Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘RRR’ Shows Us The True Meaning of the Word Spectacle

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American blockbusters, while often fun, are depressingly bland visual affairs. Short on spectacle and long on ugly cheap VFX and other special effects. For movies that cost over a hundred million dollars, they look disconcertingly cheap. Moreover, these movies are often packed full of lore and watered-down escapism to the point that people question physics in movies where Gods and aliens co-exist. 

In a landscape filled with too little aesthetic, verve, and lacking any joy in the craft, S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR is like manna from cinematic heaven. A Telegu movie, RRR, tells the story of India’s revolution against the British Empire. But in a way that only a Tollywood movie could, with dance, music, and jaw-dropping spectacle both natural and computer-animated.

Written by V. Vijayendra Prasad and Sai Madhav Burra, RRR is a three-hour-long epic that weaves myth and personal stories amidst a backdrop of British oppressive colonial rule. It has everything. By everything, I mean RRR has action, music, dance, fighting, torture, revenge, and true love. 

They may have based the film on real life, but true to form, RRR behaves more like a fairy-tale dripping with ecstasy and injected with steroids. Rajamouli has a beautiful knack for taking a simple scene and figuring out how to turn it into an over-the-top spectacle. My favorite example involves Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Raju (Ram Charan) rescuing a little boy. The scene consists of a bridge, exploding oil tankers, rope, and the Indian flag, as the two men use nothing but their superpowered strength and gravity.

K.K. Senthil Kumar’s camera is unchained by anything so banal as logic or rudimentary physics. Kumar’s lens makes every shot worth looking at and visually enhances Prasad and Burra’s story. Working with the special effects team, Kumar can take a big event and untether it from reality to give us true spectacle. Bheem jumping from a wagon filled with caged animals, flaming torches in each hand, as the animals burst free of their cages is the type of shot only possible thanks to computers.

Tollywood and Bollywood, unlike their American counterparts, don’t view special effects as a way to cut the budget but as a means to achieve their visual ideal. If computers genuinely push the limit of what is possible, then why not explore them. Unbounded by practicality, RRR, like its cinematic brethren, leaps, and zooms about with such vitality as to remind the viewer of the all-or-nothing days of early silent film.

Rajamouli’s RRR borrows heavily from Hindu mythology and history. Alluri Sitarama Raju, played by Charan, and Komaram Bheem, Rao Jr., are both actual historical figures. Ram’s Raju is the over-achiever, undercover as one of Governor Buxton’s (Ray Stevenson) guards. He’s biding his time until he can deliver Her Majesty’s guns to his people. Bheem, on the other hand, is a country bumpkin hell-bent on rescuing Mali (Twinkle Sharma), a child stolen from his tribe by the Governor’s wife, Catherine (Alison Doody). She’s taken Mali as a sort of decoration and servant for the manor.

Perhaps what is so refreshing about RRR, aside from its cinematic zest, is how it doesn’t tap around revolutionary action or water down its politics. American films often pay lip service to revolutionary themes but muddy them with watered-down compromises at the end. Or worse, have the villain espouse ideals that the audience holds but who goes about them in the “wrong way.”

Both sides and all that.

One reason is that studios keep a keen eye on the international box office. So they want a movie that plays everywhere and does not offend any other country’s censors. RRR doesn’t care, and since it’s not concerned with us, it can revel in universal themes, such as rebelling against oppressors without trying to appease “both sides.”

Is RRR propaganda? Undeniably, unabashedly, unambiguously, yes.

It’s hard not to be moved by Bheem as he wonders how Governor Buxton and his wife, Catherine could be so cruel. “Don’t they have daughters of their own?” How many of us have sat dumbfounded by the far-right and the right, in general, and wondered how they could be so inhumanely cruel despite having children of their own?

Rao plays Bheem with a sort of “aww shucks” kind of charm. While looking for Mali, he falls in love with the Governor’s niece Jenny (Oliva Morris), a kind-hearted white woman in a sea of bloodthirsty animals, the colonial guards. They may have a language barrier, but since when has that ever stopped a romance in a movie?

Though she seems okay with keeping an Indian child, whether she knows the child is stolen or not is never said. She may root for Bheem as he and Raju engage in an epic dance-off with some white soldiers at a Governor’s ball, but she doesn’t seem all that revolutionary-minded.

Not as much as Raju’s love interest Sita (Alia Bhatt). The two are bonded by a love of each other, self, and country. At first, Bhatt seems like she’s barely in the movie but in the back half, she begins to emerge as the throughline of the entire film. While her role is substantially bigger than her white counterpart, I can’t help but wish she had more to do.

Raju as a character could never be done in America. Oh, we would use his story, maybe, but we would make it so it would be some sanitized claptrap. Raju is a supercop of sorts, Charan sweats bravado and confidence. Having seen the British army kill his father for the crimes of teaching his village how to fight the colonial bastards, he vows to his father before he dies to “give every person a weapon.” 

A sentiment he takes literally before eventually, thanks to Bheem, understands that the idea of freedom is liberating and the willingness to stand for it that is the true weapon. Never mind that his time as a guard is giving him very real ethical dilemmas as he is at once plotting a saboteur’s campaign while also oppressing his own people.

Though guns help, an idea is more potent than anything. I especially loved the way they kept coming back to the lines, “Do you have any idea the value of this bullet?” a line used to show the varying ways people look at and value guns. One as a weapon to murder, the other as a tool to break the chains of oppression.

In the end, Raju doesn’t use guns; he uses a bow and arrow. Because it’s not the gun that matters, it’s the desire for freedom.

Did I mention that Raju has sworn to the crown to hunt down and capture Bheem? Or that the two men are mortal enemies but do not know it because Raju does not know what Bheem looks like and because Bheem does not know Raju is a cop? Or that the two, after the incident on the bridge, become the best of friends, and regardless of everything else, RRR is a genuinely epic ode of bromance and friendship?

Did I forget to mention that?

RRR is a movie with so much jammed inside it’s in three hours; what I haven’t told you could be taken and made into three other movies. The fact that they all co-exist in one seamless entity is a testament to Rajamouli, Prasad, and Burra.

Watching Bollywood or Tollywood movies makes it hard to sit patiently when some wild-eyed filmgoer tries to extol the wonders of American superhero movies. Even the most audacious seem trite and restrained by comparison. Some of it is cultural, but much of it is theatrical cowardice.

Rajamouli’s RRR is a movie so big that no matter if you watch it on Netflix or in the theaters, its size and grand scale will impress itself onto your soul. Afterward, you will find yourself with a cockeyed grin on your face and a desire to tell the next person you meet to go and see it. Now that’s a movie!

Images courtesy of Variance Films

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