Rise, Roar, Revolt
RRR is streaming on Netflix
It would not be an understatement to say that Indian cinema is a big deal. A little research teaches me that, on average, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 films are produced in India annually. In 2019, before reliable reporting got blown up by the pandemic, the Indian film industry grossed about $2.7 billion, making it the third-highest in the world.
Here’s the thing…if Indian cinema is such a cultural juggernaut, why haven’t I reviewed more Indian films? That’s because I screwed up! It’s not easy to strike a balance between American blockbusters and more independent-minded movies. But I think I can do better by checking out more international film in general and more Indian film in particular.
Where to start, then? As usual, it was social media that showed me the way. There were rumblings of an Indian blockbuster that had wild-ass action, amazing song and dance numbers, and genuine heart. People I trusted had seen this film and expressed that their faces were melted off. Could it be true? Was RRR my gateway drug? As it turns out, absolutely yes!
We begin in 1920 with the taking of a child. Her name is Malli (Twinkle Sharma) and she’s given the gift of song. The people of her forest village Adilabad love her voice. So does Catherine Buxton (Alison Doody), the wealthy wife of Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson). You see, Scott is English and the governor of the province. He believes his power is limitless. He believes he’s of Superior genetic stock than the locals. With a nod from Catherine, Scott has Malli whisked away to Delhi.
The villagers won’t stand for this injustice, and their protector Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is sent to rescue Malli. Why is Bheem the right man for the job? Probably because he tracks down a rogue tiger, fights the tiger, then apologizes to the tiger before dispatching it. Bheem is, in the parlance of our times, a total badass.
Bheem arrives in Delhi and disguises himself as a humble Muslim. The local police get wind that Bheem is in the area and must be found. Who could possibly be the one to do that? Why, Raju (Ram Charan), a police officer with a seeming eye toward advancement. Why him? Well, during a protest, Raju is ordered to retrieve a member of a mob. Raju proceeds to fight his way through said mob, nabs the guy, then fights his way back through the mob again. Raju is, in the parlance of our times, a total badass.
Things get complicated when Bheem and Raju meet by pure coincidence and immediately become best friends. Both conceal their true identities yet both recognize a kindred spirit in the other man. Bheem will do anything to rescue Malli. Raju will do anything to stop him. Is there more to all of this than meets the eye? Will their friendship survive? Will there be elaborate musical numbers? Yes. Yes. YES!
I should explain a few things about RRR to help create the ideal viewing mindset. First, don’t let the fact that it’s three hours and seven minutes long freak you out. Director S.S. Rajamouli has made an insanely entertaining historical epic that positively rockets forward. To be clear, Rajamouli does spend time showing us the vicious brutality of the English colonizers. He doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, we’re treated to some of the most bananas action sequences I’ve ever seen and believe me, there’s a lot of it. Raju and Bheem are portrayed as essentially superheroes. They demolish battalions of soldiers, defy puny concepts like the laws of physics, and laugh at injuries that would turn you or me into a fine pink mist.* While the CGI occasionally gets a little dodgy, I didn’t care. I was having too much fun with the endlessly inventive action and the impeccable dance choreography.
Yes, I said “dance choreography.” Musical numbers are a pretty normal aspect of Indian cinema but don’t be fooled, it’s not to be confused with a musical. The music helps to show character, move the plot along, and treat the audience to some fancy footwork, yet it’s not primarily the way the story is told. In that respect, RRR does what you’d expect. There are a number of songs, and the dance choreography is jaw-dropping. It felt like a natural way to tell the story, and it’s something I wish more American films would adopt.**
Are all the action sequences merely pointless violence for the sake of base thrills? Not at all. Screenwriters Rajamouli, V. Vijayendra Prasad, and Sai Madhav Burra have used the stories of the real Raju and Bheem as a jumping-off point. Both men were revolutionaries who fought for freedom against the British, though they never actually met. The script imagines what a meeting between them would have been like before they committed to their struggle.*** Does it matter that, in reality, Bheem and Raju (probably) didn’t have superpowers? It does not, and anyone who gets hung up on the “realism” in this film is not watching it correctly. The screenplay does an excellent job telling a myth, a fable about two heroes battling evil, and it does so without an ounce of sarcasm.
The performances in RRR are broad. Very broad. Given the kind of film it is, I’m good with that as nuance would have been pointless. Yes, Ray Stevenson and Alison Doody are cartoonishly evil as the Buxtons, and their lieutenants exist only to be slaughtered, punched, kicked, and otherwise manhandled. The good news is that both Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. understand that they’re playing heroes who also have multiple sides to them. Rao’s Bheem is a bit more of a country bumpkin, a guy used to the slower rhythms of village life. During his search for Malli, he falls for Jenny (Olivia Morris), a friendly English nanny. Rao’s performance is winning as he shifts between a single-minded hunter, a loyal friend, and a bashful suitor. Charan’s Raju is a bit more intense, which is understandable as we learn more about his past. Still, Charan knows that Raju is more than a rage monster. He’s thrilled to make a new friend, then tormented as he learns Bheem is his quarry. When we talk about chemistry in films, we usually refer to it in the romantic sense. Here, the chemistry between Charan and Rao is wildly entertaining. They play off each other expertly, whether they’re hanging out, dancing up a storm, or performing feats of derring-do.
Thinking back on it now, it amuses me that RRR is my first Indian blockbuster. It’s like if GoodFellas was your first mob movie — pretty hard to top that. I’m excited to discover more works of Indian cinema. Moreso, I’m happy I found RRR. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, a lot of horror. If you’re in the market for a movie that will lift you up without insulting your intelligence, I can’t think of a more exhilarating example.
*To clarify this point, there are a number of sequences where Raju and Bheem will be seriously injured, and the very act of fighting harder makes them feel better.
**That could be tough due to a single reason — sincerity. Americans seem to be allergic to pure emotional sincerity in blockbusters, and it’s often hidden underneath macho posturing or snark.
***To put it in context, imagine a movie where Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere become close friends and beat up ten thousand redcoats.