' ' Cinema Romantico: RRR

Thursday, January 19, 2023


There is a sequence deep into S.S. Rajamouli’s 1920s-set Telugu epic “RRR” when one of its heroic Indian freedom fighters, Bheem (N.T. Rama Rhao Jr.), is being publicly flogged for his violent trespasses against the British colonialist government. The wind picks up, though, whipping through Bheem’s hair and through the hair of all the onlookers and even as the whip repeatedly lashes his back, he expresses defiance by breaking into song. It’s kind of incredible, like if the William Wallace of “Braveheart” had begun humming Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” while he was being publicly tortured. It’s evocative of how Rajamouli tells his 3-hour story in big slabs of melodrama, delightfully dreamt up and thrillingly staged, mammoth special effects that are not there to cover up flaws in the story but to bring life mesmerizingly impossible story details that Rajamouli dares dream up in the first place: leopards, tigers, and bears, oh my. Indeed, if there is a political and patriotic bent to “RRR” (its title stands for Rise Roar Revolt), including layers of Hindu nationalism that I confess went over my idiot American head but have engendered pushback against Rajamouli’s epic and that I suggest any of my fellow idiot Americans watching read up on afterwards, the sequence in which scores of animals are unleashed as a sort of savage distraction for a rescue operation embodies how it succeeds at something like cinema’s original intent to be The Greatest Show on Earth for the silver screen. 

The plot of “RRR,” simple as could be and labyrinthine at once, begins when the authoritarian British Governor (Ray Stevenson), on a hunting trip in the Indian jungle, plucks a preteen girl, Malli (Twinkle Sharma), from her tribe at the behest of his wife (Alison Doody) who is smitten with the young girl’s singing voice, a beautiful moment giving way to terror in the blink of an eye and equating Malli with nothing less than a hunting trophy. Malli’s Gond tribe, then, dispatches Bheem, himself deemed a hunter, to Delhi to find and rescue her. He is introduced essentially wrestling with tigers in the jungle, which put me in the mind of Paul Newman’s character in “The Towering Inferno” being summarized as the kind of guy who used to wrestle grizzly bears, which was just a phrase that Hollywood blockbuster was content to say rather than attempt and create, and evocative of Rajamouli’s creative overdrive. That’s why we meet the man hunting the hunter, Indian police officer Raju (Ram Charan), when he battles through a crowd of literally thousands to nab a single man, his acrobatics epitomizing “RRR’s” circus-like sensation. He does this determined to earn a promotion, though fails to earn it nonetheless, larger-than-life yet reduced to a tea stain by his colonialist overlords, underlining how the movie’s spectacle is deployed to put its characters and their respective situations into perspective, just as these two unwitting foes become unwitting friends by bonding, in a manner of speaking, when they are thrust into saving a little boy in the wake of a dramatic train wreck. Call it a Meet Spectacular. 

These friends becoming foes becoming friends again becomes the emotional through-line of “RRR”, if not also a broader source of subversion given the pesky nature of Indian censors. At one point, Bheem and Raju ride through the streets of Delhi together aboard a single motorbike, like they’re Butch Cassidy and Etta Place horsing around to “Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head.” True, Bheem finds himself in an unlikely romantic relationship with Jenny (Olivia Morris), niece to the despotic British Governor, but this is mostly just a narrative means to get Bheem into the presence of Malli and to poke a few liberal holes in the Governor’s domineering ways. No, the real romantic relationship here is between Bheem and Raju, evinced in the electrifying dance sequence when they turn the tables on some smug Brit who ridicules them for not knowing Western dance by launching into a Tollywood dance number. During this all-out choreographed dance assault, Jenny is literally reduced to a confused spectator smack-dab in the middle of the Bheem and Raju, the two men looking right past at her, “RRR” making it plain without ever saying it aloud. 

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