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An imagined friendship between two historical figures, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, both significant in India’s struggle against the British Empire, who never met in real life. Their chance encounter sets the stage for a breathtaking, high-octane action flick that’s also a parable about the dignity of mankind and the fight for independence and self-rule in India.
Director S.S. Rajamouli and lead actors Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. are major players in Indian cinema, though less familiar to Western audiences. In fact the film’s title, RRR, was initially a working title drawn from the three men’s initials. Alia Bhatt, who plays Ram’s fiancée, Seetha, is a Bollywood veteran who was so excited to work with Rajamouli that she took on the challenge of delivering her lines in Telugu, the primary language of the film, which she doesn’t speak.
There are a couple of ways to watch this most epic of Tollywood epics (the Indian Telugu-language movie industry). The easiest is just to sit back and enjoy it as one of the most amped-up action movies ever to hit the screen.
Despite a lengthy runtime of three hours and seven minutes, RRR manages to contain not a single dull moment. Director S.S. Rajamouli prides himself in taking on every convention of the modern action film and injecting it with steroids before rechoreographing it, color-boosting it, sound-correcting it, and creatively turning it upside down and sideways. There are chase scenes, crowd scenes, fight scenes, riot scenes, and scenes that combine all four – occasionally followed by a seamless transition into a blissfully over-the-top song-and-dance number. Production values are lavish, sets and locations are vast and minutely detailed, and visual effects are pushed to the absolute limit and beyond.
One elaborately choreographed fight scene – a showdown between the two main protagonists — involves gunfire, fireworks, plain old actual flames, and arcing sprays of water, all deployed during a massive crowd-fight scene involving real horses alongside multiple CGI animals, including lions, tigers, bears, cheetahs, wolves, antelope and deer. The visual effects supervisor, V. Srinivas Mohan, has said that the finished film includes nearly 2,800 VX shots.
All this spectacle, however, is deployed with an impressive deference to storytelling and character development. As any movie fan knows, the stylistic touches that make Bollywood and Tollywood operatic by the standards of Western cinema are not mere flourishes; they serve to pause the action so that narrative and emotional themes can be underscored. In this film, each such set-up has its long-foreshadowed payoff. The resulting narrative tension can be agonizing; during the film’s climactic thirty minutes, I realized I was hitting pause every four minutes or so just to cover my eyes, cry, catch my breath, or shout “OH MY GOD, NO!” or “OH MY GOD, YES!”
Beneath the action is a deeper layer rooted in history: the story of two legendary heroes of the Indian fight for freedom and independence. Onscreen, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem – here called Ram and Bheem — meet cute while rescuing a small child from underneath a burning locomotive that’s racing along a crumbling bridge (as one does). To save the boy, the two heroes race at full speed toward each other, one on horseback, the other on a motorcycle, building momentum to leap off the bridge, one holding a flag, the other a length of rope… No, never mind, there’s no way to describe it that makes any real-world sense. But as an action sequence, it’s dizzying, triumphant, and wonderful; and as a way of establishing the unlikely friendship that the two protagonists share, it’s irresistible.
In the course of saving an innocent child, Ram and Bheem become friends without realizing that they are both deceiving each other. The film makes clear that each recognizes something in the essential nature of the other that runs deeper than the political fault lines which make the mutual deception necessary, and which currently shape their world.
In real life, both Ram and Bheem died tragic, violent deaths at the hands of the regime they struggled to oppose. For the purposes of the film, the two heroes are given larger-than-life powers. Fighting with superhuman prowess, suffering inhuman pain and injury without fear, they nevertheless reappear after each battle, healed and whole. This strong current of fantasy allows the film to function as entertainment; and yet the real-life suffering of the real Ram and the real Bheem is always present, as an undercurrent of profound emotion and symbolism. It’s as if the film wishes to protect its heroes from the reality they lived, after each brutal struggle giving them back to us, safe and sound and strong, renewed and ready for the next fight.
A crazy, must-see thrill-ride with next-level visual effects that serve to advance a compelling and meaningful (if totally bonkers) character-driven narrative. Rolling Stone hailed the Tollywood film as “the best — and most revolutionary — blockbuster of 2022.” (their review)
Someone who isn’t squeamish about blood; there are numerous fight scenes, and some of them are gory. That said, it’s action-movie blood, and this movie is absolutely too much fun to watch alone.
Trigger warning for over-the-top action-movie violence and gore. If you’ve somehow never watched a Bollywood or Tollywood film, be warned that song and dance numbers will occur when you least expect them. Finally, if by chance you are a British imperialist, you will want to be aware that the British are very definitely the villainous oppressors in this film.