A Telugu language song, from a Telugu language film, won a Golden Globe last week. Earlier this week, that same film won best foreign film and best song at the Critics Choice awards.
This came after months of breathless entertainment, with journalists and media personalities singing praises of the cinematic spectacle that “RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt)” is.
I, like some other Indians, may just put it down to the western ignorance and apathy toward that segment of history, the history that defines the destinies of almost two billion people to this day.
It is true that the extent to which even the most cultured European has experienced Indian cinema is most likely “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “Gandhi.” Crucially, neither of these films are Indian productions, they are only about India.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the definitive Bollywood films, “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” and “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”? That would already be an exceptional amount of knowledge, but while all Bollywood cinema is Indian, all Indian cinema is not Bollywood.
“RRR,” for starters, departs linguistically and geographically from Bollywood, by not having been produced in Mumbai or in the Hindi language.
The Telugu film industry (known in India as “Tollywood”) is characterised by the magnitude and intensity of its action film, often alongside some light humour about the…let’s say Avante-Garde approach to physics that these stunts involve.
Make no mistake, all the cynicism and suspension of disbelief in the world will not prepare you for how stunningly large-scale every single scene is. The violence is gory, the cinematography is intricately choreographed when mobile, and the zooms in and out of establishing and closing shots are dramatic in droves.
The story of India’s independence from British rule in 1947 is vast, inspiring, and hotly contested. If the unravelling of neo-colonialism and revisionist histories has taught us anything, it is mainly that these stories need revisiting now.
An Indian native like myself, however, is also weary of the stories of one or two men (and yes, it is always men) who stood bravely against the colonisers and helped India grow into the emergent superpower that it is today.
India has also had its fair share of scandals around this film. It has gone largely unacknowledged within the realm of Bollywood and polity, and this has a lot to do with the language and region of origin. The brands of Indian nationalism that have latched on to this and make much ado about nothing deserve no air, and are honestly insignificant.
Unwilling to leave this up to conjecture, I decided to watch this three-hour-long Telugu language film.
RRR: The Plot
This lengthy epic takes its time with setting context, with a tripartite prologue sequence that is a feat of filmmaking in itself. Title credits come a good forty minutes into watch time. You forget that you haven’t seen the film’s title by that point, and the title animation mainly serves to remind you of the scale of the timeline you’ve signed up for.
Bold as it may be, RRR knows you’re glued to the screen by that point, and you’re only doing yourself a disservice by walking away from it.
The aforementioned prologues are captivating in every sense, unafraid to indulge in visual hyperbole. Ram, one of the protagonists, appears to shake a whole bridge by gripping its beam a little too hard in frustration. It’s almost laughable in its superhumanity, as the camera lingers on the angst-filled police corporal, and then it’s your turn to be laughed at, as the camera pans down to reveal that the vibrations come from the train that’s passing the bridge. Of course, that’s what it was, you tell yourself. This film has only been realistic so far.
That’s when you remember, you just saw Bheem, the other protagonist, defeat a jackal and a tiger in combat, with little but the detritus of the forest floor in the way of weaponry. This pays off later in the story, in a scene so intensely chaotic, you forget the positive menagerie of wildlife participating in it.
Although our protagonists work at cross-purposes, their missions bring them together, both undercover, unaware of just how close they are to the fatal eventuality of being exposed.
They meet as “Raju” (Ram) and “Akhtar” (Bheem), under the pretence of being working-class natives of Delhi under British rule, unconcerned with the fight for independence while this could not be more untrue.
Ram was a police constable with the British police forces and Akhtar is on a mission that strikes at the heart of the regime: The Governor of India (who reports directly to the King of England).
The award-winning “Naatu Naatu”(best original song at the Golden Globes), serves little narrative purpose, especially alongside the other original music that this film has peppered through it.
Related Articles: Can India Seize the Demographic Advantage? | Cesar Awards Ban Those Accused of Sex Crimes From 2023 Ceremony
In the final scenes, we find visual and narrative callbacks to the Mahabharat and Ramayan, both texts central to the Hindu tradition. This, for me, was a little much, but only because of my personal aversion to such heavy religious imagery. It is not uncalled for, nor in poor taste.
The first hint we get in this direction is through the character played by Bollywood doyenne Alia Bhatt. Her character is Ram’s love interest and is named Sita, which is a clear reference to the Ramayan, where the Hindu god Ram’s wife is Sita.
This does somewhat dilute her character’s significance to the plot, and that would be unfair. She delivers her bread-and-butter these days, a moving and resolute performance, and her limited role is maximised in screen presence in the hands of such a consummate professional.
Historical and Social Background
It is crucial to remember that, with obvious embellishments, there is truth to this story and much of it. There wasn’t all that much animosity between the Indians who worked for the British regime and the Indians whose occupation was primarily with the independence struggle.
More often than not, working for the British was a decision borne of necessity. Indeed the Independence cause’s shift towards the mainstream was triggered from within the British force’s own infantry, comprised of Indian soldiers in the revolt of 1857.
This sparked off the fight that, 90 years later, culminated in the nations you know as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
A thematic callback to the 1857 revolt is with a running plotline that involves British-made rifles and munitions. In 1857, Indian Hindu and Muslim soldiers alike revolted on the grounds of cow and pig fat being used in the bullet packaging that they were required to tear off with their teeth.
As most Hindus don’t eat beef, and pork is haram to the followers of Islam, this was an imposition of the British raj that cut deep within the Indian conscience.
Another scene of note is the celebration of the governor’s knighthood in Delhi. This was a lavish banquet, with excesses of food and drink being indulged in and decorations befitting royalty.
This was a common feature in pre-independent India, and the juxtaposition of this decadence with the starving of Indians (often by British design) didn’t help matters for the British.
More than anything, this isn’t a period film or historical drama, because it’s not all that long ago. India shook itself free of British chains only 75 years ago. All four of my grandparents were born into a British colony, and I have both freedom fighters and officers of the British Imperial Police in my great-grandparents.
Do not let the spectacular telling of this story distract you from just how necessary it is to platform the ideas of Indian exceptionalism and of resistance against those who would call the Global South “uncivilised.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: RRR Title Card. Featured Photo Credit: Source: RRR Trailer on Youtube (screenshot).