RRR has the most amazing meet-cute. A bridge creaks as a steam engine chugs across. There's a mishap, and the river below catches fire. A boy on a raft is caught in a flaming circle, debris falling around him. It seems hopeless but then two men, one on the bridge, the other on the banks, lock eyes. Instantly, with no words exchanged, they start to execute a ridiculously complex rescue involving a horse, a motorbike, a long rope and a generous interpretation of the laws of physics. There’s also a flag with ‘vande mataram’ on it, which struck me as a needless detail until its function was revealed. It was a reminder that while S.S. Rajamouli’s action may not always seem sensible, everything’s usually there for a reason.
Though Raju and Akhtar are meeting for the first time, we’ve encountered them earlier, in their spectacular individual ‘entry scenes’. Raju (Ram Charan), an officer in the British army, singlehandedly pummels into submission a large protesting crowd. And Akhtar, actually a Gond tribal named Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), fools a wolf into chasing him and ends up apologizing to a tiger (don’t ask). Bheem is in Delhi to rescue his niece, who’s been abducted by the sadistic General Scott (Ray Stevenson) and his evil wife and is being kept as an expert henna-applier. Raju, charged with finding Bheem, poses as a revolutionary. Neither knows what the other looks like, and they become fast friends after the bridge rescue.
Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem were actual early 20th century Telugu revolutionaries. RRR is not so much a biopic as a wildly operatic imagining of their partnership. These leaps of fiction allow Rajamouli to break with tradition and frame the freedom struggle in triumphant terms. Yes, there’s plenty of Indians tortured and killed, but the real point of the film is Raju and Bheem coming up with ever more inventive ways to exterminate comically evil white men. RRR essentially asks: what if we were the scary ones? It’s the same wishfulness that drove Inglourious Basterds, victimhood transformed into righteous superpowered strength.
Fans of the Baahubali films might miss the world-building; three hours long, RRR keeps a tight focus on Raju and Bheem. Yet, the three films have a lot in common. Rajamouli works through similar themes, lionizing the tribal strongman, with his connection to the earth and the forest, as well as the archetypal (Hindu) warrior. Though it’s more subtle than Baahubali 2, with all its talk of kshatriya valour, RRR’s emphasis on ‘lineage’ suggests that Rajamouli continues to be impressed by the neatness of the caste system (adivasis are referred to as sheep who become agitated when one of their lambs goes astray). There’s a good deal of Hindu iconography, with Raju transforming into a Ram-like figure and Alia Bhatt cameoing as his partner, Sita.
When Bheem tells the tiger he’s sorry that he has to use him for his own purposes, I was expecting some sort of payoff. What I got was beyond my wildest dreams, with Bheem attacking a party at Scott’s mansion with a menagerie of wild animals. For five blissful minutes, the screen is a mess of tigers, wolves and stags crashing around, impaling and dismembering British soldiers. It’s the craziest of RRR’s set pieces, though the one in which Raju is perched on Bheem’s shoulders the whole time runs it close. The poor Brits lose on every front. When an officer tries to shame Bheem with his European dance moves, Raju kicks off the thumping ‘Naatu’ and the duo easily win the first revolutionary Indo-British dance-off.
‘Naatu’ is a welcome light touch in a film that gets high on macho posturing. So strong is the male energy that the two love interests barely register as romantic figures (Olivia Morris' Jenny is there because she’s useful, Sita is practically a goddess). Desire is sublimated into the most ardent of male friendships. In one scene, Raju grooms his friend for a date (after, one imagines, bathing and dressing him). “He is a volcano,” he longingly says later. “When you looked at me like that,” Bhim says, “I just felt like competing with you.” If that’s what the kids are calling it these days.
RRR subtly recasts the Indian freedom struggle as a primarily Hindu movement. Lord Ram literally appears at the end to defeat the British. There’s a lot of ‘vande mataram’ glimpsed and shouted. The song sequence that accompanies the closing credits pays tribute to freedom fighters across the centuries—as far as I noticed, no Muslims or Christians, one Sikh, the rest Hindu. Akhtar is merely a disguise for Bheem to cast off; Muslims and Sikhs figure only as powerless members of the crowd. RRR is delirious fun and not a virulent majoritarian film—it might just displace one from theatres—but it’s telling that the pan-religious overtures that used to be such a big part of Indian commercial cinema are now seen as unnecessary. When you buy a ticket to a Rajamouli film, you’re paying for the bonkers action fantasia. The benign Hindu rashtra fittings come free.