Director: SS Rajamouli
Writers: V. Vijayendra Prasad, SS Rajamouli
Cast: NTR, Ram Charan, Ajay Devgn, Alia Bhatt, Olivia Morris, Samuthirakani, Alison Doody, Ray Stevenson
Cinematographer:K.K. Senthil Kumar
Editor: Sreekar Prasad
With most fantasy epics and superhero movies, the actual drama is rooted in emotions. The scale and action sequences are expected. As a viewer, there’s always the sense that these are divine beings doing their thing. So the painstakingly choreographed spectacles tend to be less gratifying than the quiet conflicts and platonic bonds. The smaller moments – where God-like figures behave like mortal humans – stand out. In an S.S. Rajamouli movie, though, the template is reversed. The fantasy of these films are just about tethered to reality. (RRR, for instance, is based on two real-life revolutionary leaders in pre-independent India). So the basic emotions are expected. The actual drama, then, is rooted in the action and scale. While watching, there’s always a sense that these are human beings breaking barriers. These are ordinary people prone to extraordinary feats. So the audacity of the spectacles – a tribal warrior trapping a tiger in the forest, a cop single-handedly repelling a bloodthirsty mob – tends to feel far more gratifying than the narrative conflicts and bonds. The massive moments – where flesh-and-blood heroes behave like immortal Gods – stand out.
It’s this slight shift of perspective that makes a Magadheera, a Baahubali, and now an RRR, such a distinctly thrilling experience. The music, the cinematography, the editing and the timing often combine to make us expect the unexpected – and still be surprised by it. The motion of the set pieces defines the emotions driving them, and not the other way around. It’s also why – unlike most modern-day combat sequences that resemble a frantic VFX-induced blur – the gravity-defying madness in Rajamouli movies is so coherent. Nearly every action scene has three acts, none of which ever get away from the viewer. We see precisely how each blow lands; we know where each character is; we remain aware of who is winning and how every drop of blood is drawn. There are no cheat frames. I barely made notes during this film because missing even a single second of battle would distort the clarity of its rhythm. I tried during the one big song (Nacho Nacho), only to realize that even the synchronized dancing was just another cultural language of combat. It was so ridiculous – think: a salty Englishman competing in a desi dance-off – that it became exhilarating. When I did finally manage to jot something down, it was in a scene where one of the two protagonists is being mercilessly whipped and tortured. The moment was anyway designed to make us flinch and look away from the screen. So, like a desperate student who finds that rare “copying” window during an exam, I made the most of it.
On the surface, RRR is the fictional origin story of two freedom fighters. History says that guerilla rebel Alluri Sitarama Raju (a.k.a Rama Raju) and Gond tribe leader Komaram Bheem never crossed paths in their war against the British empire. But K.V. Vijayendra Prasad’s sprawling premise not only reimagines their unlikely friendship and rivalry, it presents them as fiercely individualistic strivers yet to realize the benefits of a united front. Rama Raju (Ram Charan) is all fire: a fearless British Indian policeman tasked with hunting down a mysterious Gondi warrior who is rumoured to be coming after mega-villain Governor Scott. If Rama Raju succeeds, his reward will be a promotion to Special Officer, a post he desperately wants for a hidden agenda. Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is all water: he’s that elusive Gondi warrior, disguised as a modest Muslim mechanic, busy hatching a plot to rescue a little girl enslaved by Governor Scott and his evil wife.
The two meet under their fake aliases while saving a boy from a river on fire (and shake hands while walking on the riverbed) – yes, it’s true – and start their own little bromance, occasionally distracted by their original plans. This little Manmohan Desai thread of brotherhood is not all that jarring. The foundation of their bond is bravery in an ocean of oppression; it’s almost natural that, despite their filmy differences (one is a simpleton, the other is educated), they would gravitate towards each other. Their feral backstories finally collide in a stunningly conceived pre-interval piece, where beasts run amok in a garden of warring humans. For some reason, the sheer impact of animals being revealed in this scene reminded me of a similar moment from The Cabin In The Woods, where something as mundane as the ping of opening elevator doors becomes the prelude to a symphony of slaughter.
There’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s disbelief being suspended, airdropped onto Mount Kilimanjaro before being propelled into outer space on a flaming arrow. No prizes for guessing which tone RRR adopts. It’s hugely satisfying, especially the way Rajamouli plays with frame rates to heighten and milk the right moments. The obvious question is: Why would two men who are introduced as superhuman freaks devise long-term cloak-and-dagger schemes to achieve their goals? Why not just use that one-man-army strength to bring down Scott and his skinny minions? The answer: It doesn’t matter. Rajamouli is that rare director who has the craft and vision to make a movie without being held accountable for its loopholes. It’s a trade-off that very few can pull off – the spectacle is so attractive that it has every right to distract us from those dreary interludes and cheesy lines. It’s fully committed masala storytelling, where the ravishing waltzes with the ridiculous, and where the build-up is so basic that it gets the audience craving the inevitable release. It’s like being repeatedly yanked to the bottom of a pool so that every gasp for air at the top becomes a life-affirming experience.
As a result, the many reductive tropes – the second-hand status of women (Alia Bhatt has all but one scene), the broad strokes painting adivasi uprisings, the caricaturish British characters, the diplomatic Nizam references – don’t feel like deal breakers. They become an inoffensive means to an end of kinetic richness and detail, and of a free-spirited revisionist drama whose collateral damage amplifies its sprint towards the finish line. You can’t criticize the historical leaps of faith because the leaps are so agile and limited at once. They cater to such universal themes of living – justice, revenge, freedom, rural revolt, respect, anti-establishment angst – that a movie like this is bound to resonate more with the masses than mainstream social dramas do. By being so unapologetically direct, RRR is more alive to the world of not just pre-independence India but also the India of today – its caste and class complexities, its political and religious divides – in a manner that’s more empowering than educative.
But perhaps the main reason RRR works – despite a protracted second half that nearly reaches the land of no return – is its hybrid identity. The surface-level definition of the film is a “period freedom-fighter fantasy actioner,” but RRR can really be described as a daring confluence of Indian mythology and life. Just as the rival Telugu superstars playing Rama Raju and Bheem unite for a greater cause, the Ramayana and Mahabharata seamlessly join forces to pound history into submission. (I’m sure many of us here grew up confusing one Sanskrit epic for the other, even if we knew our Batmans from Supermans). Rajamouli has never shied away from flaunting the influence of “itihasa” on his art, but RRR is where those seeds sprout into a tree of shared universes. The raw might of Bhima shares space with the virtuous passions of Rama and Sita, while Pandava and Lanka metaphors frolic together in one box of holy sand. The intensely physical performances – of both Ram Charan and Jr. NTR – go a long way in the merging of fiction, fact and everything in between. The stunts aside, it’s important to acknowledge when “action heroes” look like an extension of a no-holds-barred environment. It’s not easy to both disappear into the background and embody the foreground. Even the friction of egos is mined to great effect, though at no point can one actor be compared to another because of how disparate the momentum of their characters is.
It’s also particularly refreshing that this isn’t a film about binary good-or-bad people. Both Rama Raju and Bheem don’t mind sacrificing their humanity and principles on their way to salvation. They openly kill other Indians in their private journeys of vigilante justice. These are therefore figures unrestrained by type and masculinity, capable of a change of heart as much as a next-door criminal. This abrupt transformation of characters always tends to be an achilles’ heel in such colour-coded-emotion scripts. Take the moment Rama Raju finds out the truth about his new Muslim brother. Or the moment he decides to switch sides in the second half. Or the moment Bheem course-corrects his rage towards the end. But in the hands of Rajamouli, transformation is the cornerstone of cinematic catharsis. It’s not just about men transitioning from ignorant to enlightened, sad to happy, or anti-hero to hero. It’s about humans morphing into fable, history turning into heavens and hells – and life transforming into visual literature.