Movie Review: ‘RRR’ | The Harvard Press | Features | Feature Articles
Directed by: SS Rajamouli
With: NT Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, Alia Bhatt, Olivia Morris
Available on Netflix
Unrated, 187 minutes
If you can imagine Quentin Tarantino directing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or Michael Bay directing “Braveheart,” then you might have an idea of the “RRR” movie genre. Indian filmmaker SS Rajamouli’s new historical epic (“Baahubali: The Beginning”) is not a difficult film to understand, but coming from India’s Telugu film industry (known as Tollywood), it is a for which American viewers may not have many points of reference. Even the aforementioned films, which help describe the elaborate fight choreography and gory thrills of “RRR” (short for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”), don’t capture the movie’s vast array of spectacle. Here is a saga of revolutionaries that gives way to musical numbers and dance-off; here is a film of friends with all the intense emotion and the torn clothes of Greek tragedy or Italian opera..
It might be easier to describe what this film is not. For starters, it’s not short – the title finally pops up on screen after 40 minutes – but it doesn’t feel like a marathon either. Sequence after sequence, scene after scene, “RRR” rushes like a steam engine on fire, without ever losing an ounce of its momentum. It also lacks, in particular, subtleties of all kinds. From its bright, saturated colors to its emphatic theatrical performances to its superficial dialogue, “RRR” relieves the viewer of much of the burden of contemplation. Rajamouli wants you to sit back, relax and let the show wash over you.
A heavy fiction of the lives of two early 20th century Indian revolutionaries, Rama Raju and Komaram Bheem, the film imagines a world in which these two men join forces and bring the British Empire to its knees. Rajamouli endows his heroes with superhuman strength, giving the film an air of mythology; Rama (Ram Charan, “Magadheera”) single-handedly subdues an entire mob of rioters, while Bheem (NT Rama Rao Jr., “Nannaku Prematho”) overtakes and dominates a grown tiger. In a stunning jailbreak scene, Rama climbs onto Bheem’s shoulders, fending off their pursuers with two long guns as Bheem’s legs quickly carry them to safety. Like two characters in an old epic poem, hyperbolized more and more with each recitation, Rama and Bheem take on the stature of demi-gods.
The effect is often mesmerizing. Rajamouli’s vivid imagination gives us a slew of memorable moments, from the garden party ruined by a truckload of carnivorous beasts to Rama’s harrowing flashbacks to the massacre that galvanized his ambitions. When there’s no physical way out of a sticky situation, our heroes break into song, like when Bheem, taking a brutal series of full-body lashes, causes the crowd around him to swarm. revolt by singing his Indian pride. The film has its imperfections, clunky cuts, absurd beats, and flat-drawn characters, but the forest is so big that we never seem to be looking at the trees.
That’s not to say the film is always easy to digest. Not to mention its enthusiastic nationalism, American viewers may also find an uncomfortable connection between the film’s plot and our current, tense situation. Because Rama and Bheem not only exact revenge on British soldiers, but, as a central plot arc shows, they also procure weapons to distribute to civilians. Arriving for American viewers as we tackle the issues of gun proliferation and political violence here at home, “RRR” feels almost glib in its portrayal of good guys with guns, or maybe just naive.
But then it’s the same movie where a tiger jumps onto Bheem’s shoulders only for him to lift the animal and throw it at someone else. It’s just entertainment, isn’t it? If that’s overdone, then maybe it’s okay to chalk it up to melodramatic license. Perhaps “RRR” is the goofy provocation that Hollywood, with its obsession with movies with serious messages and serious Batman reboots, badly needs. “RRR” imagines a world where every villain is perfectly evil and meets cathartic demise, where copious bloodshed can coexist with choreographed dances, where the act of killing is sometimes justified and requires no further scrutiny. It’s both a sunny escape and a populist screed, but never weighed down by its widespread ambitions. Few films succeed by trying to be everything to everyone, but “RRR” makes a surprisingly compelling case for an upbeat brand of maximalism.
Danny Eisenberg grew up at Harvard and has been a Harvard Press film critic since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.