonial Indian leaders Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) teamed up against a brutal English overlord (Ray Stevenson), and he does so using hidden purposes and conflicting loyalties. Bheem and Raju are on each other’s side, then opposed, then reunited in the equivalent of a superhero film where these historical Indian leaders are the reincarnations of Hindu gods, complete with impossible strength and agility. It’s like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, only great. Rajamouli uses the largest budget ever for an Indian production to visualize Bheem and Raju’s journey in the grandest way possible, utilizing speed ramps, incredible set pieces, and seamless CGI animals to accentuate their icon status, though they’re just as capable of stealing the show at an elaborate tea party as they are at turning motorcycles into blunt weapons. The overall effect is sensory overload, a three-plus hour film that keeps the heart pounding.
While an Indian cinema novice like myself must give myself over to the capital-R Romance of the film and go along with what I presume to be the dominant tone of the entire subcontinent’s cinematic output, that doesn’t mean RRR is immune to criticism. The British are as nasty a villain as possible here, which I have no issue with. Eton manners and BBC costume dramas have convinced the world that they were benevolent rulers, afflicted with noblesse oblige and the white man’s burden, when in fact they were pasty tyrants, looking down their gin-blossomed noses at the billions they subjugated. Bring on the British villain, but if they’re going to be so awful and bloodthirsty, commit. A large chunk of RRR is wasted on Bheem’s pseudo-romance with the only decent British character, the overlord’s niece Jenny (Olivia Morris). By placing her as the one white person who doesn’t lord her power over Indians, the movie’s inherently asking why she’s different. It also has no answer for that question, and in a movie about Bheem and Raju, it shouldn’t care about her motivations. Jettison this character and the whole film improves. The same could be said for Raju’s love interest, a fiancée that he left in his home village. Alia Bhatt plays Sita, a character who becomes integral with about an hour left to go, features heavily in the end credits dance number, and again could be completely excised from the film with minimal impact. This is a film that is about the friendship and shared purpose between Bheem and Raju, and everything else takes away from that.
In regards to the co-protagonists, what could’ve been added by omitting Jenny and Sita is apparent. Their opposing approaches are a rich ground that the film could’ve spent much more time digging in. Saving a single person is Bheem’s entire mission, while Raju, having embedded himself in the British security forces for years, has aided in British oppression for the purpose of rising to a position where he can do the most damage. Bheem’s single-minded purity of vision is shown to be inspiring in one of the film’s best scenes, where Raju must publicly torture the captured Bheem in front of the overlord and his repulsive wife (Alison Doody). As Bheem sings over being whipped, Raju’s face is splattered with his blood, and as he wipes it away, he surreptitiously plucks a tear out of his eye. This moral dilemma for Raju is present in RRR, but not enough. He doesn’t meet back up with the associate of Bheem who he tortured, nor does he find out the fate of the man in Raju’s introduction scene who he arrests for the heinous crime of disrupting a portrait of King George. I wanted more of Raju’s dark night of the soul, of the burden that all this effort has placed on him. Instead, RRR is invested in Raju’s demigod status and elevates him over the unblemished Bheem. By the end of the film, a lot of time has gone by and the viewer may have forgotten about Raju’s complicity, but I could not.
It’s not like Rao and Charon are incapable of delivering the performance required of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio in the Departed. Both are huge stars, rippling with muscle and charisma, and both would be wise to avoid Hollywood where the best they can hope for is a downstream superhero team member instead of towering leads in their home country. They each are worthy of their mythic introductions, and the film stretches their abilities for comedy and pathos when they aren’t facing down angry mobs or tigers. Rao is given the more earnest role, and he’s consistently pushing every line out of his body with passion. I love the way he enunciates on his name when he reveals himself to Raju, saying ‘Bheem’ as if it’s rumbling through him. Charon has the more complex role, and based on small moments in a very large movie, he undoubtedly has the ability to turn a statuesque body and appearance into a vessel for deeper emotion. I just wish the film trusted him to deliver more of those moments.
RRR ends a la Inglourious Basterds with a bloody victory for our heroes, paved with blood sprays as exclamation points and a triumphant suicide bombing along the way. It’s the end credits dance sequence, traditional for Indian cinema per my understanding, that left me feeling queasy. My theater screening was filled with whoops and clapping along, but the whole sequence is a nakedly political tribute to Indian resistance fighters and politicians. The cast and the dancers are cheering for them, and the audience sounds like it’s doing the same. Whether this is specific to RRR or not, it’s the equivalent of The Patriot ending with statues of George Washington or Patrick Henry, founding fathers who are also now recognized as morally conflicted figures. I haven’t done the homework on who is precisely being honored in RRR’s end credits, but what reading I have done remarks on who’s not honored, particularly Gandhi, India’s first president Nehru, and an activist from the founding period who was active in anti-caste discrimination. Both Gandhi and Nehru are representative of a secular, ecumenical India, a must in a nation as diverse as it is, but the current dominant political trend in India is Hindu nationalism, as embodied by president Narendra Modi. RRR makes explicit use of anti-colonialism as a Hindu project, turning Raju into the literal embodiment of a Hindu deity in the final sequence. What’s it like to be a Muslim in India and watch this movie in a packed theater? Do you have to watch your back as you leave? Movies have been a key propaganda tool since they’ve been invented, and I have no problem with any country crafting national myths with film. Battleship Potemkin’s great, and so is the more recent Hero. What I can’t quite figure out is where RRR falls on the Triumph of the Will/Birth of a Nation scale. Is this thing that is adding joy to a lot of people’s lives also making it harder for other people to live in the world? I’d prefer not to think about that after a film that pioneers piggyback fighting, but here we are. B+