I have two more films to see from the Best Picture list, but I’m taking a break for a second – because I’m cheating a bit.
As I griped (at length) when the Oscar nominees were announced – I didn’t like Avatar at all. I also didn’t like that it took the place of other films. So I’m intentionally skipping Way of Water this year, and am instead reviewing another film as a protest. …It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but it was nominated for something, at least – Best Original Song. Roommate Russ felt that it should have been nominated for more; and at one point told me that “Everything Everywhere All At Once was my favorite film of 2022, until I saw this thing.”
RRR is an Indian film, a Telugu-language epic that went over like gangbusters here in the west, largely thanks to TikTok celebrating the nominated song “Naatu Naatu”. It’s very, very loosely based on two Indian revolutionaries from the 1920s – Alluri Sitarama Raju, a community organizer and activist from Madras, and Komaram Bheem, an activist from the Gond people near Hyderabad. Raju and Bheem never met in reality – but filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli speculated “wouldn’t it have been cool if they did, and became friends?”
So the script is a sort of historical fanfiction story – with all of the melodrama that kind of writing entails. Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) has come to Delhi to rescue a young girl from his tribe who’s been kidnapped by the cartoonishly evil British Raj administrator Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody). Buxton hears rumors of the attempted rescue, and puts one of his top men from the Indian Imperial Police on the job to find him – Raju (Ram Charan). Both arrive in Delhi at the same time, but their separate investigations take some time – enough time for the pair to meet and innocently befriend each other, complete with Raju playing wingman for Bheem when Bheem develops a crush on Scott’s niece Jenny (Olivia Morris). But the night that Bheem and his team makes their move to rescue the girl, Raju has been charged with guarding Scott’s residence, and the two discover the truth about each other. Alas, can their friendship be saved?….
Now, I’m not usually into that kind of melodrama. But this is absolutely not something you would see for historical accuracy or a nuanced script. This is an action film. But not just an action film – it’s also a musical. And a comedy. And an epic. And…actually, it’s completely in keeping with other films from the Telugu-language film system. I’ve heard people refer to this as a “Bollywood” film – but “Bollywood” refers to Hindi films made by studios in Mumbai. And that’s one of several studio systems in India – the Telugu-language “Tollywood” system is another one. And Tollywood films are king in India – they tend to have more dramatic action, livelier music sequences, splashier and much more intricate visual effects. Film Youtuber Patrick Willems recently summed up a description of Tollywood by saying that “it’s like Bollywood….but more.”
And that is what has been winning Western audiences over. There are animal escape scenes, fight scenes, prison rescues, dance sequences, things even go rom-com for about 20 minutes in the middle. I was discussing RRR with a work colleague, and when I said “there’s a group fight scene where a bunch of wild animals are running around, and one guy grabs a live jaguar running past him and throws it at another guy”, he immediately pulled out his cell phone and started dialing, saying “that’s it, I’m telling my girlfriend we need to see this tonight.” I saw it in a crowded theater, and the last time I heard an audience react that much to a film it was at least 20 years ago, with one of the Lord Of the Rings films. There were gasps of shock and laughter and delight at just how gloriously over-the top excessive everything went.
Even from me – and even though I’d already heard of some of the criticism of the story itself. There are some visual references that go flying straight over non-Indian heads, but in India, they’re raising eyebrows. In one scene, Raju is wounded in a battle and Bheem tends to him inside a small shrine – then re-arms him with a bow and arrows from the statue in its center, and dresses him in a sort of loincloth fashioned from the orange flags fluttering outside. This looks like a clever improvisation to outsiders – but it also coincidentally makes Raju look a lot like the Hindu god Rama. And in an even bigger “coincidence”, Raju’s fiancée (Alia Bhatt) is named “Sita”, just like Rama’s wife. Several minutes after this scene, just before the film’s end, Bheem all but grovels at Raju’s feet asking if he and his people can be taught how to read. There’s a big cast-wide song-and-dance number during the closing credits, with director Rajamouli joining in – where the cast is singing about celebrating freedom before pictures of various Indian freedom fighters – however, a picture of Mahatma Gandhi is absent.
For several people, those details are coming across like sympathetic dog whistles to a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India, with a side of reinforcing the caste system. Particularly disturbing is the film’s frequent and exclusive use of a specific flag from India’s early history – the Vande Mataram, designed by a Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim. The Vande Mataram plays a pivotal role in Raju and Bheem’s early meeting, when they team up to rescue a young boy in danger, and it’s all over the place in that credits sequence. ….If you remember the jolt I got seeing Buster Keaton waving the Stars and Bars in The General, this is somewhat equivalent.
Still, this could be a godsend when it comes to audiences outside India. Your average American isn’t only ignorant of Indian history and politics – they’re also ignorant of Indian cinema altogether, as well as any other non-English film. We are notoriously reluctant to see anything that requires us to read subtitles, and so there are entire film genres which completely pass us by; a year ago, if you mentioned “Indian cinema”, people might point to either a few memes, or talk about the credits sequence from Slumdog Millionaire (which was a British film anyway). But every so often there’s a crack in our weird blind spot, and something makes so much of a splash in the USA that we flock to it, excitedly demanding more. It happened with Hong Kong films in the 1970s, it happened with Japanese anime in the 1980s; it’s happened now and then with French and Italian films, it started happening with Korean films a few years back when Bong Joon Ho’s work started getting better known. And RRR may be our gateway film for Indian cinema.
Especially since it’s almost guaranteed to win for Best Original Song. “Naatu Naatu” is insanely catchy, and accompanies an exuberant dance number from the film; Raju and Bheem are Jenny’s guests at a garden party, and another guest mocks them for not knowing any Western dances like the waltz or the flamenco. Raju admits that he’s right, they don’t – “….but do you know ‘Naatu’?” And thus begins one hell of a danceoff.