Ever since Baahubali’s stupendous success, the quest to make a pan-Indian film has caught on across industries. But few directors have SS Rajamouli’s vision that conjures up fantastical images; visuals that are so compelling we are drawn into the story by the sheer temerity of his ambition. This is one director who knows how to use a massive budget and give his audacious imagination a free run. In RRR, Rajamouli brings together two leading men from the Telugu film industry – Ram Charan and Junior NTR – to weave together an imaginary tale based on real life heroes Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. The first was a revolutionary, who was born around 1897, and fought for Adivasi rights against the British. The second was an Adivasi man from the Gond tribe who was born around 1900 and fought against the exploitation by the Nizams of Hyderabad and British rule.
There is no record of the two men meeting or fighting together in real life, but RRR asks ‘What if they did?’ The story that brings them together is Malli, a Gond tribal girl who is forcibly separated from her family and taken to the British Governor’s house in Delhi as a ‘pet’. Komaram Bheem (Junior NTR) takes on the daunting task of bringing her home. On the other hand, Ramaraju (Ram Charan) is a ruthless police officer under the British who nurses secret ambitions of his own, and vows to capture Bheem who is said to be a threat to the Governor. The two men are pitted against each other though they don’t know it yet. Bheem disguises himself as Akhtar, a Muslim man, while trying to figure out where Malli is and how to get to her. Ramaraju is puzzlingly loyal to his British masters, beating up his Indian counterparts with no mercy.
Rajamouli’s films have that elusive quality of combining old world cinema and its overblown sentiments with new age technology that makes everything all the more convincing. So, Komaram Bheem is introduced in an exciting tiger chase, man and beast snarling at each other, reminiscent of the famous Baahubali and Bhallaladeva poster. Ram Charan’s Ramaraju is introduced as a violent policeman who doesn’t let an angry mob stop him from performing his duty. Just how many people were there on the sets when they shot that sequence? How did they keep track of who is to do what in the enacted chaos? It’s a mind-boggling effort, and there are many such moments in the film when you are agape.
There was some concern when the promos of the film came out that it would fan Islamophobia, considering Komaram Bheem fought against the Nizam rule, and he was seen dressed as a Muslim in the film’s teaser. But Rajamouli seems to have had the opposite idea in his mind while developing the story. The Nizam is hardly in the picture, and Rajamouli goes out of the way to project an idea of Hindu-Muslim unity by having ‘Akhtar’ (the alias used by Bheem) and Ramaraju shake hands in a wildly inventive mid-air meeting (and to underline the point, the words ‘India 1920’ appear on screen). Is it historical distortion? Most definitely so, and there’s plenty more of it in the film that I’m sure will upset different factions, particularly the Gond tribe that has already made its objections known.
There are two ways to approach RRR - one, unquestioningly buy into the spectacle that it offers, and two, to read it with the real-life characters who inspired it and examine if the film pays homage to them or destroys their legacy. As a reviewer, I’m torn between my impulse to just enjoy the experience and my awareness of the power of cinema to rewrite narratives. So, let me attempt to do both.
One of Rajamouli’s great talents is to pick small, ordinary moments and cast them on a magnified scale to suddenly overwhelm the unsuspecting viewer. In one scene, Ramaraju is taken aback when he sees Akhtar eating with his left hand; it is linked to a mundane scene from his childhood that comes much later, but when you make that connection between the two, you’re all at once hit by a wave of sentiment that you didn’t think you harboured. In another such example, you see Ramaraju carry Akhtar on his back when the latter is tired – the roles are reversed in a later scene which is set in a completely different context.
The friendship between the two men is built through such seemingly simple writing. Ramaraju is the sophisticated man of the world while Akhtar is the simpleton who adores the former. Neither of them suspects that the other is not who he claims to be. The bonhomie between the two is enjoyable, and the ‘Nattu’ song (MM Keeravani) is nothing short of explosive. I drank a bottle full of water on their behalf when it came to an end.
The outlandish interval block has Rajamouli’s stamp all over it. It’s so over-the-top but you buy into it because he places such high stakes in the game. Olivia Morris as Jenny, a kind-hearted British woman, is graceful and charming, and shares an easygoing chemistry with Junior NTR’s Akhtar. Alia Bhatt as Seetha, however, is miscast and wasted in the film. Shriya Saran as young Ramaraju’s mother also looks out of place. Both look like they’ve lived in air conditioning from the time of their birth, forget surviving a hard life in pre-Independent India. You really miss the fiery women of Baahubali, and the fresh flavour that they brought to the narrative. Ajay Devgn is barely able to lip sync in Telugu, and since he has a crucial role to play in Ramaraju’s story, it drags the film down. The second half loses steam in parts because of these factors. Nick Powell's stunning stunt choreography, however, manages to pull us back in whenever the interest flags.
Coming to the cerebral part of my job: how problematic is the film’s appropriation of two real-life heroes? Creative liberties may be a filmmaker’s privilege, but to what extent can those be taken, especially when the characters are seldom represented on screen? Komaram Bheem is an icon to the Gond tribe, and he was also closely associated with the movement for Telangana statehood. His slogan ‘Jal, Jangal, Zameen’ (Water, Forest, Land) symbolised the movement for Adivasi rights. Yet, RRR portrays him as a simple tribesman who even says, “I’m just a tribal who came in search of Malli, I didn’t understand his (Ramaraju’s) struggle for this land”, thereby reducing his political struggle to an abduction drama. Tribal communities have their own belief systems and culture, but this is nowhere represented in the film. Bheem of RRR worships the Shiva lingam and Rama, speaks only Telugu and Hindi, and has no understanding of activism. The slogan ‘Jal, Jangal Zameen’ appears in a flashy song at the end of the film as the credits roll, like an afterthought, when it was what defined Bheem’s politics.
Similarly, Alluri Sitarama Raju is recast as Lord Ram, wearing the janeu of a Kshatriya man, dressed in saffron and shooting arrows at the British. In real life, Alluri Sitarama Raju reportedly became a sanyasin and is depicted with saffron robes in statues and illustrations because of this; his close identification with Lord Ram, however, appears to be a creative liberty taken by the filmmaker. His romance with Seetha also seems to be a distortion; according to the sketchy details known of his life, Seetha was supposedly his friend’s sister whom he considered to be his own, and it was after her death that he prefixed ‘Sita’ to his name. If this is indeed the case, the romance seems to have been force-fitted to suit a Rama-Seetha narrative. Further, Alluri Sitarama Raju was not an Adivasi man but he was deeply engaged with Adivasi rights, particularly around land and agriculture. He is credited with leading the Rampa Rebellion of 1922 against the British, protesting the legal system that deprived the tribal people of their rights. In RRR, however, he is projected as the saviour Lord Ram – an irony when Adivasi cultures have for long been threatened with erasure by mainstream Hindu society, and have been protesting the appropriation of their symbols, beliefs, and expressions.
This leads me to wonder why Rajamouli had to pick these icons if he wasn’t willing to engage with the politics that they represent. Beyond the grandeur of the film, isn’t it insulting to their memory that what they stood for has been diluted thus? Wouldn’t the film have worked if he had chosen two entirely fictional characters and set them in this premise? Sure, in superhero cinematic universes, we have one superhero meet and battle it out with another. But can such a crossover be done sensitively when we’re speaking of real-life people who represent such stories of oppression?
RRR is just the kind of visual treat that will bring people back to theatres. As a fan of cinema, I’m overjoyed, but I also have the niggling worry that this very reason may bury the real story under the glitz and glamour of the cinematic version.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.