In Defence of Mass Films and SS Rajamouli’s Sight and Sound List

Our reactions to the director’s picks might just reveal more about our inherent elitism and cultural insecurity than we realise
In Defence of Mass Films and SS Rajamouli’s Sight and Sound List

In Megastar: Chiranjeevi and Telugu Cinema after NT Rama Rao, SV Srinivas talks about the origins of the Telugu “Mass film” that emerged, with Chiranjeevi at the helm, in the wake of NTR’s departure from films. It is no coincidence that the biggest Telugu film of the year is RRR (2022), a multi-starrer that stars Chiranjeevi’s son and NTR’s grandsons as the leads. One of the characteristics Srinivas identifies in the mass film is the biographical reference to the star or the star’s lineage. There was a time that director S.S. Rajamouli’s films, like most mass films of the time, indulged in this — Chiranjeevi making a cameo in Ram Charan-starrer Magadheera (2009); footage of the late NTR being spliced, Forrest Gump-style into NTR-starrer Yamadonga (2007). But Rajamouli’s success, particularly with films like Eega (2012), have helped to relegate the star’s lineage to the background and foreground character and story (though the identity is not entirely invisible).

In his book, SV Srinivas also defines another characteristic trait of the mass film: The moment of irrationality that arrives after the film generates spectatorial anxiety. “Anything can happen during the moment of irrationality, provided there is a willing spectator…the spectacular occurs because it is willed by the spectator and when the narrative explicitly acknowledges the entitlement of the spectator to the fulfilment of her expectations.” RRR’s many moments of irrationality — Ramaraju fending off hundreds of protesters, Bheem facing off against a tiger, “Naatu Naatu” — reveal its mass roots. Politics aside, RRR is a superlative example of mass artistry, the elevation of a mass film to epic spectacle with imaginative, ambitious, and well-produced action. Though the moments are supremely irrational, they are built up to in a way where they seem plausible, and this is, perhaps, its greatest strength.

RRR is an action film that emerges from the homegrown, naatu Indian mass film. It is precisely this, along with the imagery and drama borrowed from mythology, that differentiates its melodramatic flourishes and its action from Hollywood films and Bollywood films like War (2019), which imitate the aesthetics of Hollywood. A Rajamouli action-sequence is instantly recognisable and differentiated in the global market. This is a far cry from the current crop of bland, studio-commissioned previs scenes that permeate the superhero-dominated cinemascape of the West, where the director has little agency to infuse the action with originality. It is this stagnation, along with the trend of big-budget blockbusters being almost exclusively franchise films, that perhaps drove American audiences towards RRR, that drove American critics to use Rajamouli’s film as a counterexample to reveal the flaws of the existing Hollywood studio system.

Earlier this month, Rajamouli was asked by the prestigious film magazine Sight and Sound to list his picks for the greatest films of all time. What followed was a barrage of critical responses that expressed varying degrees of disappointment at the director having chosen films that are thoroughly commercial.

Rajamouli has admitted to having dozed off while watching Parasite (2019). Rajamouli has Kung Fu Panda (2008) on his list of the 10 greatest films of all time. It is easy to disparage this, to call it anti-intellectualism, to see it as a reflection of the shallowness of American pop-culture consumption, but what it says about Rajamouli is that he is fundamentally maximalist, fundamentally populist. His trick is to milk the simple emotions and use them to elevate spectacle; he remains unembarrassed about the cultural and political nuances of the mechanics underlying these emotions as long as they work their trick in the theater. In other words, Rajamouli is mass.  

The problem with a lot of the criticism of Rajamouli’s list, his candidacy, as well as the ‘worthiness’ of RRR is that it disparages not just the craft of this film or this director specifically, but that of the mass film in general, which happens to be the genre of film that is most widely watched in India, especially the South. It also overlooks how important and unprecedented the recognition of a Telugu film beyond India’s borders is (I don’t intend to defend RRR’s politics here; I believe it is somewhat suspect and flawed, but I’m not sure it is fascist, as some have called it. I do believe though, that critique that is accurate is important, especially given our times). 

The criticism of the mass-ness of RRR by Indian critics then, is not just a repudiation of Rajamouli, but also Shankar and many other filmmakers along with large sections of the movie-going audience. To reject is to reject the filmography of Chiranjeevi, Rajnikanth, and Nayanathara, along with the audiences that flock to theaters and celebrate their favourite stars as if films were religious festivals. It is to reject the most popular mode of film-watching in India, despite the inherent problems of this mode. It is an elitist liberal rejection of the very masses that it is imperative for the progressives to appeal to, to keep fascism at bay. When Pa. Ranjith made Kaala, he used the mass film as a vehicle for progressive politics; in fact, Kaala (2018) is a film whose artistry lies precisely in its radical subversion of the tropes of the “mass” Rajnikanth vehicle. When Sukumar made Rangasthalam (2018), he made a mass film that was about the tyranny of brahminism.

One of the caveats of the mass film is its maleness — it assumes, most of the time a male gaze from a male audience, and this is why it has often characterised by misogyny and objectification, despite the existence of female mass stars like Vijayashanti and Nayanathara. While Rajamouli has shed many of these problematic traits over time, RRR is still hypermasculine. That RRR is winning critics awards in America despite this could be surprising, but I think part of the answer lies in White guilt. An American action film with macho White men might be problematised, but when the film happens to be anti-Imperialist and the men happen to be non-White, the pleasures of the action can be indulged without guilt. Mel Gibson's The Patriot (2000) may not fly today, but the pleasures of The Patriot can be had through RRR. An American film whose plot revolved around procuring guns would possibly be seen as soft-advertisement for the National Rifle Association (NRA), but in the context of a violent anti-White revolution far removed from America — this can be enjoyed.

Heath Ledger and Mel Gibson in The Patriot
Heath Ledger and Mel Gibson in The Patriot

Like Top Gun: Maverick (2022), RRR is also an argument for the irreplaceability of the theatrical experience — something that is currently under threat in America, and whose sanctity major filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorcese have championed.  This is why the lens of the West, and the lens of the Indian critics towards RRR’s western reception, is revealing.

The backlash to Rajamouli’s candidacy via the criticism of his list reveals the tendency of Indian cultural critique to look at the West as arbiter and tastemaker of Indian art, despite the West's disinterest in engaging with Indian politics and culture.  There is a distinct sense of betrayal — as if the hope was that the West would celebrate a more nuanced film, a more nuanced director, but ended up being seduced by the naked, brazenly flexed muscle of RRR. Ironically, the list itself also reveals a filmmaker circumscribed by some of the limitations of Hollywood spectacle. If Rajamouli's villains are simple, moustache-twirling caricatures, this is because his influence is the villains in Disney's Aladdin (1992, 2019) and The Lion King (1994, 2019), and not, say, the nuanced, empathetic antagonist in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997).  If his heroes are muscular and macho, and through them, he muscularises mythology and history, it is because of Zac Snyder and Gibson.

There is nothing surprising about the list itself: Baahubali (2015) is in a sense, a remake of The Lion King. That he includes Mayabazar (1957) and Ben Hur (1959) is also no surprise — if anything, it contextualises his ambition of adapting the Mahabharata as a Hindu equivalent to Ben Hur, a Christian epic. Forrest Gump (1994) also makes sense, given his penchant for sentimentality and emotions. I’m not sure if he has conflated his favourites with what he thinks are the greatest films of all time. Perhaps the distinction doesn’t exist for him?

The reason Indians are arguing, debating, dragging one another — even those on the same side of the political spectrum over RRR — is because of the West’s, specifically America’s, disinterest in anything except the biggest, loudest, most spectacular action film produced in India. We are sniping at each other across a trench dug for us. Films like Ponniyin Selvan 1 (2022) and Ante Sundaraniki (2022) are personal favourites from 2022, but the West doesn’t have the context, inclination, or interest to understand these films. And action, as Rajamouli pointed out, is a universal language.

RRR is a success in the West (and in other markets such as Japan) for the same reason Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) was; for the same reason the Marvel films do well in India: They’re creative, audacious action, buoyed by the unique, culturally-specific mechanics of the mass film. RRR is possibly in contention for the Academy Awards because of this, and because of its behemoth campaign, a virtual necessity for a film to stand a chance in the mainline Oscar categories. Given the Oscars’ predilection for specific genres — especially drama, perhaps RRR’s candidacy reveals a newfound openness to other genres. The Academy Awards have, after all, been famously unfair to genre fare like action and horror. If we are rueing the lack of interest in other Indian films, this only points to the fact that we have to go through the Oscars to reach a wider audience and global respectability. It speaks to the dearth of a progressive, inclusive platform in South Asia that can talk about the cultural and political nuances of South Asian films, appreciating both the mass and the artsy. 

But given that the West only seems to care about a film like RRR, the Oscar buzz around it has the best chance of foregrounding cultural conversations about it — and perhaps the criticisms of it which also align with criticisms of the political situation in India. Because, as things stand, the counterfactual to RRR is not another Indian film; it is, tragically, no Indian film. 

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