Rajamouli’s 2022 Big-Budget Blockbuster RRR
RRR is a very silly movie. A very silly and very expensive movie. The most expensive India has ever produced. It cost 72 million dollars.
The movie is an overblown, action thriller bellowing out an epic battle between good and evil. The good guys being the Indians and the bad guys being the British. The Indian heroes are ridiculously strong and macho and the British villains are ridiculously petty and evil. Of course no matter how petty and evil you make the British occupiers look you probably aren’t far from the truth. It looks exaggerated but no one embraced and embodied white supremacy more than The British Empire. Still, the whole film is closer to a Marvel comic than anything historical.
The most interesting facet of RRR is the relationship between the two main characters Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju. They are set up as protagonist and antagonist but they do not know each other when they meet and become fast and faithful friends. Sometimes the film seems to imply they might be a little more than friends. The homoeroticism in RRR can get pretty thick but that’s not the sort of thing you can discuss in India. The chemistry between Komaram and Alluri is hard to deny, and when they both take off their shirts to reveal oily, ripples of man muscle, the message seems pretty clear.
The wonderful thing about Bollywood films, or in this case Tollywood films, is that the films are long enough to include a little bit of everything, actually RRR includes a lot a bit of everything. The stunts are pretty spectacular in an over-the-top, mediocre-CGI way. Bheem outruns a CGI tiger and then wrestles him into submission. It’s never clear if he and Raju are meant to be superhuman, but they regularly perform superhuman feats.
The two characters are based on real historical figures. The real Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju never met in real life but they did live during the same time in India and they did both fight as revolutionaries. Either way, RRR is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is a fantasy that takes two men from history, inflates them into mythic-sized heroes, and spins a sensationalized extravaganza of dancing, fighting, music, explosions, love, betrayal, and car chases. You get a lot of bang for your rupee in RRR.
The heart of the film is the conflict between Bheem and Raju. They are tangled in a web of undercover identities and conflicting goals. Raju is symbolized by fire and Bheema by water. There is a fantastically theatrical battle between the two of them that culminates in what can only be called a logo. The screen turns black and a graphic of their two arms emerges, one encased in fire and the other in water, This is actually not the first time that the film stops to present its content in logo form. It’s very strange.
There are some spoilers ahead but with a film like this, I don’t think it really matters.
In the end, the two men share the same goal but differ in methodology. One is playing the long game from the inside and the other is focused on something more immediate, but they both want to expel the British.
On several occasions, Raju is forced to fight and even torture Bheem in order to maintain his (Raja’s) cover. The public torture scene is amazing. Picture Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ as a musical. Dripping with blood standing on shattered legs, Bheem belts out a triumphant ballad. The fact that both men are superhumanly strong confuses things a little bit. What does it mean to torture someone with superhuman strength? You can tear the flesh from his body but he just keeps singing. We never know if either of them is ever in any real danger. They get slashed by tigers, burnt by fire, shot with rifles, bludgeoned with stones and they just keep coming.
There are all sorts of references to Hindu mythology underpinning the film. Raju recites the Bhagavad Gita at his British captors like a venomous curse. In the Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna on the morality of honor, duty, and war, “You have every right to work but not to expect the result. Let not the result be your motive nor let your attachment be to inaction.”
The Gita is a section out of a larger book, the longest in history, called The Mahabharata. Bheem’s super strength ends up being explained by his being related to Bheema, a supernaturally strong man in The Mahabharata. Then, alongside all of this, there are lots of references to the other major holy book of India, The Ramayana. It would take forever to sift through all the references but they are all right up front and easily recognizable to a Hindu audience. All the references center on the theme of duality. The Ramayana is full of couples and opposites. It’s about loyalty, true love, true friendship, and family bonds.
As an aside, there seems to be a reference to Star Wars in RRR as well. Star Wars is also about duality (the dark and light side of the force) and loyalty and maybe I’m reading too far into it but in RRR there is an evil English general who is mentoring Raju, while Raju is undercover. After promoting Raju, the general looks at him slyly and says “I see you have learned the ways of the empire, young man.”
Star Wars aside, the Hindu references gain prominence as the film goes on. Any Hindu would recognize the silhouette below as Rama. The Mahabharata also features duality but not just between the characters. The essential conflict is within the lead character Arjuna who must find a path forward either through war or submission.
The conflict between The British and The Indians slides back and forth between comical and grave. It’s a little unnerving. There is a prison escape scene that feels very much like a Tarantino film. We have been witness to some egregious and disturbing behavior on the part of the British and then when the Indians get their revenge we get a cartoonish and wildly exaggerated flush of violence that is purely action-hero style entertainment.
All of the chaos propels the plot at a breakneck speed as we watch two revolutionaries decide how to best save India. There is a conspicuous absence of any references to Gandhi or peaceful resistance. It might have been interesting to see Gandhi covered in muscles and Vaseline preaching to the masses. The film takes place in 1920 so Gandhi was around but I wonder if the emphasis on violent overthrow and Hindu nationalism isn’t a reflection of the political climate in present-day India.
The initials RRR refer to the Telegu words “Raudraṁ,” “Raṇaṁ,” and “Rudhiraṁ” which translated into English are “Rise” “Roar,” and “Revolt.” The film was criticized upon release for “promoting violence.” There has been a rise of Hindu extremism, conservative Hindu nationalism, and anti-Muslim sentiment in India. A movie like RRR may well be reflecting these shifts. It is an overtly political film and ends with a propaganda lesson concerning the many heroes in recent Indian history.
RRR was directed by S. S. Rajamouli who also co-wrote the film with V. Vijayendra Prasad. It was released in 2022 after being delayed by the pandemic. It raked in the big bucks when it finally came out. It was the third highest-grossing Indian film in history. The second was Baahubali, also made by S. S. Rajamouli. Baahubali, like RRR, is also over-the-top but pales in comparison to the juggernaut that is RRR. The highest-grossing Indian film of all time is Dangal directed by Nitesh Tiwari in 2016.
RRR is certainly designed to compete with Marvel movies. It is crafted for a world market even if there is a heavy dose of propaganda. There’s no doubt that RRR is very entertaining, completely ridiculous, but very entertaining. It may be a bit of a mess but it all ends up as fuel for an outsized, extra-large, bursting-at-the-seams, spectacle that will surely leave you exhausted.
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