I’m not sure what I expected from RRR, the three-hour Telugu-language Indian action epic. I think I expected to learn how to say the title out loud in conversation, but I’m still not sure whether to say the individual letters or to make a growling noise. I do know what the title stands for now: “Rise, Roar, Revolt,” a fitting slogan for its 1920s setting, when India was still under British colonial rule.
I don’t think I expected to become an evangelist for the film, agonizing over which scene could possibly sum up the experience. There’s no shortage of sensory-overloading bombast to choose from, to try to convince you that you should see this movie and, health and safety permitting, see it in a theater. I’d see it again. I’d drag other people to see it. I’d pass out little pamphlets in front of the theater asking people if they’d heard the good word.
The scene I’ve landed on is the intro to one of the two heroes, Komaram Bheem (Jr NTR). He’s standing in the middle of the jungle and pouring blood down his muscular, hairy body. It is a persuasively forceful image, the picture of a man who means business even if his business is to be the bait: he takes off running once the blood attracts a wolf. If all goes as planned, Bheem will lure it into a trap to be captured.
But things don’t go as planned, because a tiger blunders in, colliding in mid-air slow-motion with the wolf and knocking it aside to take over as the snarling pursuer. Though Bheem ensnares the tiger at first, the trap was not built for the size and ferocity of such a creature. The hooks holding the device together come loose, and to keep the tiger from going free, Bheem dives to hold them in place with his bare hands, claws rending the flesh of his back in the process, mixing the blood from his body with the blood he poured on it earlier to attract predators.
This scene doesn’t pay off for something like another hour. Maybe less, I don’t know. Time gets a little screwy when you’re getting blasted with noise and action and music and bellowing, sweaty men in the dark. We know Bheem’s goal, to rescue a young girl who was abducted from her village at the behest of an evil British woman (Alison Doody) who does not have a mustache to twirl but whose husband, the governor (Ray Stevenson), most certainly does. We know that an animal is going to serve those goals somehow. Yet the film seems to all but forget about this scene and — given that conflicts pitched at about this level of majestic peril are pretty much the norm — I wondered if it was no more than a fun establishing moment.
Later, though, it comes back, and the results are spectacular. I laughed, because it had slipped into the back of my mind the way it was supposed to. Do people clap at these movies? Do they cheer? The speakers blasted loud enough that I couldn’t quite tell what the other reactions were, but I thought about it, and I don’t usually think about that.
The intro for our other hero, whose name is Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) but shortened to “Ram” throughout, is just as elaborate, albeit a little more complicated since he’s doing something awful. Ram is an Indian cop who serves the British empire, standing tall while the downtrodden masses protest outside a garrison. They’re shaking the fence, they’re throwing things. A white officer gives the order to apprehend one such rock-lobbing agitator, though his voice falters once his brain catches up to the absurdity of his order, the obvious futility. But Ram obliges, baton in hand and bounding over the tall fence in a single leap. He swings his way through the crowd, taking formidable amounts of punishment himself but getting his guy in the end like a version of Robert Patrick’s evil cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, except Ram is a mere man of flesh and blood and an immaculate mustache. It’s hard not to admire him a little, to find his actions cool even though he’s being a horrible fascist and an apparent traitor to his people (several faces in the mob call him a “double-crosser”).
I am not, to say the least, particularly well-versed in Indian blockbusters. I am, however, reasonably familiar with the films of RRR‘s director, S. S. Rajamouli. He made the similarly bombastic Baahubali films, and he made Eega, where a murdered man seeks revenge totally undeterred by the fact that he’s been reincarnated as a housefly. They sound like the sort of movies you’d watch ironically, but you quickly realize that the absurdity is in purposefully stitched their DNA, augmented by frequent slow-motion as well as the breaks for song and dance.
Case in point: RRR is essentially fanfiction. Ram and Bheem were real people, though they never met in real life and (probably) never performed any of the preposterously awesome feats they do in the film. And most surprising of all, it’s in this imaginary friendship that RRR makes its biggest impression, portraying a seismic camaraderie that develops before the men learn they’re on opposite sides. There is, once again, a child in peril, trapped under a bridge by flames from an oil leakage. Ram and Bheem’s chemistry is so immediate that they need only to make a few hand motions from a distance to communicate the steps of a daring rescue operation involving: a horse, a motorcycle, some rope, a wet flag, and both men jumping off the bridge at the same time.
What follows is an underwater handshake that plays like someone dared director Rajamouli to outdo the flex-tastic Schwarzenegger/Weathers greeting in Predator. Then the film deploys a friendship montage, showing these men bro-ing out in one moment after another where they run along opposite sides of a steaming train, take turns doing pull-ups on a tree branch, and give each other masculine piggyback rides as all bros do. Pretty much the only thing they don’t do is compete to see who can grow the thickest beard out of thin air.
They also, alas, do not kiss. Ram’s heart belongs (supposedly) to one of the women from his home village, but he proves himself an able wingman, serving as the go-between for Bheem and Jenny (Olivia Morris), the sympathetic British niece of the nasty governor. Neither one speaks the other’s language, and it’s up to Ram to smooth over the language barrier until Jenny invites them both to a sort of country club. In the film’s best scene, a stuffy Brit with a decidedly inferior mustache ridicules Bheem for not knowing any of the proper high-society dances. Ram, ever supportive, gets the band to play an energetic, percussion-heavy beat and joins Bheem in a face-melting dance-off sequence that ends with the white people imitating their moves only to collapse one by one from exhaustion and injury.
I am absolutely not the person to speak to the film’s political context, to the sensitivity of its portrayal of tribal characters or the dynamics of its sort of-romance between colonizer and colonized. What I can say, though, is that while the film loses a bit of steam after the intermission and the ensuing flashback (an “action first, explanation later” structure that Rajamouli also employs in Baahubali), the film closes on some of the most ludicrously inventive action sequences I’ve ever see in a theater. They’re the sort of things I hesitate to write about at all because their pure overblown audacity deserves to be discovered personally. One involves more piggyback rides.
On the spectrum of where films rate as emotional expressions, RRR portrays those emotions when they’re on the verge of exploding, the pot boiling over for totally unconstrained joy, sadness, and anger. The emotional core of RRR is never cheapened by the absurdity because it’s rooted in such earnest, heart-on-sleeve feelings that are tough not to adore. That the drama takes place against such an operatic backdrop undoubtedly helps, expressing the violence of colonialism in personal terms. The staging verges on the mythic, not only in one scene that paints Raju as analogous to a deity but in depicting the two heroes in elemental opposition, as fire and water while song lyrics liken their relationship to a volcano befriending a storm.
We learn, eventually, that Ram is far from a true believer; once trusted and promoted, he can hijack a rifle shipment to arm the revolutionaries in a protracted act of vengeance for his father’s slaughter at the hands of the British. Bheem’s rescue mission is more overtly righteous, though it is on a much smaller scale; Ram’s requires constant sacrifice for a perceived greater good, and he fears he has lost his way. It’s a genuinely thoughtful dynamic that the film could stand to explore a little more than it does, but it’s hard to complain. The pace never dulls, never becomes exhausting. None of these layers bog down the action so much as they absorb it and amplify it all the way to the shattering catharsis of the film’s conclusion, which plays on the villain’s recurring insistence that an imported British bullet is too expensive to use on an Indian life.
When we talk about the big-budget films that are Hollywood’s primary export, we tend to make excuses. We say they’re made too quickly for attention spans that are too short; they’re not meant to be thought about, to take risks or to be considered in any context outside their spectacle. RRR makes their spectacle feel small.