film The Netflix Hit “RRR” Is a Political Screed, an Action Bonanza, and an Exhilarating Musical
When it comes to cinematic propaganda, blatant is better than insidious. Overt advocacy has the virtue of candor and the vigor of fervent emotion. A movie such as “Top Gun: Maverick” hides its messages under the guise of unexceptionable realities, whereas another new, high-energy, political action spectacle, the Indian film “RRR” (which was released theatrically in March and is now streaming on Netflix, where it’s in the top five), makes its statements explicit. It thrusts its imaginative artistry thrillingly and gleefully to the fore.
“RRR”—the title stands for “Rise Roar Revolt”—turns history into legend by way of heightened visual rhetoric. It’s based very loosely on the real-life stories of two Indian revolutionaries of the early twentieth century, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, who contested the oppression of British colonial power. There’s no record of their having met, let alone joining forces. The director, S. S. Rajamouli—who also wrote the screenplay, based on a story by V. Vijayendra Prasad (his father)—derives a magnificent outpouring of creative energy from the inspiring fantasy of their volatile connection. (The movie’s original language is Telugu; the version shown on Netflix is dubbed into Hindi.)
On a motor trip through the Indian countryside, Catherine Buxton (Alison Doody), the high-handed wife of the British colonial governor, buys an Indian girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma) as one might buy a pet. The governor’s party carts the child away over the protests of her mother, Loki (Ahmareen Anjum), who is brutalized by British guards. Malli is from the Gond tribe, which is said to hold fast together, and its so-called shepherd, Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao, Jr.), a fierce warrior, heads to Delhi to find her, disguising himself as a Muslim mechanic named Akhtar. The British governor, Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson), is warned by an Indian police officer about the shepherd and his ferocity; Buxton orders his officers to find and capture the shepherd. One of his Indian police officers, Raju (Ram Charan), volunteers for the mission, planning to infiltrate the city’s revolutionary Indian circles. In Delhi, two Indian strangers see a boy drowning in the river and team up to rescue him; the two men, Raju and “Akhtar,” become fast friends. Raju is unaware that Akhtar is the warrior he’s looking for, and Akhtar is unaware that Raju works for the man whose household he aims to raid. The drama of their secrets, and the circuitous path of their ultimate collaboration (it’s no spoiler), involve scenes of moral and emotional horror that are redeemed in the high purpose of their historic mission.
The similarity in tone to other Indian action films is matched by what it shares with Hollywood blockbusters, too. The drama is built around action, stints on character, features very little dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot, and offers neither psychology nor history nor social context to enrich the historical framework. It’s a movie of shortcuts and elisions no less relentless than those of American superhero or superstar vehicles, but Rajamouli is an artist of a distinctive temperament and talent. He spotlights the halo of legend in an extended scene that introduces Raju, at a prison where Indian people are storming the gates to free a prisoner. There, Raju takes on the entire surging crowd by way of impossible acrobatics and eruptive martial artistry (highlighted by a madly rotating camera) that plays like a live-action cartoon. The element of fantasy is intensified by a sequence of Bheem’s rigorous self-imposed training, which involves single-handed battle with a wolf and a tiger.
There’s an overt element of exaggeration that bends the story into the substance and the tone of legend—the effect is of an onscreen tall tale. It’s a film of giddy, exhilarating hyperbole in which physical action pierces the barrier of impossibility but stops short of the supernatural or superheroic. And there’s a dashing graphic sense of composition and an assertively precise sense of rapid action that owes nothing to the generic jumble with which most Hollywood action scenes are filmed and edited. “RRR” is also filled with gore: streaming blood, spurting blood, bodies beaten and pierced and torn. Yet the combination of sharply determined political purpose and compositional artistry lends the horror an air of abstraction that stokes a sense of indignation or of justice without physical disgust or titillation.
The plot has twists and turns, hidden byways and surprising connections, that have the dazzle of magic tricks. The story’s omissions and truncations—an odd thing to refer to in a movie that runs to nearly three hours—contribute to the air of wonder and lend a jolt of astonishment to an extensive flashback that’s dropped in midway through. The drama is rooted in the absolute sadism, the monstrous and indeed genocidal racism of the British, the governmental terrorism with which Buxton reigns, the pathological bloodlust of power that Catherine flaunts, the dehumanizing prejudices of subordinate officers, and the vile politics of hiring indigenous people to do their dirty work. The story’s view of colonial despotism involves not only grievous economic inequality but also relentless political repression—and a sense of fear that’s nearly a sense of doom, signalled by the absolute ban on Indian people owning firearms and the tumult that results when even a single rifle falls into the hands of one of them.
For all its political determination, “RRR” is also a musical, and an electrifying one. The movie is filled with music and with characters singing at moments of grand political import; when Raju and Bheem manage to attend a high British social gathering, they convert a moment of cultural chauvinism into a spectacular dance-off. The frenetically athletic choreography involves gestures of a rapid-fire sculptural majesty to match the geometric flair of the images that capture it. Where the movie’s central dance is pugnaciously competitive, the fight scenes are dance-like, featuring moments of phantasmagorical splendor. One won’t soon forget the vision of a warrior carrying another on his back, with the one on top bearing two rifles and shooting them with deadly accuracy in opposite directions while the bearer breaks on the run through a brick wall. Or a runaway motorcycle being stopped with one foot as if it were a soccer ball, caught in midair, and hurled with the devastating force of a cannonball. Or a single flaming arrow igniting the entire countryside and yielding Wagnerian images of sublime destruction.
The drama of political unity that song lyrics characterize as “friendship between an erupting volcano and a wild storm” is also a flag-waving spectacle of patriotic pomp. The movie’s powerful sense of revolutionary virtue and collective purpose yields to nationalistic pride that’s danced and sung with uninhibited joy. The concluding production number, with militaristic bravado, spotlights the present-day purposes of this quasi-historical tale.