RRR begins with a song – a number of SS Rajamouli films do. The lyrics of 'Raamam Raghavam' frames this story of India's freedom struggle as a Ram versus Raavan tale. The vocals at first resemble a tribal cry, then a raga, before it becomes a sort of primal rock n roll growl. Featuring both electric guitar riffs and furious taans, it's a fusion number, in tandem with the film's central preoccupation: a fictional take on two real life freedom fighters, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, who never met in real life.
RRR introduces them as fire and water. The implication is that fire and water can't really team up – it doesn't make logical sense – and the film is about them joining hands against a common enemy: the British. But Rajamouli's films are wish-fulfilment vehicles, like fan-fiction. His cinema exists in making the impossible possible: in making the villain kill the hero within the first twenty minutes of the movie, before his soul is transferred to a fly in Eega (2012); in the merging of a tragic romance in a swords and sandals world with a story of biking stunts and college romance in modern day Mumbai in Magadheera (2009); or in the hitherto unthinkable feat of making a Telugu film – a two part Telugu film – into the greatest event film in India in recent memory.
Even in his less outré films, there's always been an element of fantasy, like the collision of a rugby movie set in modern day Vizag with an 80s style masala action film with a stereotypical villain in Sye (2004). This he has achieved through sheer conviction, craft, and a whole lot of shamelessness.
His action scenes – not superhero films on paper – seem to follow video game rules in a live action world. And his heroes are an unofficial amalgamation of Indian gods, a larger-than-life aesthetic built into the very DNA of commercial Indian cinema. It gives them the license to perform small miracles, like the protagonist turning a golf ball into dust with bare fist in Simhadri (2003). One of my favourite bits is when the hero in Magadheera accelerates gravitational pull, thereby giving the term gravity-defying a whole new meaning. He moves his hands like he is swimming in air, and it might've been hilarious, if it weren't backed by strong emotion and a fierce narrative purpose: he is trying to prolong his last few moments on earth with his beloved. Rajamouli uses slow motion to prolong it a little more. Then he invents a parallel track that unfolds 400 years later, to fulfil their incomplete love story. It's about making what sounds preposterous believable on screen.
By literalising the meeting of Fire and Water in RRR, Rajamouli has spelt out a pet theme of his. The filmmaker has evolved over the years to arrive at a personal, unique style that has touched an almost auteurist level. Films like Magadheera, Eega, and Baahubali bear testimony to this. They have fire, and water, at significant junctures, pointing at something greater than what you see on screen. When Sivagami is looking for an escape route to save the newborn king in the beginning of Baahubali: The Beginning, the river shows the way (the song at the beginning says it all: 'Jeeva Nadhi'). Move back, and forward, from ancient India to a pool of sewage water in Eega where it breeds a larvae of flies. When Eega does pull off his near impossible quest of killing the villain, it does so through self-immolation. Fire signifies an other extreme in the Rajamouli multiverse, but also a kind of sacrifice for a higher purpose.
It makes sense then that Ram Charan's character in RRR is symbolised by fire. Working for the British, he takes on an angry mob of protestors, the very people whose freedom he's secretly fighting for. When the two opposing forces of nature meet – sparked off by an instinctive reaction to a crisis arising outside of their individual missions – an explosion marks this most momentous of events. There's a bridge. There's water. And there's a literal joining of hands. If all this sounds too…conceptual, you have to see them – and preferably on the big screen – for Rajamouli's cinema isn't cerebral: they are about the visceral impact. The filmmaker's greatest feat might be in that how he has turned the most entertaining films into pure cinema, a thing of sound and image, a song of fire and water. Or even better, a dance-off. Baahubali onwards he has been able to lend mass spectacle a balletic grace, and conjure images that have entered our consciousness forever. Call it the Rajamouli money shot. (You know them).
There aren't many filmmakers that can do both, ie, make films that speak to your mum as well as that genre film fan from Dallas. Ten years ago, Josh Hurtado went to watch Eega on the opening night at the Hollywood theatre in Irving and had his mind blown. It didn't matter that he watched it without subtitles – he went for it again. Today, Hurtado, is proud to have contributed in creating a cultish following for Rajamouli films in the US (they come subtitled, a change that has been possible only because there is a market for it outside the Telugu speaking diaspora). A critic writing on local cinemas at the time, with a special interest in Telugu mass films, Eega kicked off Hurtado's programming career, who approached film festivals asking them to show it. "Even with all the crazy things happening, Rajamouli is very focussed on his characters," he says, "He's really good at world-building. The action is very clear, and the easy to understand stories don't require a whole lot of cultural context. All these things work in his favour."
Allow me to illustrate some of what Hurtado is talking about. In Baahubali: The Conclusion, we see Amarendra Baahubali and Katappa arrive on horseback at Kuntala Rajyam. It looks like a kingdom in the lap of the Himalayas, with rolling meadows and valleys. They pretend to be commoners in the early part of their stay, all the while as Amarendra and the warrior-princess Devasena fall in love. A surprise attack by the army of an enemy tribe compels Amarendra to rise to the occasion. Like a true Rajamouli hero, he does something insane – and intelligent. He opens up the floodgates of the dam, letting the river do the rest, washing the enemy force down the slope with one big burst of water.
Conventional wisdom says that while Bollywood was looking westward in the early 2000s, Telugu cinema stuck to making these masala action films, that retained its connection with the masses. The market segregated. The multiplex movie was born.
The kingdom, at an elevated height, remains safe. But the topography of the place is transformed. Amarendra, Devasena (and Katappa) leave in a ship that comes all the way to their fortress. Amarendra's true identity had been revealed: he came as a commoner but leaves as a god. The effect is there to see. Rajamouli doesn't call your attention to it – the mind probably passes it off as 'anything goes in fantasy'. (I saw it only in my second viewing). But the fact that he has backed it with the logistics of this imagined geography and weaved that into plot progression and character shows how seriously he treats his dreamt up worlds. It's no cartoon. It's CINEMA.
If Baahubali's larger-than-life visuals are appropriate for its larger-than-life heroes, Eega is beautifully minimalist, a film of close-ups, a decision dictated by the size of its hero. Watch how Rajamouli makes us empathise with it. We are made to see with its eyes as it learns to take wings, surviving one life-threatening hazard after another: a giant footstep by an oblivious human; a predatory bird; even as it gets caught in a protective soap-bubble blown by children playing in a park, experiencing fleetingly the wonder life is capable of. By the time he lands up on a tray being served to, as it so happens, Sudeep's deliciously over-the-top villain, we are fully with Eega. We want him to get his revenge.
Rajamouli has perfected his skills as a visual storyteller over the years, gravitating towards fantasy. But you can see the instinct for crazy even in his more generic films. A scene in Chatrapati (2005) shows the villain holding a photograph of a minister he wants murdered, as he speaks to one of his henchmen on the phone, while he chews on gutka. We don't see him getting killed. Instead, the villain spits out blood red gutka at the photo as we hear on the soundtrack shrieks and cries of his family members. (Inventive, economical). When the rugby field in all its glory is glimpsed for the first time in Sye, we see it through the eyes of the villain, who has never known what rugby is. Occurring right before the interval – a signature Rajamouli move – it's a visual surprise that connects the two contrasting stories that were playing in parallel tracks up till now.
Conventional wisdom says that while Bollywood was looking westward in the early 2000s, Telugu cinema stuck to making these masala action films, that retained its connection with the masses. The market segregated. The multiplex movie was born. Telugu dubs on TV became a thing, and remake rights. Rajamouli's cinema was formed in this environment, even though he was probably more drawn to making films based on his childhood memories of reading Amar Chitra Katha comics and an earlier Telugu cinema legacy of mythological fantasies, and of course, the Hollywood epics.
All these could be attributed to Rajamouli's fierce commitment to the mythological stories and archetypal imagery that seem to inform so much of his films, warts and all.
There's a bit of Salim Javed he might have inherited from his father, KV Vijayendra Prasad, who, like bedtime stories, gave his son ideas. The earlier Rajamouli films were set in Andhra, and maybe sometimes took a detour to Kerala (as in Simhadri). When he made Magadheera – an eye on the pan-Indian audience – the specificity of place had been replaced by a homogenous fictional Hindu kingdom called Udaigarh. Today, Rajamouli has demolished that gulf between mass and niche. Everyone watched the Baahubali movies. It had everything: the eternal appeal of myths; the wholesomeness of masala cinema; sumptuous production value.
It also brought under scanner some of the issues with his films with regard to gender inequality, caste hierarchy, racial stereotyping, and the use of Hindu iconography – problems that left a bad taste in the mouth for a section of audiences. All these could be attributed to Rajamouli's fierce commitment to the mythological stories and archetypal imagery that seem to inform so much of his films, warts and all. (There are confounding contradictions: for example, it's the clash between the two powerful women in Baahubali: The Conclusion that generates the real friction, not the rivalry between the two brothers.)
Some of the problems persist in RRR, which, for one, also lacks the cohesive storytelling and emotional payoff of Baahubali and Eega. Perhaps they are connected. It's in the dissonant mixing of the disparate ingredients and the mixed signals they send. For critics, Ram turning a janeu into a lasso to put a leash on Bheem is a visual reinforcement of Kshatriya superiority. For Rajamouli, it's probably the cyclicality of a trope – it's Bheem who gave it to him – and just the resourcefulness of the hero in a moment of crisis.
But the audience don't see caste. They see religion. For one half of the film, Komaram Bheem is disguised as a Muslim man. Despite the filmmaker's best intentions of secular messaging, that shows Muslims being very much a part of the India that fought for its independence, there is an othering. The fact that Bheem dresses up as one to hide his identity suggests what he is not: a Muslim. This becomes explicit in the scene in which the character reveals himself to Ram: 'I am Bheem, son of a Gond'. When I watched it on the first weekend in a packed theatre in Kolkata, I heard a section of the audience cheer to that.
Rajamouli's more innocent version of Hindutva has remained consistent irrespective of the government in power (unlike, say, the Bollywood historical films that have been quick to adopt an aggressive switch). But in a cultural environment where popular narratives are getting increasingly coopted, you can't be certain how it plays out. When the director's fanciful ambitions metamorphose Charan's British costumed guerrilla revolutionary into Lord Rama himself, running through the jungle in the climax to save India, my jaw dropped. I am wowed by Rajamouli's cinema. And I give him the benefit of doubt. It's that cheer that worries me.
With inputs from Hemant Kumar CR