Cast: Junior NTR, Ram Charan, Alia Bhatt
Director: S.S. Rajamouli
A group of men belonging to the Gond tribe in Adilabad are planning to attack the palace of a British general in Delhi. On the British side, there are police officers, guns, ammunition, and a hundred other items that could count as weapons.
And on the side of the men of the tribes led by Komaram Bheem (NTR Jr) all they have is a truck and a few scrawny men who believe in Bheem. They are also far from home and relatively cornered alone in an unfamiliar part of the world. You begin to wonder how they will attack without getting caught. Surely Bheem is not so naïve that he can't figure out he is going to get caught if he charges at the palace. Or is Rajamouli going to cater to fans and probably have NTR Jr bulldoze his way through the crowd?
And then the film reveals Bheem's real plan with the massiest of mass entries of NTR Jr. It's outrageous. It's stunning. It's hair raising. It's full of conviction and frankly makes you think what else could these men have done but this. And this is not some surprise or convenient twist of the screenplay for the sake of a goosebumps moment for NTR Jr and his fans. Rajamouli has planted clues and hints so that this pre-interval sequence becomes a stunning set piece for Bheem and his men. And because they are such underdogs at this point you can't help but cheer for them and applaud the audacity of the idea.
It's outrageous but it's fun.
RRR starring Ram Charan and NTR Jr is a series of such equally outrageous ideas from the mind of Rajamouli. Take the premise and story. There are a couple of years of history that are missing on Telugu revolutionaries Alluri Sitaramaraju and Komaram Bheem.
And Rajamouli simply asks what if they met? What if he narrated the story of how they impacted each other? What if he told the story his way? This historical fan fiction idea itself sounds so out there and implausible that Rajamouli is not just happy if they shared a cup of tea at a roadside stall. He wants them to fight together, against each other, atop each other, engage in a dance battle with Britishers, and ultimately save each other and give each other the purpose that defined their later lives.
On top of the historical baggage of the two characters is the meta baggage of his leading men. Rajamouli wants to bring together two stars belonging to the two biggest families in the Telugu film industry which seems a mean feat considering that the families have had been political rivals, film rivals, and even their fans have been rivals leading to violence.
Additionally, Rajamouli is not content just bringing two stars to be the two versions of the same as multi-starrer films do when they want to play safe and make sure neither leading actor is shortchanged. He wants them to have different emotional arcs, he wants them to be two full characters rather than two stars looking for equal footing on screen.
He also does not want to play it safe and simple as seen in other multi-starrer films such as Seethamma Vaakitlo Sirimalle Chettu or Gopala Gopala or Deva Das. These films either eliminated any elements of masala or had a clear hierarchy of stars.
To use a Baahubali-an metaphor Rajamouli wants to take the bull of masala films by its horns and make a proper multi-starrer that results in a great theatrical experience.
And on paper, all of RRR's ideas work and they mostly translate on screen.
Let's look at what works first.
Rajamouli is interested in showing dualities through his films and maybe for the first time you see such literal interpretations of these dualities. Ram Charan and NTR Jr. Fire and Water. Patriotism and Personal love. Orange and Blue. Wild and Civilised. Utilitarian and Deontological. Maybe even Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
I was worried before watching the film that these would be ornamental and shallow ideas which might not have any emotional depth. But I was wrong on this one. You just need one example to understand why Rajamouli has covered his emotional bases.
There's a stretch in the second half and I don't want to spoil it for anyone so I'll be cryptic about it. A character is going through immense pain and this character is singing a song to console themselves. On the surface, it's about this character healing and this character spreading the message of patriotism through their song to others.
But the camera lingers on the one inflicting the pain. And the way their world and ideology begin to crumble. The character inflicting the pain has always assumed that weapons mean guns. And for the first time, this character sees that a weapon need not be a gun. It could be anything. Fists, legs, and even a song. And the camera shows fists punching the others inflicting pain, legs stepping on barbed wire to break fences, and then it lingers on to the character experiencing change.
This is the film's best emotional sequence and probably the most important turning point within the larger journey of the film.
And it is here that you get why Rajamouli is so obsessed with dualities and the story that he chose to tell. This scene tells you why the potential intertwining histories of two of the most celebrated figures in Telugu culture is so interesting to Rajamouli. It isn't just about bringing two big stars to act in a film or the potential box office numbers or even the chance to execute some outlandish and some downright silly ideas.
It is also here that MM Keeravani, the music director, is in supreme form and you wonder how someone manages to make you think the music is mediocre before the release of a film and after viewing it you can't help but hum his songs. Komaram Bheemudo sung by Kaala Bhairava haunts you even after you leave the hall.
Similarly, Rajamouli's story is not fully convincing as to how these Ramaraju and Bheem become such good friends suddenly. If the film was on mute it would have felt rushed but Keeravani and editor Sreekar Prasad save the screenplay with the way the song Dosti is pieced together audio-visually. Of course, NTR Jr and Ram Charan are great but it needed something more and the music director and editor land the bond between the principal protagonists. Other songs like Naatu Naatu and the soft hymns that are used to elevate a mass scene are prime Keeravani territory and there are barely any blunders he makes in those.
It's also to Rajamouli's credit that he's extracted such fine performances from all his actors. It takes a special kind of film where you walk out thinking Alia Bhatt might have been the weakest link and that's not her fault because it has more to do with dubbing and her character length and the various times the screenplay uses her character Seeta as a crutch. I'll get to that later.
Everyone has always known that NTR Jr is a great actor but somehow one could never name one film where he acted well throughout. There were scenes and stretches where he exhibited the full range of his acting prowess but there is no one film where it felt like his full potential was used. And finally, that film has come. In terms of histrionics which he always puts in fifth gear has finally mellowed in the hands of Rajamouli and he has toned it down by using NTR Jr's eyes more than his voice. There's a scene where he hears the voice of someone he's been looking for, for the first time in ages and his face lights up but it also panics because of the consequences of what it might mean for him and the other character if they recognize each other. He captures innocence and naïveté and the feeling of being wronged without resorting to melodrama like he usually does.
Similarly, Ram Charan who had dispelled myths about his acting capabilities with Rangasthalam, gets a stoic character with a tragic past. There's a certain woodenness and sullenness to his Ramaraju. But for the first time the woodenness of his face works because of his acting and not because he can't. Early on in the film, he charges at a wrongdoer who broke a law. He's getting beaten up by a mob. And he's beating them up too. But there is this look of masochistic glee where the harder he gets hit the more determined he seems. And the pain passes onto the lawbreaker who thinks he's free. Unlike Bheem, Ramaraju has a more complex and layered character which is not an easy fan favourite. He does questionable things, his emotions are constantly in check, and his purpose is mysterious and broad. It is to Ram Charan's credit that he still manages to retain the audience's sympathy and empathy against an NTR Jr who is not only in sublime form but also has the more crowd-pleasing character.
But in this quest for a duality that isn't just plainly about giving each actor even character graphs and massy moments, Rajamouli seems to have taken lightly the one screenwriting principle that he has maintained throughout his career i.e. creating villains who seem more powerful than the hero(es).
But Ray Stevenson's General Scott and to an extent Alisson Dhody's Lady Scott are the weakest villains in Rajamouli's filmography. It's not just enough that they have an army of soldiers at their disposal or that they are racists and have no feelings about uprooting children from their homes. Those are clichés and you expect better and bigger from a filmmaker of Rajamouli's stature.
This film needed its Gabbar Singh or at least a version of Helmut Zemo from Avengers: Civil War. Because once Bheem achieves his goals and Ramaraju goes through what he must, the third act of the film feels like an extension only to have some fan-pleasing set pieces. The set pieces are whistle-worthy for sure but they don't carry the same emotional weight as the earlier portions of the films did.
All of this is made apparent by two screenplay choices that Rajmouli is forced to make. The first is that all of Seeta's entries occur where convenient and depend on us believing in coincidences that bend the rules of Rajamouli's universe. We cut to one of her scenes in the first half to make us understand the motives of Ramaraju but it doesn't feel organic. Similarly, when she does enter in the third act it feels too convenient. But again, the premise of this sequence is great. It's an inversion of Hanuman going to save Sita and Rajamouli never makes a poor allusion to mythology. But he has created a poor villain which also leads him towards his second questionable screenplay choice.
This involves the flashback of Ramaraju. Given where it is currently it feels like the journey expected of an audience is to go from "Why is he behaving like a villain?" to "Oh! That's why he was like that". Wouldn't it have been better to keep it upfront so the conflict between Ram and Bheem feels more like a tragedy that the audience cannot stop? But then again if Rajamouli does that then that will cause a bloated first half which leaves barely any drama for the second.
I understand it's hard to create a more macho villain than the combination of Ramcharan and NTR Jr playing Ramaraju and Bheem but Lady Scott with all her venom seemed a more promising villain than General Scott. A little more bravery on this front would have made for a strong third act and not having the audience feel like the film ended abruptly.
But you never walk out of the theatre feeling like you've been shortchanged for the cash you paid. The questions that linger are more in the zone of what could have been an epic story is now reduced to an epic theatrical experience. And there is nothing wrong with that either, but because of the bar Rajamouli has set for himself you want to discuss and dissect each story and you want it to linger in your mind years later. Now what lingers is how you felt when watching the outrageous set pieces.
And they were goosebumps raising, whiste-worthy, crazy, insane. Did I say outrageous?