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S.S. Rajamouli’s latest release, RRR, shares several commonalities with his last blockbuster, Baahubali.
Both feature roaring set-pieces, screaming ‘epic’. Both pivot on hyper-masculine characters capable of stunning stunts. Both share key collaborators (writer K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, cinematographer K.K. Senthil, music director M.M. Kreevani).
But some crucial differences set them apart: If Baahubali was set in ancient India, donning a mythic spirit, then RRR is inspired by a true story, unfolding in pre-independent India. If Baahubali reveled in an imagined reality, then RRR lives in an imposed reality. But the master of masala cinema – a post-independent homegrown style – Rajamouli is doing some rebelling of his own.
He attempts something deceptively simple, a style that has the innocence of an inquiry: Can the cinema of the free country do justice to its enslaved people? Or, in other words, can cinema itself liberate?
RRR is of course not the first commercial film to depict the British Raj. But its rambunctious style and surreal violence make it a cinematic outlier. It’s centred on two young men, Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Junior) – a Gond tribal leader wreaking havoc to find a young girl, Malli, kidnapped by Governor Scott (Ray Stevenson) – and Ram Raju (Ram Charan), a native cop squashing the natives’ protests. Planning to crack the case, Ram goes undercover to uncover the perpetrator’s identity. Unaware of each other’s secrets, they become friends. A bond that brews with the intensity of a ticking bomb.
At 181 minutes, RRR establishes (and reestablishes) stakes, brimming with chapters, backstories, and flashbacks. Like Baahubali, even its silences are grand. There’s some impressive narrative inversion, too: a hero, Ram, playing a Crown stooge for more than half of the film. The action sequences are arresting. The camera moves with tearing velocity; the scenes flare with the force of fire: raining bullets, burning chariots, mind-bending swings – and more.
A poor plotline
But aesthetic spectacles can start to feel hollow if they mostly service the spectacle itself, the film’s first false note. Several scenes in the initial portion – introducing Ram, Bheem, and their friendship, clocking more than an hour – stretch for way too long, repeating the heroes’ bravado.
So, RRR often feels like an eloquent yet distracted argument: It takes too long to come to the point. The movie cuts for the interval at around the 95th-minute mark (consuming much more time than necessary), followed by two overlong sequences that take 27 more minutes to convey two simple points: establishing Ram’s true intentions by cutting to a flashback (stagnating the plot even more) and the cost of his perceived loyalty (flogging Bheem in full-public view). Such abject lack of moderation – revealing little character and hogging a lot of screen time – starts to hurt the movie more and more.
These flaws stand out more when paired with the overall mechanics of the screenplay. Its larger-than-life style, for example, often seems contradictory with the story’s kernel: the pursuit of a kidnapped girl.
In the Crown-controlled India, such a plot doesn’t demand an immediate blow-the-doors method but deception, sleuthing, and ingenuity. Screenwriter Rajamouli tries to give Bheem’s search some detective flair, but he soon gives up. How does the plot move forward then? Through coincidences and heroism.
When Ram wants to infiltrate the rebels’ group, he randomly finds a painter who happens to know Bheem. When Bheem is looking for Malli, he randomly finds a British woman who knows her. When Ram proposes a radical plan to deceive Scott, he readily agrees. When Bheem is about to be executed, he channelises superhero strength to fight off the Britishers – and on and on.
It’s this lack of intrigue – the minute moments leading to an explosive set-piece (done so superbly and memorably in Baahubali) – that hurts RRR the most. Because after a point, the movie’s designs are all too clear: that it cares more about astounding and shocking us than sitting close to us and telling a story. The less we see a character struggle, the less we feel for him – the less we feel for him, the more closed the film seems. RRR doesn’t offer much tonal variations, either. Rajamouli attempts some humour, silliness, and songs – via Ram and Bheem’s friendship – but they don’t work, as they rely on an outmoded style, arriving at predictable outcomes.
The villains, Scott and his wife, behave like bloodthirsty animals. They’re so over-the-top, are so caricatured, that they cease to feel real. During the flogging scene, Scott’s wife is baying for blood so hard that the audience laughed in the theatre. This was before Scott tells her, “Aren’t you quite vicious, my dear?” By making the antagonists so unreal, the film makes them less ominous (whose destructions seem destined), thereby doing a huge disservice to its heroes.
But none of the above exemplify the film’s biggest problem.
Even though RRR is set in the early 20th century, its gaze for freedom imagines a country not after but before independence. Ram is inspired by a famous Telugu revolutionary, Alluri Sitarama Raju, who lived and died for the rights of Adivasis and farmers. But the movie’s hero is far removed from such realities and interests. In an early scene, a bare-chested Ram is boxing away his anger on a punching bag, wearing a conspicuous ‘Om’ locket and a sacred thread. How are the Gond people described? They prefer living in “herds” and become “crazy like animals” if one of their lambs leaves the pack.
When – mild spoiler alert – Bheem figures out Ram’s true motivations, he says, “I just came for a little girl, but he was fighting for the whole country.” (Mild spoiler over.) The implication is already disconcerting, but then Bheem leaves no doubt: “The tribal that I am, I couldn’t even understand.”
The metaphors become literal, when Bheem kneels before the statues of Ram and Seeta in a jungle, picks up some holy powder, and applies it on an injured Ram. Even this isn’t enough, because Ram literally transforms into a Ram-like figure, wearing a saffron robe and shooting arrows. There’s hierarchy even in the eventual victory, as Bheem tells Ram to “teach” him “how to read and write”.
Such messaging is not new for a Rajamouli film. If Baahubali featured an awful portrait of the tribal people (painting them as repulsive and barbaric), then its sequel contained several references to the Kshatriya caste for their bravery.
RRR’s choices are even more troubling because the film is centred on India’s struggle for independence. But in Rajamouli’s world, freedom is a narrowly conceived concept: Every Indian will be free, but some Indians will be more free than others. The filmmaker needed to tweak one small thing to make the movie completely honest: RRR = not Rise, Roar, and Revolt, but Rise, Revolt, and Rasthra.