Rise, Roar, Revolt and Walk Away

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

We have seen “RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt)” – all three hours and seven minutes of it – in a single Netflix binge last year. Previously we were told about the outlandish special effects, and a dance tune that everybody was raving about. We were ready for, maybe, ten minutes of a quick browse before moving on. Lo and behold, we were at the end and did not realize where these hours went.

RRR was Described in the Western media variously as “a Political Screed, an Action Bonanza, and an Exhilarating Musical,” “a Maximalist film,” an “unrelenting ride of a film that makes blockbusters such as Top Gun: Maverick look like child’s play.”  Steven Spielberg praised by saying “I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was like eye candy…it was extraordinary to look at and experience.” The Atlantic stole my words when it said “RRR is the heroic epic we’ve been waiting for—one that’s not afraid of its own extravagance,” and that RRR is the “Indian Action Blockbuster That Should Make Hollywood Jealous.”

Truer words are rarely spoken.

The official RRR synopsis reads: “A tale of two legendary revolutionaries and their journey far away from home. After their journey they return home to start fighting back against British colonialists in the 1920s.” Unlikely friendship of Alluri Sitarama Raju (played by Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (played by N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), two Indian freedom fighters who unite to revolt against the British Raj. Bheem was a Gond who led rebellions against the Nizam, and after his death in an encounter in 1940, he became an important figure in the Telangana Rebellion of 1946. Raju, an Adivasi known as ‘Manyam Veerudu’ or ‘Hero of the Jungle’, was executed by the British in 1924, after leading the Rampa Rebellion (1922). Director S. S. Rajamouli lived up to his reputation for grandiose actions and imaginative set pieces, many of which are built around dynamic special effects and choreography. M. M. Keeravani composed the music and K. Subhash Chandrabose wrote lyrics for its most famous song “Naatu Naatu”.

Interestingly, the two real-life protagonists whose story RRR chronicles were from different times and never met; RRR does not claim to be historically accurate.

“Naatu Naatu” is a bouncy, percussion-driven track sung by Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava with choreography by Prem Rakshith. After a bigoted socialite questions Bheem’s dancing capabilities at a party, the duo challenges him to a dance-off set to the song. The energetic routine contains elements of traditional Telugu hook-step. Many translate ‘Naatu’ as ‘dance,’ whereas for the writer and filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju clarifies that it means “desi,” i.e., “local, native, vernacular, etc.” The song’s references to bulls in fields or types of bread with chillis have a familiar local (naatu) meaning.

RRR premiered in India in March of 2022; a Hindi-language version was made available to Netflix subscribers in May that year. TCL’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles held a screening and the tickets sold out in 98 seconds. The genre-bending epic has grossed over $160 million worldwide (the third highest grossing Indian movie ever), breaking the record for the biggest opening day with $30 million gross. RRR, subtitled in 15 languages, made history as the only film to trend globally in English and non-English categories in Netflix’s Top 10 for 14 consecutive weeks. Interestingly, two leads actors’ respective families are known as arch-rivals in politics “The whole concept of having a rivalry brought us together,” Charan explained to the Los Angeles Times. “The only path we could take was friendship because we were bored of [the] news of rivalry for more than three decades.” “We look up to each other. It’s a support system. We complement each other, and we can share a few secrets that will never get out.”, says Rao.

RRR and “Naatu Naatu” grabbed critics’ hearts across the globe. Crowning jewel was the Oscar for best song in 2023, first time a home-grown Indian song was nominated. Among others, RRR won five Critics Choice nominations and two awards for best foreign language film and best song, two Golden Globe nominations for best foreign film and song; New York Film Critics Circle named Rajamouli as its best director for 2022. Deadline Hollywood called RRR “bigger than Ben-Hur”, and that “RRR is one action crescendo after another, never dull but not exhausting either.” Variety commented that RRR was a “bigger-than-life and bolder-than-mainstream action-adventure epic.” The New York Times talked about a hallucinogenic fervor, “supercharging scenes with a shimmering brand of extended slow-motion and C.G.I. that feels less ‘generated’ than unleashed.” Rolling Stone cited it as “best and most revolutionary of 2022;” that RRR is about “the thrill of watching stories told at larger-than-life levels.” James Cameron saw RRR three times, it is said.

Given that RRR started as a regional Indian film, such a response is hard to divine. Not really. Rajamouli is no unknown in the world of global blockbusters. His 2017 film “Bahubali 2” grossed $280 million globally, making it the second-highest-grossing Indian movie ever. “A good story is a good story for everyone,” he says, talking about his secret sauce. He makes films that respond to contemporary India by re-examining its past, notably in the two Baahubali films as well as in RRR. He works repeatedly with a small team of co-creators who obviously share his passion for the bombastic, true spectacles with very high technical quality and storylines that appeal to a wider audience, yet remain unmistakably “naatu.” “Indian filmmaking has some exclusive styles,” Rajamouli said, “Song and dance, for example. It can be very tacky, if used just for the sake of it. But can be very dramatic and compelling” if used strategically. Naatu Naatu is a prime good example of a compelling spectacle, as evidenced live during 95th Academy Awards show last week.

What does it all mean? It means that it is futile to talk about a segmented movie industry in India. The three mega-blockbusters of Rajamouli started as Telegu movies, but transcended across artificial barriers of languages, and then, geographies. “We have started calling it the Indian film industry, as opposed to dividing it into Bollywood, Tollywood or Kollywood,” Rao told the LA Times. “[Rajamouli] burned the ‘woods,” Charan added. “And just made it one big united Indian film industry.” If a movie has merits, it will likely appeal to all of India – three of the top five top grossing Indian movies originated in languages other than Hindi, outside of Bollywood.

When you watch RRR, you never feel that RRR is trying to be anything other than pure entertainment. It is set with historical undertones, but never claims to be factual. It has characters that are either superhuman or caricatures, unapologetically so. The two protagonists can face an angry crowd braying for their blood, or a bloodthirsty animal with physics-defying decidedly over-the-top shows of raw power, among other feats that are fit only for celluloid, and not real life. Their opponents – pallbearers of the British Raj – are devilishly dastardly, a caricature that leaps and numbs your senses. The audience is expected to gape, guff or gnaw at the big screen – or their smaller current avatars – at the whim of the creator. We do and come away enchanted. Rajamouli is a puppet master who knows his great power and promise, as do all in his team. What he does not pretend to be is a preacher or one with a political hitlist. He does not try to appeal to the self-styled protectors of cultural moorings and morality. Bravo!

Back in 1996, I made a comment that struck many as odd. “If I am to spend my hard-earned ten rupees on a movie, I’d rather the movie makes an effort to entertain me,” I said. I have never since veered away from that guiding principle. Through the years I have watched with distress when movies made especially in India and the US try their hardest to project they are trying to be everything but; that they are for the cognoscenti, the know-it-all about what is good for you, the divinely ordained without the collar.

I refused to bow to their highness then, I still keep my head high. I rose, I roared, and I revolted if you will. RRR made it worth it all by proving, once again, that a movie that wants to entertain you can absolutely do so no matter the provenance. And make serious money doing so.





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