RRR — A missed opportunity?

Unless you are a cave dweller or an ascetic living in the Himalayas, I am sure you must’ve heard about director SS Rajamouli’s pan-India epic film RRR. When a friend invited me to a premier show of RRR, I obviously couldn’t resist. Since I watched the film in the US, I wasn’t anticipating the usual whistles and ruckus that permeate an Indian theater during a premier, but I was surprised by the dead silence that filled the house throughout the runtime. The highly-anticipated dramatic scenes or rousing music didn’t cause anyone to react, I even heard some faint snickers when a supposedly tragic/heroic moment was playing out on the screen. I would refrain from the word soporific but the on-screen proceedings did make me look at my watch several times willing it to move faster. On the surface, RRR checks all the boxes just like Rajamouli’s Bahubali did. Great cast — check. Solid concept — check. Big budget — check. Astonishing sets and production design — check. Hair-raising action sequences — check. Professional technicians in every department — check. All India marketing — check. Even with all of the right ingredients, it still left me wanting more. I knew something was missing, and it took me the drive back home to realize what that was. The story of RRR revolves around two patriotic figures and a fictional retelling of their “missing” years. Not everyone in India might be familiar with Alluri Sita Rama Raju and Komaram Bheem, but they are revered in Telugu speaking states and their escapades are the stuff of legends. However, their lifetimes are recorded considerably well given their pedigree of fighting against the authorities during the British Raj.

Since the movie is billed as a historical drama, let’s try to understand what historical fiction is supposed to do when you read them or watch them on screen. Before that, why do we even engage with fiction? In a 2013 study conducted at the University of Toronto, the authors concluded that individuals who possess high EQ (Emotional intelligence) resist the need for cognitive closure (the desire to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion). By reading or watching fiction, we tend to be open to individual hypotheses and alternative explanations. In other words, being more thoughtful, creative and comfortable with compelling narratives. It is recognized by multiple social psychologists and business leaders that reading fiction along with non-fiction improves an individual’s leadership skills and their social acuity. Engaging with fiction sharpens our ability to comprehend other people’s motivations and viewpoints. When we watch a good police procedural about a serial killer, some great ones tend to shift the narrative to the killer, thus forcing us to watch from his/her perspective. This leaves us with no choice but to experience his/her thinking thereby reducing our need for cognitive closure. Although we may trivialize films (most people say they just want to be entertained for two hours or so), films, like any art, tend to reflect society and more importantly, continue to have an impact on our thinking, morals, opinions and even political ideologies whether we like it or not, especially if it’s a work that’s popular. Why do you think something like The DaVinci Code faced hues and cries from the Catholic community? If it’s just fiction (which it absolutely is), why even bother? Maybe you heard of all the recent uproar about banning certain books from schools in the USA by conservative groups. These groups are making a fuss because they know the narratives, subtext, and discussions around fiction can be very powerful and to shape the narrative they want to censor/ban certain books that don’t fit their purportedly safe culture. This is precisely the reason why our students spend countless hours in middle school and high school doing book reports and essays on fiction. Whether you agree with the specific bans or not (I don’t :>), there’s no denying the impact of fiction. The problem with lasting works is that, as every generation evolves, the subtext becomes clearer. Even if the original intent was not that, it does reflect the ideas of that generation. Let’s take the example of a famous trope called “The Final Girl” in horror movies. In a slasher horror film (like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Black Christmas and countless others), the last person who survives is often a girl, the (relatively) pure flower who doesn’t engage in illicit activities (drinking or smoking, promiscuity etc.), and being generally nice to everyone. Even if it is not explicitly stated, they impose certain societal “norms” on people, hinting at who they want to survive in a crisis. The same can be said of many films including Forrest Gump. When we watch Forrest Gump with a critical eye, we can surmise that the filmmakers are conveying that the secret to success is to follow orders, and not to defy societal norms.

Historical fiction usually is set in a historical time period, and will often take a more liberal approach to building a compelling narrative for the sake of drama and entertainment. When we dwell deeper into the genre of historical fiction, there are certain broad categories we can split them into. The most popular would be a fictional retelling of a historical event or a biography without altering their characteristics, for example The Imitation Game or 1917 and countless other war movies. Going beyond edification, they are meant to be accepted as a supposition rather than serve as an accurate historical account. Watching a series like Longitude, our commitment to scientific temperament and our appreciation for inventors climbs up a notch.
Another beloved sub-genre would be an alternative history film, like The Man in the High Castle that reimagines a world where Japan and Germany won WWII. This is easy to comprehend because they start with real history and at some point in the timeline they create a divergence and establish an alternate world. A variation on this theme would be an alternate history film like Inglorius Basterds that imagines Hitler and his Nazi leaders being brutally killed by American forces and a jew whose lost her family to the Holocaust. Watching a film like this would be a cathartic experience because it fulfills our wishful thinking and bolsters our fighting spirit, especially when weighed against current events where rampant intolerance is rearing its ugly head again. Another kind of historical fiction would be to create a fictional character that dwells in the world of the past, though these characters interact and rub shoulders with real-life personalities and events to build context, they do not change the course of history as we know it, but might be seen to go through a personal transformation. An example of a story like this would be Kamal Hassan’s magnum opus Hey Ram or even Titanic. This sub-genre is also a powerful tool to see history from an alternate or varying perspective like a common man, one of my favorite series in this genre is Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, which unfortunately hasn’t been made into a TV show or a movie yet.

Lastly, I want to talk about a kind of historical fiction that imagines how a certain event in history might have taken place, without changing the overall arc of the history. These are usually tricky to write because the writers might populate the missing pertinent details/events with fictional and non-fictional characters but they need to make sure the protagonists are not real historical figures, rather they aid the historical figures, lest we subjugate the very essence of the historical figure’s persona. Films like Spartacus or Enemy at the Gates fit this bill. Enemy at the Gates tells the story of the heroic escapades of the legendary Soviet sniper Vassily Zaitsev during the battle of Stalingrad in WWII. The details of the battle, his duel with the enigmatic German sniper Erwin König and his role in the liberation of Stalingrad were highly fictionalized, but it doesn’t take anything away from the story and more importantly the history. Even a film like Braveheart that is often criticized for its historical inaccuracies doesn’t alter history or even change the character of William Wallace (director SS Rajamouli said Braveheart was an inspiration to him). If the essence of this sub-genre could be boiled down to one thing, it’s relevancy. Specifically, relevancy of the events in the film to history or to the current context. For example, watching a historical drama like The Right Stuff might inspire countless servicemen and women and this fact is well established by the fervor surrounding the recent successes of Indian films like The Kashmir Files and even Uri: The Surgical Strike. When a film thoroughly moves scores of individuals, the tenor of the conversation does tend to shift towards confirmation bias because we are hungry to embrace the narrative that fits our mental models.

Jumping into the spectacle that is RRR, we can clearly see that it falls into the last category, based on the premise of the story and the interviews of SS Rajamouli. Rajamouli stated that he wanted to fictionalize the missing years in the lives of two renegade freedom fighters Alluri Sita Ramaraju and Komaram Bheem whose valor and defiance against the British rulers are well documented. Besotted with this germ of an idea, he constructed a back story where they met and collaborated to fight against the British. But here he committed a cardinal sin of changing the character of Alluri Sita Rama Raju. By portraying him as a cop who works in the British police system, who has no qualms about beating up fellow Indians or even torturing them to serve his secret mission of acquiring weapons for his militia, and he engages this subterfuge to further his end goal of leading a revolution against the British. But by portraying him as a utilitarian and unencumbered by self-doubt, integrity of his character is sullied. Bheem by contrast, is seen as a fiercely independent warrior of an aggrieved tribe who is on a mission to rescue a child.

Even if we overlook this, the ineffectualness of the plot becomes apparent with the empty charade of friendship, conflict and resolution with the Komaram Bheem character. At a crucial juncture when the film hits its crescendo, Ramaraju does talk about expanding his war to each and everyone to turn them into weapons, but that doesn’t fit with the events that follow or even history itself. The strife between them appears superficial because both of them are thoroughly ingrained in the path of violence, so there’s no ideological conflict either. Ram’s years of forbearance and undercover slog versus Bheem’s singularity of purpose could’ve been fodder for further drama, but we don’t get that satisfying coalescence.

If one were to make a film on Gandhi and show that he was gung-ho about an armed uprising but a watershed moment in his life changed him. His thought process on independence and how it should be altered, resulting in the non-violence movement that he eventually championed, it would be a great film because it fits with the overall arc of history. The idea of historical fiction is to assimilate the historical facts and create a drama with small events that are scaled to a larger canvas. The best example of this would be a film like Zack Snyder’s 300. However insignificant the Battle of Thermopylae was in the larger scheme of things, the events loomed large in the minds of Spartans and the film pays homage to their legacy. By mixing the sub-genres, RRR fails on both these counts. RRR doesn’t “explain” some missing pieces of how an historical event actually took place, or make a point about how the historical course of events changed because of an unknown but significant event. If you think I am being hard on an immensely popular filmmaker like Rajamouli, that’s precisely the point. His popularity and how he affected south cinema in the last few years bestowed a certain amount of power in him, and as uncle Ben in Spider-Man films tells us “With great power comes great responsibility”. I wouldn’t even bother watching a film by Boyapati Seenu let alone write about it, because the majority of the public knows that his films don’t matter, but filmmakers like Rajamouli can make a difference. Starting with Bahubali, Rajamouli’s films are being met with high approbation so his narratives have the power to reinforce certain viewpoints or even rekindle collective myths. After watching RRR, my mind was devoid of any invigorating patriotic feelings or even moving drama because plenty of opportunities were missed to hit the right notes with the story. After all the bedlam depicted in the climax, the British are neither dramatically defeated to be driven away (At least that could’ve given us some enjoyable alternate history) nor chastised.

All that said, the film’s screenplay is meticulously crafted and flawlessly executed on screen. Every dramatic sequence and action episode has a clear setup, conflict and payoff structure. Though CG is far from perfect, the vision, grandeur, and the crew’s professionalism are evident in every frame. A battery of individual scenes work, but the overall flow of the film does suffer once it hits its peak at the midpoint, because subconsciously audiences are expecting a precipitous change in course that never materializes. There’s a lot of blood and gore (to justify the title I guess) and at one point I was worried how the theater management is going to handle the abattoir stink. The undeterred characters don’t even bother or flinch while shedding rivers of blood or taking massive body blows. Yes, I agree that both of them are shown to be well-built individuals who work to keep in shape but their antics are the stuff of superhero flicks not action dramas. However convincing Rajamouli tries to make them, many of these “cinematic liberties” serve as irritants that prevent us from thoroughly immersing ourselves in the deluge. One of the best ingredients of any Rajamouli film is the portrayal of the villain. Here the British Raj and a token ruthless bad-guy duo of an English Governor and his wife are propped as one-note characters. Every other British character treats the “natives” with appalling disdain save for the sympathetic white girl in their midst who has a soft spot for Bheem. While the British characters in Indian movies are never accused of possessing a sunny disposition, the story would’ve been better served with some gray personalities thrown in. If these ensemble tropes remind you of other movies (like Lagaan), you are not alone. The film is festooned with vague remnants of characters and scenes that we’ve seen countless times, not to mention teeming vestiges of Bahubali, Bhajarangi Bhaijan that pepper the script. None of the characters other than Ram and Bheem are fleshed out (or their nuances are imperceptible to someone like me :>). Talents like Alia Bhat, Samudrakani, Shreya are wasted in their roles, with the possible exception of Ajay Devgan whose entire episode feels like a short film inside a film. To defer to the masala fan in me for a moment, there are no rousing dialogues that embody repeatability like that of Bahubali or Chatrapati or even Vikramarkudu.

I always liked Rajamouli’s ability to transcend the masala and blend genres and enjoyed most of his previous films. (While I had a lot of problems with Bahubali, I enjoyed the overall effect it had on me. It was also a fantasy and that takes the burden of historical responsibility out of the equation). Bringing together Ram Charan and NTR Jr. into a single film has got to be one of the greatest casting coups for the makers. Both perform with aplomb and Ram Charan shines in a complex writer-backed character carrying his reticence well. He is also given a larger stage in the action sequences that make up the second half. While NTR Jr. tries to live upto his given name (Bheem) by performing his share of super-heroic stunts like toppling and lifting up a speeding motorcycle like Hulk, he unfortunately languishes in the side-kick territory. I liked the staging of Komuram Bhemudo song where NTR Jr. character draws strength from the earth (or motherland if you want to stretch it) instead of appealing to some God in the empyrean domain or even muttering imprecations. While NTR Jr’s character is more emphatic, it is Ram Charan who steals the show. Apart from showcasing his anguish, Ram Charan is seen to be fighting the bad guys (read soldiers) with his fists, shooting rifles with a precision that might be the envy of Annie Oakley, and lances arrows through the enemies like Arjuna (sorry Rama).

The music by MM Keeravani is not unique but hits the right notes, but squanders the opportunity of establishing separate leitmotifs for Ram and Bheem. I did love the Natu song and Komuram Bheemudo song while other songs fade into oblivion. The camera work, the production design and the action choreography are all top notch though some of the sequences are either inspired or outright copied from other films, but I guess that can’t be avoided at this scale. Rajamouli’s propensity to stage grand action set pieces is well known and he doesn’t disappoint. The editing and CG could’ve been better. The effort that went into managing such a large crew, with countless rehearsals and attention to detail has to be appreciated. Probably to appeal to our plebeian senses, the dialogue doesn’t resort to any particular patios, Gond or otherwise (Komaram Bheem was from the Gond region).

Overall, it’s a visual extravaganza, but plenty of opportunities to make the story and emotions relevant to today’s generation were sorely missed and that really hurts the legacy of Rajamouli.

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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