Inspired by the similarities between the lives of two real-life revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, Director S.S. Rajamouli brings us RRR: an alternate universe in which the two men cross paths.
In less competent hands, the story might have been poorly paced and jumbled, but Rajamouli’s screenplay succeeds in intertwining parallel plots into a strong narrative that keeps you engaged throughout. The movie has quite the dynamic range; the sheer scale of it leaves a lasting impression. However, it also operates on an intimate level, striking the right emotional chords. And the technical prowess with which it employs visual effects is outstanding. An aspect worth delving into is the film’s mythological underpinnings, some subtle and some overt.
It’s crucial to acknowledge that Indian epics have become a fraught subject in the present era. Rather than appreciating and attempting to understand what Valmiki and Vyas were trying to say, most people appropriate their literary work to propagate various agendas. Considering this tense landscape, Rajamouli’s work — weaving in the trappings of myth in a way that’s balanced as opposed to bigoted — is a testament to the clarity of his intent, which is simply to tell a good story.
Suspension of disbelief isn’t easy to achieve, even in the case of a story couched in absolute realism. When you’re dealing with a movie like RRR, which depicts a heightened reality, something as simple as the characters’ names can be an asset in helping dial back disbelief. It’s well and good to say “What’s in a name?” but the Shakespearean wisdom does not always hold true. There’s something to be said about a name, which by itself is often capable of evoking a range of imagery, emotions and associations (a concept Rajamouli explored in his previous epic when a shackled man utters “Baahubali” on glimpsing Sivudu’s face, stoking others into joining him in a frenzied chant). In this case, the names of the leads, Ramaraju and Bheem, spark certain connections which not only add an additional layer of meaning to their actions but help digest some of their more outlandish feats.
This is because the Ramayana and Mahabharata are stories that remain ever-present in the cultural subconscious of a people despite their origins being buried in history. Most Indian viewers, even if they aren’t familiar with the Sanskrit texts and their various recensions and regional variants, are broadly aware of the epics via cultural osmosis. So, when a character called Bheem (the name itself, like Hercules, being a shorthand for mighty) grasps a motorcycle spinning in mid-air, it tracks on a subconscious level.
Similarly, when we’re introduced to Ramaraju, he echoes a sterner aspect of his namesake, Ram, the maryada-purushottam (the ideal follower of rules), when, upon being ordered by a higher-ranking officer, he goes to great lengths to apprehend one of the protesters amongst those amassed. The act, while questionable given its complicity in enabling the oppression, is still technically within the bounds of law under colonial rule. Later, we learn that his alliance with the British has been a ruse, intended to smuggle firearms to his village so the locals can defend themselves against occupying forces. Being a born marksman, Ramaraju himself doesn’t require guns to accomplish the same. As we witness by the movie’s end, a bow and arrow suffice. The fact that his arrows never miss their mark beggars belief, especially since we never see him wield the weapon prior (although we glimpse the weapon itself in a shot from his childhood, loosely setting it up). Yet, it works in the story’s world. In garbing Reel Ramaraju in a period-accurate outfit that mirrors what the Real Ramaraju wore, Rajamouli uses every creative element — from costume and color, to light and music — to amp the moment, underlining the mythic aspect. In that context, it’s perfectly plausible for his arrow to find its target every single time, for it transforms from being the arrow of a skilled marksman to being the Arrow of Ram, the Ram-Baan.
Ramaraju is also depicted as being well-read, well-spoken and well mannered, all of which props him up as being a symbol of society, which is yet another facet of Ram, who being prince, is well-versed in etiquette and is also eloquent in speech and elegant in bearing.
In contrast, Bheem functions as a symbol of nature. He thrives in the forest, besting the fiercest of beasts and doing so with compassion. But soon as he enters society, he finds himself at a disadvantage. Despite having strengths and skills of his own, whether it’s sheer power or making impromptu medicine, he’s on the backfoot in the big city and requires Ramaraju’s assistance, at times, in simple tasks like communication.
While Bheem is positioned to be the Hanuman to Ramaraju’s Ram, he also embodies an aspect of Shiva, which isn’t surprising as Hanuman is also considered to be Shiva’s avatar. Bheem possesses an endearing simplicity because, like Shiva, he is Bholenath, the innocent one. This renders the viewer more open to accepting the earnestness of his actions when he bandages Ramaraju with saffron fabric and brandishes him with a bow and arrow borrowed from the idol of Ram, which, while convenient, feels organic as they take refuge near a temple, a locale previously established. Even Bheem taking a minute to smear tilak across his friend’s brow is a gesture that is in keeping with his rustic background.
Some events in the story are obvious nods to the Ramayana, like the kidnapping of Malli, the conflagration of the governor’s mansion, and Bheem showing a pendant belonging to Ramaraju’s wife, Sita, mirroring the Sundara Kand chapter of the epic where Hanuman visits Sita and convinces her of being him an ally by sharing Ram’s ring.
To deem RRR ‘over the top’, as some do, is akin to criticizing Marvel movies for not following the laws of physics. The film, or any film rather, should be viewed in the context of its genre. And the Indian action film is a genre of its own; it blends action with fantasy, portraying a reality that’s stylized and heightened. In an interview, Director Rohit Shetty once mentioned asking his father, celebrated action choreographer M.B. Shetty, how Amitabh Bachchan’s character can singlehandedly take on a dozen thugs? To paraphrase, the reply was, ‘Of course, he can; he’s the hero’. That succinct answer encapsulates the workings of the genre perfectly. How can the lead character send a guy flying across the room with one punch? Well, he’s the hero. You can either choose to look at that as a copout or a convention of the genre. It’s also one of the reasons why Indian superhero movies, created using a western paradigm, don’t tend to work or are average, at best. At the risk of oversimplifying, what most superheroes elsewhere do after donning a spandex suit, the Indian action hero or heroine can do in street clothes without hiding their identity.
Exaggeration has always been a key element in Indian storytelling. A good example would be any story from Siṃhāsana Dvātriṃśikā, better known as Singhasan Battisi, where the throne of Vikramaditya narrates thirty-two stories of valour and generosity to King Bhoj and questions the latter if he possesses similar qualities, for only then may he ascend the throne. What’s interesting to observe is that exaggeration when skilfully employed can paradoxically become a motor for human truths, which is what a good story should get across.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.