When film critic Siddhant Adlakha entered the Regal in Times Square to watch SS Rajamouli's RRR (Rise. Roar. Revolt) on its opening night in the USA (in March, 2022), he remembers feeling a bit out of place. Adlakha, accompanied by his cousin and two (white) American friends, thinks they were the only non-Telugu speakers in the entire theatre. "A part of me almost felt like I was sitting in on a community gathering uninvited," recounts Adlakha in an email. It turned out to be one of the best things ever. The gigantic cheers for Ram Charan's and NT Rama Rao Jr's "entry" scenes, assured Adlakha he was on home pitch. In his glowing review, Adlakha noted how RRR could be a strong contender for reviving the "theatrical experience", especially next to the now-familiar Marvel multiverse (and with Top Gun: Maverick awaiting release at the time).
Rajamouli's new film has been accomplishing something unique in the United States in the past two months. In a viral video, one can see (a mostly) foreign audience awestruck and cheering during a scene where one of the film's two protagonists crashes a gathering of the British empire… with wild animals by his side. Rajamouli freezes the moment using the staple ultra slow-motion, making the scene appear almost mythic and framing the character like a God. It's not the most state-of-the-art VFX, but the audacity of the vision makes even the more discerning viewers of the film to give in.
Releasing in over 1000 screens in March (2022), RRR mostly ran to packed shows in the US, reflecting in the film's earnings from the region. USA accounts for an estimated $11 million (Rs 85 crore) or 11.1% out of the film's worldwide haul of nearly $100 million or Rs 780 crore. While the film at first seemed to be primarily catering to the Indian diaspora, a consistent word of mouth and the film's release on Netflix (on May 20) has mostly contributed to many "encoRRRe" screenings till a week ago. Some of them are organised by critics. Adlakha hosted two screenings himself. Reactions like "I felt my face melting" and "bits of my head are lying all over the neighbourhood" have flooded Twitter as more Americans have caught up with the film. Even though one is tempted to conclude how it is probably being discovered by the "quirky" genre film lovers, one look at the enthusiastic reviews in the Rolling Stones and New Yorker magazines will tell you, RRR has reached a place no other Indian film has.
"It felt like the best Fast n Furious movies blended with the best superhero movies, by way of Hong Kong cinema of the 90s," says C Robert Cargill, the screenwriter of Dr Strange.
Renowned screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, a self-professed fan of Indian crime dramas and horror shows, had been meaning to catch RRR for a long time. He was introduced to the film by friends he claims had already seen it six times in the theatre by then. Cargill, writer of Dr Strange and Sinister, tweeted it is one of the weirdest, most sincere blockbusters he's seen in a long time. One he would rewatch soon. Describing the film's valiant third act, where the character of Ram Charan (called 'Ram' in the film) transforms into Lord Ram (the protagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayana), taking on the British empire's heavy artillery with a simple bow and arrow, Cargill tells me what he was reminded of – "It felt like the best Fast n Furious movies blended with the best superhero movies, by way of Hong Kong cinema of the 90s."
There are many reasons why RRR has crossed over as successfully as it has, and a lot of it has to do with Hollywood's steady Marvel-isation over the last decade, where non-franchise films have become increasingly rare. Being assaulted with the heavily templated Marvel superhero film, where most climaxes suffer from a deluge of rushed, standardised VFX (like Spiderman: No Way Home, for instance) making the audience feel absolutely nothing, RRR almost came as an antidote. As film writer Brandon Streussnig observes, "… in a world where many blockbusters are full of sarcastic quips and weightless action, there's something to RRR's straight-faced, mythic exhilaration that feels new." Streussnig mentions a friend, who compared RRR to Titanic, given its scope, its earnestness, and the 'romance' at the centre of the film's sweeping visuals. Both Adlakha and Cargill concur with Streussnig that the film's sincerity is its best quality.
On the one hand, RRR reinforces the image of mainstream Indian cinema, one that is largely over-the-top, about song & dance, and melodrama. On the other hand, it also reintroduces the audience to the potential of mainstream Indian cinema if it was meticulously and painstakingly sculpted, with the volume turned to 11. For eg, the way the song Naatu Naatu is filmed, where both actors lip-sync and dance with an intensity that doesn't drop from the absolute maximum. From the outset, it seems like the most fierce form of a cardio workout, to keep that intensity going through the runtime of nearly five minutes. Adlakha recalls it as 'a musical number that feels like its own action-driven story', while Streussnig notes how "… it ties in so many threads. Ram and Bheem's friendship and how far each is willing to go for the other, and that dance just underscores it perfectly."
For a film as "aesthetically persuasive", as Adlakha puts it, it's also important to mind the subtext for some of RRR's most potent sequences. There's been a concerted criticism about the explicit Hindu iconography and allusions to caste pride that probably helped with the widespread acceptance of Rajamouli's films in the Hindi belt. Even before RRR, the two-part Baahubali films spoke more than once about Kshatriya pride, among other things. In RRR's last scene, Bheem (a Gond tribal) says to Ram (an upper-caste Hindu) "Give me an education, brother" – fortifying the Hindu society's caste hierarchy. In the scene where the two heroes meet for the first time to rescue a boy, the flag used by Bheem to shield himself from the fire looks eerily similar to a flag partly designed by one of the founding fathers of the Hindu nationalist politics – Veer Savarkar, as noted in this piece for Slate. For someone as precise and deliberate as Rajamouli, it's hard to overlook the detail of a prop as a happenstance or the caste implications as mere accident. Are we witnessing some of the filmmaker's own deep-rooted beliefs, or is this his idea of pandering in a country where Jai Shree Ram has become a popular chant for the oppression of minorities? Or is it a complicated hybrid of a filmmaker being faithful to Hindu mythology coupled with his willful disdain for how his film is viewed in a state where Hindutva is flourishing? It's something we might never find out for sure. However, as Adlakha says, "it's a conversation worth having."
Have the umpteen pieces about the film's worrying politics made the American audience contextualise their reaction to the film, amongst all the hoopla and spectacle? "I love the film and think it's as exciting as a blockbuster can get. But I do think it's important that we're able to engage critically with the things we love and be able to listen to why someone might be upset," says Streussnig. Should films have to carry the burden of how they might be interpreted by a section of the audience? "There are pro-Nazi memes that use images from American History X – the most anti-skinhead movie ever made," notes Adlakha. Cargill mentions how even the most devout atheist believes in the power of the Christ or Bible, while watching an American horror movie. "But those audiences don't walk out converted, feeling any different about the religious right wing," he adds.
It probably makes a lot of sense that the minutiae around RRR's political connotations is being taken apart with an added vigour in the US, as opposed to India. Especially considering the recent controversy at Google, where an anti-caste activist's talk was reportedly cancelled. RRR's apparent allegiance to the Hindu caste system adds a whole new visage to look at Rajamouli's American crossover, where the audience are mostly upper-caste Hindus. While the film's recognition in American media and pop culture is worth celebrating, one should also furnish caution around the blinding extravaganza. While we applaud the vision, we must also dissect the gaze. With great power comes great responsibility – like a superhero movie taught us, once upon a time.