No description of SS Rajamouli’s action scenes in “RRR” can spoil the experience of seeing them for yourself. Telling you that NT Rama Rao Jr.’s hero Komaram Bheem swings a motorcycle over his head as if it were a laundry bag full of dry socks sounds ridiculous. But by the time you see Bheem doing it, you’ve come to accept this as part of a vast array of his abilities.
This scene takes place long after Ram Charan’s Alluri Sitarama Raju, Alluri Sitarama Raju, jumped on an angry mob of workers, fighting through his crush to grab a man whose boss demands he be arrested. To call it that, a fight, it barely covers all of the femur fractures and skull crushes necessary for Raju to succeed in his task.
Even saying this, Charan’s acrobatic precision is disregarded in this nearly 10-minute sequence. Rajamouli made “RRR” in a way that causes words to fail the power of his vision. That even goes for discussions of the three-hour, seven-minute runtime, 40 minutes of which before the title card first appears. None of that amounts to padding.
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Simply put, “RRR” is one of the best action blockbusters you’ll see this summer. This may seem like bold talk in a movie landscape currently dominated by “Top Gun: Maverick,” another action opus that wears its nationalism on its star’s cut-out biceps. In terms of its earnings, ‘Maverick’ dominates the domestic box office and the Chinese feature film ‘Water Gate Bridge’ is approaching the third highest-grossing film of 2022 in the global box office charts.
“RRR” may not achieve comparable economic success, although with a budget of $72 million it is one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, Indian film ever. Perhaps that doesn’t matter in the bigger picture, as it employs the same strategy of mass appeal as Tom Cruise’s latest extravaganza, while tapping into the fervor of cultural pride.
“RRR” is a Telugu-made movie that has been overdubbed in Hindi due to its US theatrical release. In English, the title’s acronym stands for ‘Rise, Roar, Revolt’, a blaring expectation of pace, spectacle and explosiveness that surpasses Rajamouli.
When we don’t see our heroes in action during that cold 40-minute opening, he sets the terms of the conflict. And when they’re not fighting or racing on the road together, with Bheem on his bike and Raju on his horse, they might be singing.
Rajamouli has created “RRR” in a way that will make words disappoint the power of his vision
The crown jewel of the bright side of the story, before their friendship falls apart – which is no spoiler – is the swift-footed dance number “Naatu Naatu”. This is Bheem and Raju’s response to a racist British man’s claim that Indians are clumsy and rude, demonstrated by skipping a few Eurocentric dance steps, by beating him and all the other white people around them.
In the end, all the pompous white men collapse, leaving Bheem and Raju as the last men to dance—and furious at the same.
“RRR” spreads his arms wide to bring multiple aspects of the summer blockbuster into his bear hug: it’s an action masterpiece that’s also a musical.
It is a commentary against colonialism whose heroes affirm the struggles of the brown people around the world, while clearly extolling Indian pride. It’s a hearty bromance, treating the platonic friendship between the two main characters with more tenderness than the warmth they show for their romantic interests.
It’s also transparently nationalistic, as evidenced by the first major action sequence culminating in one of its heroes wrapping himself in India’s pre-independence flag to protect himself from a burning wall.
Just in case most of the three hours hover over our heads, the final musical track, “Sholay”, accentuates this with a wild and bright dance tribute to India’s revolutionary heroes. “Fly that flag we gave our lives to,” sings the chorus. “There is an iron man in every job and in every home. (Not everything about the film’s release was flawless. When the film was released in India earlier this year, a Kannada translation was omitted. And “Sholay” has been criticized because he has Mahatma Gandhi in his gallery of revolutionary icons.)
Jr NTR and Ram Charan attend the ‘RRR’ movie success bash on April 06, 2022 in Mumbai, India. (Prodip Guha/Getty Images)The main character of Rama Rao Jr. and Charan are named after two real-life revolutionaries from the pre-independence era, although, as a long-winded disclaimer points out before the film begins, the early 20th-century adventure is entirely fictional. This may be to allay concerns that the public with no knowledge of India’s history might view this as fact as opposed to an exaggerated trifle about as true as ‘Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man’ or ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’.
“RRR” introduces Charans Raju as an Indian police officer working for the British security forces, and his targeted brutality is driven by an obsessive urge to rise in the ranks regardless of the dozens of compatriots he must hurt or betray to achieve that feat.
But that doesn’t seem possible until he is given a mission to track down a man who wants to harm British Governor Scott Buxton, played by Ray Stevenson.
The mission Raju’s quarry undertakes doesn’t matter to him, but it does to the public, whose first encounter with the governor and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody, best known for playing Nazi villain Elsa Schneider in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) shows the Buxtons tossing a villager a few coins as compensation for going into hiding with her daughter, Malli (Twinkle Sharma).
If there is one fact that “RRR” is going home, it is monstrosity and barbarity of white colonization. In this scene, Catherine sees the girl as a jewel — “I want this package on our mantelpiece,” she whispers to her husband, having just returned from slaughtering all the ungulates in the region. When Malli’s mother throws herself into the path of the governor’s motorcade, Scott delivers a pompous lecture to his soldiers in which he declares that the lives of his brown subjects are worth less than a bullet.
But Malli is a member of the Gond tribe and is under the protection of that people’s unstoppable ‘shepherd’, Bheem, who has a reputation for never giving up until his lost lamb is back with the flock. Raju and Bheem’s first meeting is a literal clash of fire and water, but moviegoers inundated with Marvel superhero movies also recognize it as a good old team-up. Neither is aware of who the other is when they team up to save a child, swinging together across a river that has gone up in flames.
Victory in battle soon forges an intense friendship between the men that, as the film’s first major musical number foreshadows, is destined to end in bloodshed.
When Americans moan that they feel every minute of a full-length movie, they’re not imagining Rajamouli’s interpretation of that phrase. His script, a collaboration with his father, V. Vijayendra Prasad, stuffs each sequence full of feeling while skipping details that would explain the inconsistencies that could send his main characters on a rush to an emotionally difficult crossroads.
This trusts the audience to understand that he is creating a saga in which he places a strong emphasis on showing, and feasting on the show, rather than telling, a style that he perfected in his previous hits,” Baahubali: The Beginning” from 2015 and its sequel “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion” from 2017. “If you’ve done those wonders, you may not be surprised by some of Rajamouli’s narrative structural choices in this one.
American action icons can fall back on their weapons show, but “RRR” lives up to that image and heightens it with stunts that rely on actual muscularity.
But seeing them is not a prerequisite for understanding ‘RRR’. All it takes is an appreciation for the director’s ability to handle visual chaos with the fun and power of a conductor. Rajamouli is a cinematic sensualist, something not often seen or appreciated in the action genre. It’s one thing to interrupt an elaborate “Bridgerton”-style formal affair with an armed menagerie, and another level to present it as a whirling dervish of fireworks, waterworks, gymnastics and CGI wizardry.
Even the dangerous effects are sculpted to accentuate the physicality that each man brings into his role. The trailer gives us a taste, with footage of Rama Rao Jr.’s brick house body and the enviable shine in Charan’s mane, enhanced by curling flames. Cruise and other American action icons may fall back on their weapons show, but “RRR” lives up to that image, elevating it with stunts that rely on real muscularity.
Rajamouli makes liberal use of automated magic and wire work in “RRR”; the tiger and wolf Bheem with their faces down and wearing nothing but shorts is as real as that motorcycle which he cold stops with a punch before tossing it into the air. But there’s plenty in the movie that can’t be faked, like the unreal movements of the stars in the fight scenes.
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All of this somehow makes history-inspired manufacturing feel real and universal, and fits the philosophy of ideals that make the common man super. “Our friends have come, so play the drums/Together we sing and dance and the world rocks with us,” says the lyrics to “Sholay,” a rare moment in “RRR” that doesn’t exaggerate.
The individual and combined power of Raju and Bheem is not explained by exposure to gamma rays or other cosmic forces, scientifically manipulated serums or elite government training. Whatever extreme feats of strength, agility and dexterity they demonstrate, they are the result of years of bench pressing the weight of their people’s pride and the epic myth that permeates Indian culture. The references are certainly specific, but they leave the door open for the world to plug into the energy of the fable.
“RRR” is set to be in wide release in theaters and streaming on Netflix.
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