In the 1960 historical epic Mughal-E-Azam, there comes a radical break in its rolling presentation of power. To woo and celebrate the Mughal Prince Salim, a sculptor is commissioned by one of his suitors to carve a marble statue personifying eros. However, the sculptor, a proud dissident, conjures no simple work of veneration, or even, of marble, but a marvelous trick, like Michelangelo’s Slaves played as a comic gesture. This stone summation of desire turns out to be a flesh-and-blood slave girl, Anarkali, disguised as a statue. This act of artistic subversiveness, of elevating a commoner to a symbolic zenith reserved for royals, gods, and virtues personified, is an omen, foretelling not only the love between the Prince and Anarkali, but how the love between this Muslim royal and a Hindu slave will crack a hierarchy previously thought resolute.
To a degree, S.S. Rajamouli is also an iconoclast. Rajamouli is a regionalist director, working on Telugu and Tamil films, catapulted by the enormous success of his two-film fantasy epic Baahubali (2015, 2017) into perhaps popular Indian cinema’s most revered, working director. A title previously reserved for filmmakers operating out of Mumbai, in the more dominant Hindi industry. He’s certainly a deep believer in myth and legend, mounted and molded on a monumental scale, and transcribed not as an unmoving edifice but as a tactile and immediate experience. RRR, his newest, long-gestating production, fits the bill, though by drawing from the well of recent history, not just handed-down imagination or his own, Rajamouli has created one of his richest works, formally and dramatically, and of a fraught political nature, born out of a a juggling of myth, history and nationalism.
A Telugu production, though with a pan-Indian setting, the film is a work of imaginative historical fiction. Situated in 1920, during the British Raj, it takes two real-life, southern Indian revolutionary figures, Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), who were contemporaries yet never met, and makes them the super-charged heroes of an anti-colonial, nation-building epic. The catalyzing event to this new myth is a gross act of colonial hubris. While visiting a village of the Gond people, British governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody)—played as an ogre and his ice queen, and as ultraviolent emblems of colonial authoritarianism—hoodwink the villagers and kidnap their pride and joy, a little girl and talented songstress called Malli (Twinkle Sharma), who they whisk away to their palace in Delhi.
To correct this calamity, the village send a rescue party to Delhi, led by their most gifted hunter, Bheem. Since word of their mission has spread, and time is needed to figure out how to crack the governor’s ironclad fortress, Bheem goes undercover as a Muslim mechanic. Meanwhile the incensed British set an unprecedented reward, the rank of “special officer,” to anyone who can capture him. This intrigues policeman Raju who, despite his enormous ability and ambition, is trapped underneath a glass ceiling by his status as an Indian. He accepts the challenge, though once he gets to know his quarry and his murky past is revealed, his true allegiances are cast in doubt.
Just as much as Baahubali, RRR is an immense chunk of mythopoeia, and yet this scale never causes the film to drag or get too abstract. By centering on these two men not just as symbols but also men, with their unlikely friendship and clashes of wills driving this national narrative, Rajamouli finds a strong locus that he can modulate within a wider, mythic canvas. This trajectory is set from the start, with the two men’s separate, introductory scenes that establish them as extraordinary with sheer physicality. We see Raju alone, squaring up against a mob of hundreds thronging a police station. Rajamouli establishes the scale of this mob but the scene plays out thrillingly on ground level, as a kind of rugby scrum with the policeman barreling his way through a gauntlet of bodies upon bodies. Bheem is introduced stripped to his waist and dousing himself in blood to catch a wild animal by acting as bait, which leads to a high speed chase and tug of war with a tiger, with the camera slingshotting along and emphasizing the heft of this CGI beast. The sequence further exemplifies Rajamouli’s status as one of the few filmmakers able to employ CGI extensively without glossing over the tactility, punch, and weight of his performers and their actions.
These scenes are the first concentrated dose of “hunter versus the hunted” and animal metaphors that will run through film, often giddily literalized. The other, major recurring metaphor is of these two revolutionaries as blood brothers, and that blood fertilizes India as an all-encompassing nation of siblings. This weighty theme might have buckled if these superstar actors didn’t work in tandem, yet the film is a smartly constructed two-hander. On a plot level, it first familiarizes us with Bheem, the more immediately likeable of the two, and then in the second half, the more enigmatic Raju is satisfyingly unraveled. But what is more important is how the two actors and Rajamouli construct a rich, convincing friendship moment to moment.
There is a storied awareness then of each actor’s particular quality. A certain arm’s length quality to Charan’s persona works wonders for a character who, at first glance, seems more machine than man. On the face of it he seems stoic, but inside Raju is one of the “wretched of the earth,” ensnared in colonialist ideology’s fetters. Rama Rao Jr.’s warmer, buffoonish persona works for a character that wears more of his heart on his sleeve. Rajamouli and co-writer K. V. Vijayendra Prasad’s fantastic, ironic conceit, where Raju and Bheem meet and a close friendship grows, in blissful ignorance of each other’s disguises and secret missions, creates a playful arena where these differing qualities can be varyingly heightened and confused.
Their chemistry enhances setpieces that are impressively designed around their cooperation, such as the joint rescue of a boy trapped in a river coated with flames, caused by a derailed oil tanker. The duo’s descent from a bridge, swinging like pendulums, is a vivid expression of the tightening window of opportunity for these two strangers to trust each other and save the boy and the tension in the audience’s foreknowledge that they are covert adversaries.
The first peak of their friendship is reached and channeled in what is perhaps the film’s highpoint, which is not an action sequence per se but rather a bonanza of intricate footwork. As the only two Indians who are not servants at a gathering of white, British colonial elite, tensions set in and then flare on the dance floor. A spindly prig insults Bheem and makes the supremacist claim that no brown person can dance as well as a European (listing various styles, none of which are of a white European origin). Raju and Bheem counter with a song and dance called “Naatu Naatu,” a full-bodied, suspenders-pulling-and-calves-stretching number that wears down empire and exalts their oppressed masculinity with its vigor.
The duo attends the party on the invitation of Jennifer (Olivia Morris), a young, idealistic member of the Buxton family who Bheem is trying to woo. It’s telling that this romance ultimately plays as a foil to Bheem and Raju’s turbulent bromance, with Rajamouli enthusiastically depicting male bonding as physical, and not just competitive and strenuous but also playful and tender, epitomized in a scene where Bheem saves Raju from a snake bite and acts as his attentive nurse. The dance scene and this act of healing finds its inverse when Bheem is captured, and Raju is ordered to publicly whip his friend into submission. It’s a case of colonial divide and conquer but once again the metamorphosing power of song kicks in. Bheem’s refusal to genuflect turns into a subversive musical act, with his streaming blood inseminating and incensing the repressed political consciousness of the crowd that has come to watch.
S.S. Rajamouli as an author of virile victory songs, composed not only with a mythic inference, but narrative shape and sensibilities, goes far back to the early years of his filmmaking. Film after film, he’s developed an epic action cinema centered on macho underdogs on the lower end, if not the bottom, of the social ladder. His heroes are cocky, big lummoxes who possess not only formidable charm, strength, and skills, but a wayward moral character that goes unchecked until they meet an array of challenges: love, a villain that’s like a cracked reflection in a mirror, and manifest destiny.
Once they’re put through the ringers of reincarnation (often literal) and revelation, they are set on a path of writing their own destiny, with both evil and their own shortcomings conquered through self-actualization and sheer might. From the mid-2000s, starting with Yamadonga (2007), this mythic conception of character and grand narrative is exemplified through increasingly delving into fantastical elements with more overt inspiration from classical sources. Rajamouli’s films draw not only from a lineage of popular Indian cinema epics, 50s and 60s Hollywood’s religious epics, and the directorial career of Mel Gibson, but the ancient Sanskrit and Hindu epic poetry of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
While his previous films have been set in a generalized present day, legendary realms, or a vacillation between the two, RRR is unique in Rajamouli’s body of work as a historical drama set a mere hundred years ago with two main characters, very loosely but still pointedly based on two real life figures. One of the more insidious consequences of this collision of fiction and fact emerges in the final hour. The combination of an attempt to create a rallying cry for modern India with extensive borrowing from specific, loaded ancient texts and Rajamouli’s populist yet authoritarian and right-wing sensibility, pushes the film into a troubling yet ultimately less interesting political zone.
The character of these two real men and their related but separate revolutionary struggles speak to a web of specific and blurred class, ethnic, and political identities. Alluri Sitarama Raju was born into an upper-caste family, was a devout Hindu ascetic, and had connections to and aspirations for a wider revolutionary struggle. However, the conflict he fought, from 1922 until his death in 1924, did not emphasize a particular religious faith and was concertedly local in its scope and popular Adivasi base. (The Adivasi being a catch-all designation for India’s many “tribal communities,” who’ve been historically and currently oppressed and marginalized.) Komaram Bheem was himself a member of the Adivasi, specifically the Gond people, as explored in the film. Though his political education drew from a period of time spent moving all India, including over four years as a labor union activist in Assam, in the northeast. His awakening as a revolutionary, and the rebellion he led from 1928 to his death in 1940, is inextricable from his Gond identity.
Raju and Bheem’s legacies are complex, with interpretations and claimants coming from left and right, from specific communities on both a local and national level—though in the case of Bheem, mainly within Adivasi activism, separatists, communist struggles, and other left-wing movements. For much of its runtime, Rajamouli’s tale of two revolutionaries has been non-specific and potent in its anti-colonialism and militancy. Yet it eventually drifts in the direction of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, a far-right ideology that espouses an entrenchment of the caste system and the exclusion of Christians and, most significantly and violently, Muslims. This strictly hierarchical, sectarian formulation of Indian society became increasingly mainstream in the late 20th century, and since 2014, has found power in the form of the dominant BJP Party.
On the revelation that Raju is a revolutionary and that he’s been playing a long con game of subterfuge, at tremendous cost, the balance between these two protagonists shifts. Raju becomes the film’s galvanizing focus, and his Hindu identity gets emphasized at the expense of Bheem’s Gond identity. Upon learning of his friend’s true nature and imprisonment, Bheem laments his provincial, narrow point of view as a tribal and praises Raju’s glorious, national perspective. Meanwhile, despite months of deprivation and torture under British imprisonment, Raju is regenerating. Through sheer power of will, he has become stronger and sharper than ever, so that when Governor Scott drops by his cell to goad, Raju flexes his muscles and intones a few Sanskrit passages from the Ramayana.
His mythic journey is complete after Bheem rescues him from prison, and in a semi-magical instance, sparked by the sight of a shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Rama, the primary subject of the Ramayana, Raju undergoes a loaded transformation. From a vale of flames emerges Raju with a bow and an arrow, long flowing hair and saffron shawl wrapped around his waist. In short, he has turned into Lord Rama to lead the final charge against the British.
It’s a logical progression given not only Rajamouli’s long-standing love of the Ramayana but how he’s seeded references to it throughout the film, such as naming of Raju’s fictionalized, estranged love Sita, the name of Rama’s wife. However, the figure of Rama is home to other, non-exclusive but potent political connotations. Post-independence, the deity has been increasingly harnessed as a major symbol and weapon by Hindu nationalist groups. His name invoked in much of the worst violence perpetrated against Muslims in the last forty years, such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1991 and the riots that followed.
The film’s assertion then is of an independent, unified India, indivisible and inclusive, and also one with a bellicose form of Hinduism on top, dominating its imagination. It’s a bleaker and less rich conclusion than what was suggested by the first flowering of Bheem and Raju’s friendship, where symbols and identities are redrawn and being tried on for size. In this more speculative stretch, a Hindu and Muslim can be best friends, a low-ranking Indian man can seduce a young English aristocrat, and a cop can lay down his baton and become a revolutionary. It’s a vision of a post-colonial society as a playful, flexible utopia rather than the blood-soaked dystopia, claimed as a utopia, on which the film closes.