In 1920, Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr), guardian of the Gond tribe, heads to Delhi to track down his sister Malli (Twinkle Sharma) after her abduction by bloodthirsty Governor Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his equally bloodthirsty wife Caroline (Alison Doody). There, by twist of fate, he begins a friendship with Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), secretly a member of the Indian Imperial Police out to obtain promotion by bringing Bheem to heel, though his motivations for doing so are deeper than they appear. Together, the two come face-to-face with the evil of the British Raj in an adventure that tests the foundations of their bond.
How to approach RRR? That is the question. Being very far removed from the Indian history that RRR takes its basis from, at least in term of the identity of its two main characters, I do not have the opportunity to offer a full assessment of the liberties this, the most expensive Indian film ever made at time of release, takes with the record. But I understand that there are numerous and extensive. RRR is not history, as its director S. S. Rajamouli has insisted over and over again, but it is impossible to disassociate it from the historical record. Does RRR have the right to treat two men, in reality revolutionaries who were hunted down and killed by the British overlords of India, as action-adventure cartoons?
Because that is what RRR essentially is. Bheem changes from revolutionary leader into some manner of Liam Neeson-esque specialist in rescuing kidnapped children, while Raju is a Dredd-esque police officer secretly out to smuggle guns to revolutionaries, and the two together are capable of the kinds of feats of athleticism and bravery that only exist in the realm of fantasy. Indeed, “fantasy” is the best word to ascribe to RRR, a good description of the myriad number of action scenes that care little for gravity, for the cackling bloodthirsty British villains and for the occasional song and dance number that randomly occur, sometimes in the midst of the most serious type of drama. In essence, RRR is a lens on history distorted wholesale by the need to create a very over-the-top form of entertainment.
The legitimacy of the art is beyond question in my eyes but how OK is all of this really? If an Irish filmmaker was to treat historical personalities like Eamon de Valera or Michael Collins like this, becoming best friends ahead of 1916 as they sing and dance their way through encounters with snarling Black and Tans, I am not really sure what I would think: there’s undoubtedly a feeling that the legitimately terrible struggle and early deaths of the men that the two main characters are based off of deserve more than a film where they are treated like MCU superheroes, one who can fight off a rioting crowd of hundreds in pursuit of a single suspect, and the other who likes to wrangle man-eating tigers in his spare time. On the other hand you have to admire the sheer balls of Rajamouli, to marry the historical epic with that Indian filmmaking-sense of spectacle, right down to a credits song/dance number that is an ode to Indian revolutionaries down the years.
Taking RRR simply on the merits of that spectacle, it’s certainly engrossing, if maybe over-stuffed. The cast do as well as they can with the outrageous material, with Charan especially good as police double agent Raju. The action scenes, especially one involving an unleashed menagerie of wild animals that is laden with environmental subtext, and despite inherent ridiculousness in what the heroes can and cannot do with basic physics during them, are undoubtedly entertaining, as are the few song-and-dance numbers scattered throughout. One, for the song “Naatu, Naatu” is a total humdinger, turning the battle between imperialist and anti-imperialist into an endurance dance contest (the director is on record as being concerned about perceptions of tackiness in such things, but that number avoids it at least). By Hollywood standards the cinematography and CGI looks more than a little cheap, but that actually just sort of adds to the charm: besides, RRR actually relies as much or more on practical effects and physical choreography.
But it is so very long. Coming in just shy of three hours, RRR is an epic that western audiences may chaff at, especially since a lot of filler material starts being introduced towards the back end. It didn’t bother me too much, watching RRR as I did through streaming options and thus able to take in two digestible 90 minute chunks apiece, but I know if I had to watch this all in one sitting I would have been struggling. In fairness RRR does what it can to make sure attention doesn’t flag, pumping in an action sequence when the moment calls for it, or giving us just enough of Ray Stevenson’s delightfully evil British overlord at the right moments, but by the time you’ve hit two hours with no end in sight you’ll begin to wonder why, in exporting this very unique kind of extravaganza, Indian filmmakers haven’t been able to import a sense of restraint and ruthlessness with the editing knife. This seems to be just the way that it kind of is over there, and I’ll have to put that down to just a fundamental difference in filmmaking philosophies.
In the end, one suspects that I am very much not the target audience for RRR. It is one of those rare Indian films that manages to drift into the consciousness of the “western” film watching community, mostly because of how outrageous it frequently is. But there is a lot here that feels a bit too hard to grasp: the willingness to treat deadly serious historical personalities in such a manner; the blending of action/adventure with the musical; the cartoonish nature of the films plot, which even had me thinking the British were being portrayed as too monstrous; and the excessive length, that would make for a very uncomfortable single-stint viewing experience. There is a lot to recommend RRR otherwise though, with a surprisingly strong showing from the cast, some of those action scenes and an undeniable sense that it does sort of have to be seen to be believed. I’ll leave it to you to decide. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Pen Studios).