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“Wait, WHAT happened there?”
We were almost halfway through the Hindi version of RRR, the latest film by Telugu filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli that has become a Netflix sensation – becoming the most viewed non-English film on the streamer – and my kids, 12 and 10, were transfixed. Normally, I have to cajole them to watch an Indian film with me. In this case, however, I’d simply turned the movie on and they were drawn in by the hypnotic thrum of the extended opening scenes. They were soon enraptured by the spectacle of this South Indian film with stunning visuals and the heart-thumping score.
It didn’t matter that the film was set in 1920 India, made glorious by that washed sepia toned-look. That the two central characters A Rama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) have been borrowed from Indian history, but have been fictionalized beyond recognition. That there’s a not-so-subtle nationalist narrative at play, befitting the current political discourse in India.
The plot – of Bheem, a member of the Gond tribe, on a mission to rescue a young girl kidnapped by a British officer like a trophy, coming in conflict with Raju, a police officer serving his colonial masters for his own mission – held their attention for the entire 184-minute run-time.
They were swept up by the drama. And Rajamouli knows how to spin a good yarn, reeling in even the most reluctant of viewers. Some Toronto fans may have seen an earlier example of his fantastic (and I mean it in the imaginative sense of the word) cinema in Eega, a film about a man who dies and takes the form of a fly in order to get the girl and his revenge. The film picked up nine awards at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in 2013, including Most Original Film, Best Fight and Best Special Effects.
“Okay that’s CGI, right?” my son said, more than a few times. Rajamouli has clearly upped his special effects game, which was impressive even in Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), which brought the filmmaker to the attention of a larger Indian and international audience. I remember watching that film at the UltraAVX cinemas at Cineplex Scarborough Town Centre. Having grown up on a diet of laughable special effects in Hindi mythological TV series and films of the eighties, Baahubali’s scope blew me away.
Men don’t just walk in his movies, they stride with swagger. They don’t look, they glower with intensity. And they don’t talk, they growl. Everything that can be slo-mo is. Windswept hair and kohl-rimmed eyes aren’t just for women; the camera lingers on buff male bodies, dripping with sweat, with unabashed admiration. All of this accompanied to a soaring score, natch.
The action scenes are inventive and decidedly in a South Indian masala style. Back in the day, when sharing videos on social media had just started, I remember a bunch of clips of South Indian films becoming memes – a man sliding on a horse underneath a truck, a heart flying into a patient’s body and beating. Those scenes were so bad that they were truly awful – but you had to acknowledge the wild imagination behind them. Rajamouli, and by extension the larger South Indian film fraternity, have taken the action sequence to an entirely different level.
That’s what had my kids exulting 90 minutes into the movie. They’d already seen Raju become a one-man army beating his path through a throng of protesters with a baton; Bheem roaring in the face of a tiger; a physics-defying stunt that involved both men riding a horse and motorcycle, respectively, before leaping into a bungee jump that ends in clasped arms.
Now, came a scene of the empire striking back. The colonized breaches the estate, bringing the jungle with him. Members of the Raj – played with stiff-upper-lip sneers and snarls by the white actors – are brought to their heels, for the most part.
Even my diasporic kids, who don’t know Indian history well enough to have their hearts swell, cheered. I’ll admit that my critical eyes – which rolled several times at the vivid liberties taken with history and the binaries of good and evil – misted for a brief spell.
To cast a critical eye on the film would require acknowledging that the plot is flimsy. The story is in service of providing connective tissue to the spectacle. The officers of the British Raj are shown as caricatures, which doesn’t add depth to the narrative. There’s very little character development, or social or historical context.
The female characters barely have a role to play, despite the fact that one of Indian cinema’s leading actresses Alia Bhatt plays Raju’s fiancée. (To watch a film that does Bhatt justice, check out Gangubai Kathiadwadi, also streaming on Netflix. Inspired by a real-life persona and set during India’s newly acquired independence from British rule, it tells the story of a Mumbai brothel owner who fought for the rights of sex workers.)
The film could have been easily edited down by a good half hour. As well, only the dubbed version of the film is available on the streaming platform; I would have much rather watched the Telugu original with subtitles. Netflix dubs continue to leave much to be desired.
Then there’s the politics of the film. It borrows from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and has a decidedly upper-caste world view. While the powerful tribal Bheem has the capacity to move mountains with his bare hands and people with his words, it’s the upper-caste Raju with a bow and quiver full of unending arrows who leads the charge.
You could ignore the subtext, of course, and revel in Rajamouli’s cinematic flair. Except, this is the type of mythology that Indian nationalists would much rather recount today – even if it’s a fictionalized revision of history: full of bravura and chest-thumping machismo, as opposed to the seemingly soft-spoken Gandhian calls for a non-violent end of colonial rule or Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar’s vision for an equitable nation state.
Visually exhilarating as it may be, it’s worthwhile to remember that RRR is inspired by true events. It’s a work of historical fiction that’s just as inventive as its thrilling special effects.
RRR is streaming now on Netflix; a Telugu-language version with English subtitles will play Toronto’s Royal theatre June 26 (universe.com/RRRToronto)
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