Movies

A Wild Indian Blockbuster Is Ravishing Movie Fans, but They’re Missing Its Troubling Subtext

Two men fly through the air to grasps hands as the water and air around them are engulfed in flames.
N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan in RRR. Netflix

It wasn’t inevitable that the histrionic Indian epic RRR would be the mammoth global success it’s now become. The three-hour, special effects–heavy cinematic event is the most expensive feature in Indian history (no small feat), and its filming and release schedules were bogged down in yearslong delays due to a pandemic that’s deeply ravaged much of India. But the wait, and the work, was more than worth it: RRR is not only a record-setting box-office smash within India but all around the world, garnering more excited chatter and coverage than I’ve seen for almost any 21st-century Indian flick. After a widely distributed release in late March, the movie’s Hindi-language dub hit Netflix on May 22, becoming the most-watched non-English movie on the platform by June. RRR has broken through in a way unusual for its length, language, and country of origin. Film critics everywhere adore it, as do NFL players and filmgoers crowding sold-out screenings. Rolling Stone deemed it “the best and most revolutionary blockbuster” of the year; sociologist and author Nancy Wang Yuen calls it “three hours of anti-colonialist AWESOMENESS.”

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Indian films don’t often get this kind of ubiquity, but RRR’s breakout success is even more impressive than that fact conveys. Bollywood—the astonishingly prolific Hindi-language film industry that mainly reflects a North Indian sensibility—is the lens through which foreign filmgoers tend to consider Indian cinema, with the exceptions of Criterion-approved Bengali-language directors like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. RRR is of neither mold: The movie was filmed in Telugu, a language spoken primarily in South Indian states whose cultural contributions often get dwarfed by Mumbai’s. It used to be that successful Telugu directors like Ram Gopal Varma would transition to Bollywood for nationwide fame, after establishing themselves on the regional scene, yet in recent years, as Bollywood has found itself battling an increasingly censorious government and struggling with big-budget flops, Tollywood (Telugu cinema) and Kollywood (Tamil cinema) have increased their share of the market. RRR’s director, S.S. Rajamouli, has played no small part in this cultural shift, having found blockbuster success over the past decade with Eega and the two Baahubali films, the latter of which are among the most expensive and highest-grossing Indian movies ever made. (They’re also on Netflix.) With RRR, Rajamouli breaks both the bank and his own records, and fuels a whole new phenomenon.

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The movie, a quasi-historical exploration of early-century British-ruled India, bases its two lead characters on real freedom fighters (while making sure to emphasize that everything on screen is fiction): Alluri Sitarama Raju, an Indigenous youngster who led an armed uprising against the British and was executed for it, and Komaran Bheem, a member of the Gond tribes who fought against both the British Raj and the post-Mughal Nizams who ruled his home state of Hyderabad. The movie reimagines their struggles and journeys even as it keeps their names: Raju (Ram Charan) is a member of British law enforcement, and Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is motivated here not by environmental degradation but by the forced purchase of a Gondi girl, Malli (Twinkle Sharma), by a British colonial governor’s family.

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That cause leads the protagonists to cross paths, albeit not in the way they expect: Raju, referred to more commonly as Ram (this is important later), is dispatched to Delhi to make sure no Gonds come to take Malli back; Bheem, meanwhile, arrives in the city with a small posse to do just that, disguised as a Muslim in traditional garb. The two come together to save a little boy who’s trapped near a bridge that collapses after a train catches fire and explodes, rescuing him with their superstrength and dexterity. The city celebrates them as heroes, and the two become fast friends without realizing they’re meant to be at loggerheads. (In case you aren’t able to follow the plot, the extremely on-the-nose song lyrics can help you out.) Bheem eventually confesses his true identity to Ram and goes off to save Malli—only to be detained and sentenced to torture and execution by none other than Ram himself. It’s then we find out that Ram is no loyalist, but actually a savvy player of the long game: When he was a child, British soldiers overran his village and slaughtered his family, and his father (portrayed by veteran actor Ajay Devgn) made him promise to get inside of the Raj and ship British arms to the Indian people to arm them for revolution. Bheem’s predicament accelerates the conundrum Ram faces: to keep up this loyalist façade or to break his cover and save his friend.

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On an aesthetic level, RRR (short for Roudram Ranam Rudhiram, Telugu for Rise Roar Revolt) is indeed a helluva fun ride. Pretty much every trope you’ve heard about fluorescent dishoom-dishoom action-packed Indian film is present and dialed up to 110. The superstrong man who can fight off crowds of hundreds of armed assailants, the impossible acrobatics, the inspiring battles against cruel imperialists, and lions and tigers and deer, oh my! (The film notes at the beginning that the animals, who do not hesitate to brutalize anyone in their path, are all CGI.) It’s difficult to convey the scope of action and drama in writing, because RRR is maximum cinema, the kind of in-your-face, colorful, fiery, loud, awe-inspiring experience you really can only get from the movies.

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Still, for a student of the Indian canon, the rapturous response to RRR might seem a bit overblown. There’s more action and special effects, sure, but it’s hard to see how RRR deviates from the similarly outrageous blockbusters that came before it. Rajamouli makes explicit references to the iconic 1975 superhit Sholay, a brazen spaghetti Western rip-off that provided the definitive template for the two-friends-against-the-baddies romantic-comedy-musical-and-hypermasculine-bromance-slash-action-epic genre RRR embodies. The ultrapatriotic tone also reminded me of predecessors like Purab Aur Pachhim (1970), directed by and starring the much-decorated Manoj Kumar, who made Indian supremacy over the West a running theme of his work. For actual supermen, one need look no further than the bombastic tale of Mr. India, from 1987. Plus, the lengthy, high-stakes struggle between noble villagers against the punitive colonizers was previously embodied in 2001’s Lagaan, the last Indian film to get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And depictions of the more violent revolutionaries of India’s independence fight, who had as much of an impact as Gandhi if not more, can be found in other modern tributes like The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Rang De Basanti. This is not to downplay RRR’s visual mastery, or to try to marginalize the notable breakthrough of a Telugu movie (I realize I am copping to my own biases by listing Hindi movies in this paragraph), but to state that it’s hard to nail down a specific reason why RRR has spread as a pan-Indian exemplar in a way those other movies didn’t. Even its absurdity—animals being thrown into humans, loud and exaggerated dance sequences, and vehicles exploding in all sorts of weird ways—isn’t especially novel.

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In fact, RRR’s massive fame is more cause for concern than celebration. If we’re going to champion the film in part for its anti-colonial stance, we should likewise take stock of its uglier but no less important subtexts.

Let’s start with the religious iconography. This is hardcore Hinduism through and through, an apt representation for a country that’s employed authoritarian tactics to empower violent Hindu nationalism and transition to a de facto ethnocratic state. After Ram openly defies his colonial employers in order to save Bheem’s life, he’s seen assuming a wardrobe that invokes his namesake Rama, the hero of the ancient Hindi myth Ramayana who is a reincarnation of the powerful Hindu deity Vishnu. (Ram of RRR also uses a bow and an arrow that a background song states is as “strong as Shiva’s,” referring to another prominent deity.) The lead-up to this apotheosis isn’t subtle—Ram’s girlfriend in RRR is named Sita, the same as Rama’s kidnapped beloved in Ramayana—but when he assumes this final form, it’s even more overt: the bow and flaming arrow, the ancient chest-baring garb, the warrior stance, the godly strength.

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There’s nothing wrong with a film alluding to the Ramayana, a riveting tale with many beloved adaptations; it’s more a matter of how Ram’s semi-divinity clashes with the depiction of Bheem and his fellow Gonds. In general, India’s treatment of its Adivasis—native tribe members—has been less than generous, but as Gond journalist Akash Poyam wrote in the Caravan, even RRR’s Gond hero is not the milestone for Indigenous representation he might seem. Bheem is not a physically weaker hero than Ram, but once Ram’s real purpose is revealed, Bheem is immediately made to seem inferior—spiritually, patriotically, societally. In a baffling monologue, Bheem decries the fact that, in contrast with Ram’s long game, he fought the British mostly to rescue Malli, ironically confirming a sneering British officer’s comment that the Gond “tribals” are driven by the protection of their own. The stereotypes proliferate as the Gonds are seen having a unique control over wild animals like tigers and snakes, reducing a rich community to a group of primitive animal whisperers (one of them does a bird call near the beginning, naturally). And when Ram becomes Rama—a pointed transformation, considering that Ram is clearly of a higher caste than Bheem—the Gond leader reduces himself to the level of student, begging in the movie’s last line to learn from him.

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Some critics have praised RRR for showing a high-caste Hindu forming a tight bond with someone he perceives to be Muslim, but this is belied by the fact that actual Muslim characters are seen nowhere in the film. (When Bheem confesses his true mission to Ram, his first words are, “I am not a Muslim.”) The Rama iconography later in the film, added to Bheem’s submissiveness, makes this narrative choice seem more pointed: Commemoration of the Ramayana has been one of the bloodiest flashpoints for Islamophobic violence in India, with Hindu nationalists having destroyed a Mughal-era mosque that was supposedly located at Rama’s birthplace. The Rama temple now constructed in its place is a symbol for the belief that India should be a holy land for Hindus; it’s even been put on billboards in Times Square. It’s likewise worth noting that the Vande Mataram custom flag that appears in essential scenes like the boy’s rescue—protecting Bheem from the train’s flames, for one—was in part designed by Veer Savarkar, the father of Hindu nationalism.

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Plus, one wouldn’t know from watching RRR that Muslim leaders were some of India’s most storied freedom fighters—not even from the gallery of famed independence icons at the end of the movie, with no Saifuddin Kitchlew, no Zakir Husain, no Asaf Ali. Some stink has already been raised about the fact that the song also excludes Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, the former of whom has become a pariah for India’s right wingers, the latter of whose assassin is now praised by many Hindu nationalists. (For a recent Indian film that does pay homage to the era’s Muslim activists, I recommend 2018’s Manto, also on Netflix.)

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Obviously, one film cannot encompass everything, and as the filmmakers have themselves noted, RRR is sheer fantasy. I cannot fault viewers for enjoying RRR so much, whether they ironically lap up the superhuman stunts or get swept up in the thrilling anti-imperial action. I’m concerned more about the timing of it all, the global presence, the recipe for viral success that other filmmakers will be eyeing. It’s an ingenious form of soft-power propaganda, one that can be interpreted as positively asserting an otherwise-marginalized ideology. Other notable Indian films—the aforementioned Purab Aur Pachhim, LOC: Kargil, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, and many, many more—have raised fiery nationalism to nowhere near the same viewership. RRR seems to have figured out an apt formula.

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Already, it’s far from the only recent historical-fiction Indian blockbuster to soft-peddle nationalist ideology. This year alone, The Kashmir Files, praised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, garnered controversy for giving Hindu nationalists more Islamophobic ammo through the use of alternative history. The Marathi period film Pawankhind whips up furor against the historic Muslim-led Mughal Empire, a sore spot for Hindutva acolytes. Even Rajamouli’s previous hits, like Baahubali, have been uplifted as “the answer to all anti-Hindu Bollywood crooks.” You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read the words of Hindu nationalists themselves, in provocative headlines like this one: “If The Kashmir Files Gave Liberals the Wounds, RRR Is the One Rubbing the Salt.”

In another context, I’d be excited about an adventurous Telugu-language film finally getting a wide-scale audience and bringing South Indian cinema to more of the world. But with RRR, I feel uneasy. I can’t say you shouldn’t experience this dazzling roller coaster of a movie, but I will say that you should keep your eyes open while doing so.

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