S.S. Rajamouli’s “RRR” is a dazzling work of historical fiction — emphasis on the “fiction” — that makes the moving image feel intimate and enormous all at once. A pulsating period action drama, it outshines even the director’s record-smashing “Baahubali” movies (viewers familiar with them probably won’t know what to expect here) thanks to its mix of naked sincerity, unapologetic machismo, and balls-to-the-wall action craftsmanship. The film is playing on over a thousand screens in North America, and watching it with a packed audience familiar with Telugu-language cinema is likely to yield one of the noisiest and most raucous theatrical experiences imaginable. Plenty of recent releases have been hailed as “the return of cinema” post-pandemic, but “RRR” stands apart as an unabashed return to everything that makes the cinematic experience great, all at once.
To talk about the film in any meaningful sense — especially for unfamiliar viewers — first requires setting the stage. Its title is a backronym that stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt” in English (and similar phrases in various other Indian languages), a fitting label for its early 20th century story about a pair of Indian anti-colonial revolutionaries. However, “RRR” started out as the film’s working title. It stood for director Rajamouli, and the film’s two renowned Tollywood stars, Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (or N.T.R. Jr.), whose first on-screen collaboration is a good enough reason for many people to buy tickets. The title stuck. The high-caliber names involved are the main attraction, something that becomes all too clear when each actor first appears, and adoring fans turn darkened multiplex screens into lively spaces of celebration, whose walls echo with hoots, hollers and wolf whistles.
The film is worth this reaction, too.
Charan and N.T.R Jr. play Alluri Sitarama Raju (or simply Ram in the film) and Komaram Bheem, a pair of freedom fighters who, as far as anyone knows, never actually met. However, Rajamouli and his co-scribes — story writer K. V. Vijayendra Prasad and dialogue writer Sai Madhav Burra — imagine a fictitious friendship between the pair, during a period in the early 1920s where historical documentation of both figures happens to be scant. “RRR” takes that mild coincidence and turns it into a boisterous, melodramatic saga filled with action that’s over-the-top in its staging, but grounded in its emotional reality.
Charan’s Ram is introduced first, in a manner that’s as viscerally enjoyable as it is narratively shocking. In a strange inversion of history (though one that no doubt establishes a distinct trajectory for his character), we meet this fictitious version of the revolutionary when he’s a police officer for the British Empire. He leaps into battle against a sea of righteous Indian protesters and takes on hundreds of them at once, a superhuman feat typical of South Indian action stars, but one that Rajamouli anchors to tangible bruises, blood and broken bones, blending ludicrous staging (via wide shots that feel like baroque tableaus) with piercing close-ups that rarely cut away as the action plays out. All the while, Ram remains fearlessly and obsessively dedicated to the Crown, and it’s hard not to cheer him on despite this ugly setup — especially when he doesn’t receive the requisite thanks from his British superiors and takes out his frustrations by reducing a punching bag to sandy pulp.
Before long, Ram — now undercover as a revolutionary in the hopes of a big police promotion — is set on a collision course with N.T.R. Jr.’s kindly and heroic Bheem, whose own introduction plays like a fever dream. After a young girl from Bheem’s forest tribe, the Gond, is kidnapped by a British aristocrat, he sets a mysterious plan in motion that involves capturing a number of wild animals (a setup whose payoff is magnificently unexpected). We first meet Bheem as he sprints through the forest — Rajamouli and cinematographer K. K. Senthil Kumar charge towards him with their camera, making his movements feel limitless — and when he manages to capture a roaring tiger in a net, he roars back in its face, accessing something primal and animalistic, as the camera zeroes in on his quivering veins and muscles.
Both men are, in a strictly narrative sense, straight — Ram has a fiancé back home; Bheem has a bit of a will-they-won’t-they with an English woman, Jenny (Olivia Morris) — but everything about the way they’re captured and the way they interact drips with an unapologetic homoeroticism that forms the film’s emotional core. The duo, unaware of each other’s true identities as a cop and revolutionary, first become friends in a scene of explosive heroism that involves a bike, a horse, a train, and both men swinging off a bridge, but the beat that feels most colossal amidst the mayhem is an intimate close up in which they clasp hands, a moment so enormous that it yanks the film’s title onto the screen about 40 minutes in (who would’ve thought “RRR” would have something in common with “Drive My Car”?)
Charan is suave as Ram, and he guides N.T.R. Jr.’s more awkward Bheem through romantic advances with Jenny (a dynamic made hilarious thanks to their linguistic barrier), but the two leading men constantly wrestle between several emotional layers. Each one has their own secret mission — Ram hopes to suss out a revolutionary leader who he doesn’t realize is Bheem; Bheem hopes to make his way into a Governor’s mansion to rescue the kidnapped girl — but the duo’s close friendship also begins to infect their respective missions, especially when they’re forced to confront the truth about one another. They have broader ideals for which they fight, but their senses of duty, which they each see as altruistic, soon become complicated by their love for each as individuals.
It may not be hard to predict the plot, at least in its broad strokes — it’s filled with coincidences, and with misunderstandings which are eventually clarified — but each emotional moment along the way is both magnified to the maximum, yet rooted in the kind of devastating sincerity that makes the duo’s eventual, inevitable collision almost difficult to watch. “RRR” is the kind of film where violence and music aren’t just layered atop the story, but intrinsically woven into the way it’s told. Every action beat has meaning, either in the way it’s set up — a brief moment from the duo’s friendship montage, in which Ram sits atop Bheem’s shoulders, later returns in stunning fashion — or in the way it enhances the narrative. A moment of betrayal, for instance, is marked by a flaming carriage wheel coming undone and striking one of the characters in the heart, and it’s only about the tenth or fifteenth wildest thing that happens in that entire set piece.
For every story beat told through action, there’s another expressed through M. M. Keeravani’s music. The themes composed for Ram, especially when he’s in uniform, arrive with terrifying western horns, which blare whenever he jumps into action, while Bheem’s compositions feel more Earthy, creating a connection between him and nature through spiritual vocal chants and more traditional wooden instruments. As the duo’s friendship grows deeper, the lines between these kinds of compositions begin to blur. The film may not have many dance sequences, but the one major number — “Naatu Naatu,” which went viral several months ago for the way Ram and Bheem dance energetically arm-in-arm — becomes its own euphoric mini-movie about friendship and revolution, with its own subplot running throughout the choreography. Modern Hollywood blockbusters tend to have one or two standout scenes, but nearly every scene of “RRR” feels like it could be somebody’s favorite, so even its gargantuan 188 minute running time feels like a breeze.
Of course, the Hollywood influence on “RRR” is clear from the outset, as is the case with many Indian blockbusters, but the film is also its own unique beast. While it evokes images of superhero movies, American war films, and even films about chattel slavery, it blends them together in transformative fashion, hyper-charging each image until it pushes up against the line of believability, but is swiftly yanked back into a familiar emotional realm by recognizable performances. Hollywood star Ray Stevenson plays a moustache-twirling British officer, Governor Scott, who initially comes off as cartoonishly evil — so much so that he doesn’t even want to waste precious English bullets on “brown rubbish” — yet the film not only sticks with that cartoonishness until it feels familiar, but even expands on his strange philosophy until it becomes inextricable from the plot. That Stevenson (and even Bollywood stars Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn, who appear in supporting roles) feel like also-rans in the face of Ram Charan and N.T.R. Jr. is a testament to just how massive this collaboration feels — there’s really no western equivalent — and Rajamouli captures every moment and every interaction with the requisite scale and adoration.
By the time the film reaches its fiery climax, one filled with jaw-dropping imagery, it imbues both men with a sense of holy mythicism. Ram even ends up molded in the visage of his namesake, Lord Rama from Hindu scripture, wielding a bow and arrow in the face of British firearms, but no matter how ridiculously any of these moments read on paper, they fit perfectly with the film’s emotional reality, in which love and righteousness flow through the characters like electric superpowers, allowing them to achieve extraordinary, face-melting feats that will leave even the most hardened and cynical viewers feeling childishly giddy.
“RRR” is now playing in theaters.