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film RRR Is an Incredible Action Movie With Seriously Troubling Politics

The Tollywood blockbuster RRR is a hit on Netflix, but its casteist politics aren’t so simple.

N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan star in RRR, an anti-colonialist Tollywood film that stumbles when it comes to portraying caste. ,IMDb

S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) has taken the world by storm. It’s one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, and one of the most successful, becoming the fourth-highest-grossing Indian film of all time. Even Netflix, which has been streaming the movie since May, declared it to be the most watched Indian film on its service, viewed over 45 million times globally. Critics love it, and its GIFs and scenes have swept social media. It’s an undeniable slam-dunk of global success. Coming out of the Telugu-language film industry of Tollywood in South India, as opposed to the more popular Hindi-language industry of Bollywood, this period drama from India’s biggest filmmaker is a cinematic event.

Centered on Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, two very real Indian freedom fighters from the Telugu regions of Andhra and Telangana respectively, the film is a fantasy of the past. RRR imagines a fictitious, impossible friendship between these two figures of history as they come together and team up to fight the forces of British colonialism in 1920s pre-independence India. And it boasts two superstars of South Indian film — Ram Charan (who plays Alluri Sitarama Raju, also known as Rama Raju) and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (who plays Komaram Bheem) as the two leads, both heirs to powerful film dynasties in Tollywood.

Rama Raju was an upper-caste man who helped lead the rebellions and resistance of Adivasis, the Indigenous people, against the British, while Komaram Bheem was an Adivasi icon and a revolutionary from the marginalized Gond people. They’re both key figures in Telugu history, albeit unequally. While Komaram Bheem, as an Indigenous protector of his people, has a lasting legacy, he’s hardly received the same level of sustained adoration as an upper-caste hero like Rama Raju, who was the subject of a classic ’70s film.

Statues of Rama Raju, left, and Komaram Bheem.

RRR director Rajamouli’s film is part of that legacy, bringing the two heroes together, playing like the apotheosis of his work. His films are full of big emotions, enthralling action set pieces, sweeping gestures, and memorably epic soundtracks. They’re the kind of movies you watch at a theater with a big audience, as people cheer and wolf-whistle. Coming off the Baahubali duology of sword-and-sorcery epics, which were some of the biggest Indian films of the past decade, RRR is a level-up. It’s a maximalist blockbuster that feels like an ode to much of what we love about the theatrical experience.

To a global audience inundated with an endless slurry of corporate superhero content, facing a landscape more and more bound to franchises, shared universes, and IP, the film is an increasingly rare gem of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s devoid of the trademark self-aware, winking irony of most American blockbusters, instead going all-in on sincerity. But most importantly? It’s new. RRR’s influences are not familiar ground for most global audiences. It emerges from a wildly different cultural landscape and filmmaking tradition. Where else can you find a three-hour musical epic with an electrifying and rip-roaring dance battle in defiance of a colonizer’s cruelty?

Where else do you get a ridiculously thrilling title-drop 40 minutes into the film, as though you were watching Drive My Car, for an action epic that feels like an event?

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It’s the kind of big movie that reminds you of the sheer power of movies. It’s why so many of the responses to the film tend to be in the realm of hyperbole, as the film almost invites such a reaction. It’s a film that embodies the history and strength of Telugu cinema when it comes to myth-making.

But for all its thrills, RRR also comes with a set of issues that need scrutiny.

The film is, certainly, admirably anti-colonialist with its searing hatred for the British Empire and the white man’s burden. Its contempt for the colonizers, with action scenes showcasing tigers and leopards devouring them, is delightful and resonant.

But it is also emblematic of a larger current trend in Indian film — movies that stoke the flames of nationalism in the current India and its troubling political climate. And it is the most successful film of them all to date, reaching a far wider viewership, which is why it matters.

In RRR’s case, the problem is that it is very much a fantasy of the upper-caste Hindu gaze, and all those willing to go along with its hegemony.

Now, what do I mean by that? To unpack that, let’s dig into that which has long ruled the fate of India: the caste system.

Hindutva and the casteist monster

The caste system has oppressed, and continues to oppress, legions across history. It’s a mechanism by which theological justifications are provided for a horrific hierarchy and inequality, raising up the upper castes and helping them shore up their power, while keeping down all they deem as “lower” than them. It has been historically used to dehumanize people, with evils such as the infamous “untouchability,” denial of access to public services, and prohibitions against inter-caste marriages. Issues such as land ownership and prosecution of crimes are key struggles informed by the realities of caste. While there has been progress over the past century, the grim prejudices persist.

At the top of the order are Brahmins (the priestly class), followed by Kshatriyas (the warrior/ruling class), then Vaishyas (the merchant class), and Shudras (the labor class). Below all of them are the Dalits, whom the system views as “the untouchables.” This hierarchical view of reality is a troubling one. And it extends to how the ruling elite view the Adivasis (the Indigenous people) who exist outside the caste system. They see them as below them and their Brahmanical supremacy.

During the early 20th century, this monster met another horrific monster: European fascism. Specifically, the Italian fascism of Mussolini and the Nazism of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Forged in the flames of vile hatred, this would give birth to a political ideology that now rules over the current modern India: Hindutva, a belief system envisioned by extremist right-wing Hindu political figures and enforced by militant groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Its goal is to see India transformed from a secular nation into a Hindu Rashtra/Hindu state. It views the Muslim as the ultimate enemy, a foreign invader and serious threat to their way of life. It conflates conspiracy with history, mythology with reality, and hopes to replace the constitution with something far more regressive and oppressive. This is especially relevant given that India is currently ruled over by the Hindutva RSS political party in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Led by Narendra Modithe modern face of Hindutva, the group won big and came into power in 2014. It represents a terrifying new India.

Hindutva is a project that aspires to flatten and reduce myriad diverse groups and people into a generic abstract of the Hindu. It’s useful to ask who benefits here; what is the purpose of this fascist flattening and uniting? Many of the chief architects of this ideology — founderskey influencers, or the architects and leaders of its militant enforcers — were, unsurprisingly, of the highest caste, Brahmins.

One of the central texts to Hindutva and its history, We, Or Our Nationhood Defined, makes the ideology’s ties to Nazism explicit. It suggests that India could learn from Nazi Germany and its attempts to “keep up the purity of the race and its culture.” Thus, the construction of the Muslim as the enemy, the invader, and the foreign threat, which serves to create a demonized Other against which a “unity” of the abstracted “Hindu” can be built.

When you give the people who might rise up against you a common constructed enemy who you outline as below them, you are saying, “Oppress them with us and you too can be part of our glorious hegemony.” Certainly, individuals from marginalized caste backgrounds can be granted power, but only as symbols to inspire other oppressed people into serving the system of oppression itself, which must forever be in place.

In the modern age, caste privilege is not gone, and neither is casteist discrimination. Hindutva being a hybrid of casteism and fascism means it is fundamentally an ideology of inequality. Its agents might tokenistically attempt to appeal to marginalized people, and attempt to co-opt radical icons, but the reality of it is systemic oppression, just masked a bit differently. Even in Americacasteism runs wild, though communities attempt to keep the pretense of being post-caste, painting it as an ancient relic. It’s hard to escape upper-caste thinking, no matter where you are.

All of which brings us to the current moment in India. Since the ascent of Modi and the BJP, the country has descended into a nightmarish climate of fear and oppression, wherein religious minorities are under threatIslamophobia is at an all-time highbigotry runs free, the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer, and Adivasi lands and rights are violated. History itself is under threat and is in the process of being rewritten, from disinformation in the media to alterations to education in schools.

And those who speak up are punished or made examples of. Even the arts have come under siege, as an endless parade of period pieces display the Muslim invader, the foreign Muslim, the evil Muslim, and other such variants that terrorize the valiant Hindu heroes. Such clear Hindu-washed historicals serving Hindutva talking points are all over Bollywood (consider this year’s biggest Bollywood film, Kashmir Files, a conspiracy-theory spin on history). All this has only fomented and fanned more hatred and calls for violence against the oppressed.

This is the context in which RRR was released. And while it might be an exciting romp, the film doesn’t offer any reprieve from the upper-caste vision that brought us here.

The way the caste system operates in the Telugu regions is crucial in this case. It’s slightly different from the conventional setup — divided into Brahmins, followed by a smattering of middle-caste non-Brahmins, and below them, Dalits. Certain non-Brahmins like the land-owning Kamma and Kapu castes, who dominate the region, are effectively upper-caste. And they’ve long held power over the arts.

The Brahmanical Hindu fantasy of reality

RRR, in the end, is unable to escape the shackles of this troubling system. S.S. Rajamouli comes from an upper-caste background, a fact that’s evident in his films but is important to note. So does N.T. Rama Rao (NTR). Rajamouli and NTR are of the Kamma caste, while Ram Charan is of the Kapu caste, both of which hold a strong sway in the Telugu states.

Rajamouli’s influences are very much the Hindu epics such as The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, as well as the Indian Amar Chitra Katha comics — largely retellings of classic Hindu epics or stories. The epics, and the comics drawing upon them, largely center on upper-caste heroes, whether the divine Ram in Ramayana or the mighty Pandavas in Mahabharata. These upper-caste champions inhabit Hindu worlds and mythologies that have caste built into them, and as such have very clear political implications and material impact. It is why there has been a long history of critique aimed at these epics. The interpretations, readings, and ideologies drawn from these stories have very real repercussions.

In the Ramayana, Lord Ram is the avatar of Vishnu, the divine protector who descends to the mortal realm to restore balance to the world. Ram is the ideal man, born into an upper-caste dynasty of kings in Ayodhya, and his reign is seen as the ultimate utopian period of existence. The idea of “Ram Rajya” (Ram’s reign/rule/kingdom), which emerges from the text, is the mythic idealized (Brahmanical) past that Hindutva agents view as their righteous duty to restore. It is the idea of the golden age of the past that has material consequences. It is why the Ramayana and Ram are invoked in many hate crimes committed by Hindutva assailants, with “Jai Shree Ram!” (All Hail Lord Ram!) being uttered amid many cruelties. It is why there’s been a decades-long conflict like the Ayodhya dispute, wherein Hindutva agents have sought to tear down a mosque to build a temple for Ram in its place. Given that these epics have been manipulated and shaped to serve pernicious ideas like the caste system and Hindu nationalism, invoking them requires care, consideration, and serious thought.

In that film, the Kalakeyas are dark-skinned, casteless, uncultured, and murderous savages who must be taken down by the “civilized” and fairer-skinned noble Kshatriya heroes of the caste system. Even the language of this obvious racist, colorist caricature is inspired by the southern language of Tamil. And the films are steeped in and reinforce casteist frameworks even in their imaginary fantasy visions. As Rajamouli himself posted on social media:

It’s every bit as visible in RRR, too. It may not trade in the “demonizing” creed of casteism, but it trades that for the more “benign” and “liberal” vision of the casteist lens. It is why you have Ram uplifted as the “well-educated upper-caste savior with a vision” and Bheem reduced to “uneducated noble savage who must be taught the ‘civilized’ ways.” For all that it claims to be a tribute to two legends, it is one that is deeply unequal.

Rajamouli’s work merely reproduces all the worst aspects of his influences and upbringing without ever critically questioning them. It’s an upper-caste boy’s privileged roller-coaster ride, which comes easily to someone who hasn’t had to experience the oppressive realities and horrors of the system. His work’s deep casteism reinforces a Brahmanical vision of the universe.

It is why Komaram Bheem, a well-educated man who could read and write, is reduced to an illiterate simpleton, playing to historic Adivasi stereotypes. It is why you have a scene wherein he exclaims he is but a simple tribal person who did not and could not understand the greater vision of the upper-caste savior Ram. It’s also why the Gonds are framed as a “simple” people, compared to sheep, with Bheem having to ask Ram for the gift of education.

And it is also why, in the end, Bheem’s real revolutionary slogan of “Jal, Jangal, Jameen,” his iconic contribution, which is vital to Adivasi activism to this day, is altered to be written and inscribed instead by the upper-caste Kshatriya hero Ram. It is, as Gond journalist and critic Akash Poyam described in depth, deeply dehumanizing and appropriative.

The Gonds are framed as a “simple” people — Komaram Bheem included — and are reduced to Adivasi stereotypes.

 DVV Entertainment/Netflix

RRR manages to depict Adivasis as compatriots instead of enemies, and seems to think that’s generous enough. But the movie still presents Adivasis as, at best, simpletons who aid the journeys of the central, all-important upper-caste heroes. They are people who must be taught, civilized, and guided along by the vision of the upper-caste Hindu hand. All that they are or ever will be is because the upper-caste hero was there to help them along. Perhaps crystallizing that best is the fact that NTR, the upper-caste Hindu (and from the same Kamma caste as Rajamouli), is cast as Bheem, rather than any actual Adivasi performer. This is a fact made all the more bitter given the history of Gond resistance to the land-owning Kamma-Kapu dominance, and Komaram Bheem’s own anti-landlord politics.

Every choice made in the film is deeply steeped in and informed by a privileged upper-caste lens and framework that brutally reinforces the invisible Brahmanical hierarchy. That is precisely why its two leads, Ram and Bheem, are reduced to little more than the names and aesthetics of the real historical figures.

At every turn, Rajamouli de-specifies and decontextualizes, only to wrap everything up in his casteist status-quo-affirming lens. His work here is a casteist Hindu wash of history and the independence struggle.

This is a lens that is in line with Hindutva and very much appealing to it. It’s exactly this kind of convenient upper-caste Hindu viewpoint that helps sustain Hindutva ideology and its material harm. The film may not see Muslims as the demonic enemy to be slain, but it does see them as subservient (much like Bheem and the Adivasis are subservient) to a “Hindu unity” of heroism and fight for freedom. It’s effectively “You can exist so long as it’s within this invisible hierarchy, assimilated, wherein we’re still at the top and all-important.”

The end credits, which valorize historic heroes of the nation, put a fine, final point on this troubling upper-caste Hindu lens. Nowhere in this lineup of luminaries will you find icons of a secular India such as Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, the founders of the nation, whom Hindutva agents are not terribly fond of. And what of Muslim kings like Hyder Ali or Tipu Sultan, who also stood against the British and were part of key battles against them? And the presence of Muslim freedom fighters like Saifuddin Kitchlew? Not a chance. Do not even expect to see progressive and radical Dalit revolutionaries like B.R. Ambedkarwho stood firmly for the annihilation of caste. You will, however, find the Hindu king Chhatrapathi Shivaji in it, who never even fought the British, but has been co-opted to be a Hindutva favorite. The credits certainly feel like they’re peddling a curated vision of history and the freedom fight right in line with it.

RRR’s global success is a thrilling leap for Indian cinema. Its spectacle and stand against the British Empire is deserving of celebration. But it’s important to look at the Indian people not just in relation to their white oppressors. Instead, the complex inner dynamics must be considered and examined, for that is the way to see the Indian people in the film in all their humanity.

And by the time the credits have finished rolling, it’s hard not to see RRR as a product of careless upper-caste Hindu imagination. Its disservice and rewriting toward Bheem and the Gonds cannot go ignored. Its evident hierarchical view and minimization of Muslims in favor of a constructed Hindu “unity” must be noted. Its ideological positioning must be taken into account. And it must be considered for the troublingly casteist fantasy it is.

RRR has been described by some as revolutionary, and the title itself evokes revolutionary words. But that feels off-mark. Being revolutionary requires a willingness to tear down the oppressive hierarchies and systems that stand in the way of progress. RRR is all too content to blindly uphold them.

Ritesh Babu is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Polygon, Panel x Panel, and many more outlets. He likes to spend his time reading postcolonial theory, genre fiction, and far too many sports manga. When not writing about capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, he can be found talking about food, football, and formalism. He survives off a magical resource known as biryani.

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