This happens in the damn movie.
Back in 2012 I saw an Indonesian film called The Raid.
It took everything I thought I understood about action films, ate its lunch, punched it in the stomach, kicked it in the face, snapped its neck and threw it into the mouth of a roaring volcano.
On the podium of actioners that have left me stuttering and twitching in disbelief, it was the One King to rule them all.
RRR is an Indian language action epic produced by DVV Entertainment and directed and written by S. S. Rajamouli. The scope of this film rivals Golden Age Hollywood blockbusters like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra, the action sequences are weapons grade insanity and the musical numbers (more on that shortly) are as precise and lavish as anything I’ve ever seen on screen.
It is the most expensive Indian film ever made, so it’s no surprise that’s it’s a patriotic one. “RRR” stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt, and it blends fictional interpretations of two of India’s most revered revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem.
Both were early 20th Century freedom fighters who made life difficult for the occupying British, enjoying great success ass insurrectionists and inspiring millions to, well, Rise, Roar and Revolt. They died a couple of decades apart, and are not known to have ever met. But their lives and the cause they fought for did overlap.
They could have met, and definitely would have had awesome adventures together, this movie postulates.
Due to cultural differences, it’s hard to come up with an equally apocryphal pair in American history. I guess you could try to imagine Davy Crockett and Paul Revere joining forces to drive the British from America through the power of teamwork and tag-team break dancing. Crockett with his magic flying knife, and Revere with his supersonic steampunk horse.
Not an ideal comparison, but I’ll try again at the end of the article.
RRR opens in 1920, six decades into British rule of India. The Crown’s ruthless administrator, Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his even more ruthless wife Catherine (Alison Doody) brazenly kidnap a young girl from one of India’s most influential tribes. The incident is, sadly, a light metaphor for the entitlement, bigotry and general disregard for human dignity that characterized Colonial rule.
Lord Lucifer and Lady Malice McEvilton, at your service.
The village guardian, Komaram Bheem (Rama Rao), is dispatched to retrieve the girl (who I’m going to say represents India itself) and restore the village. In case there’s any doubt as to Bheem’s fitness for this, he’s introduced to us via set piece wherein a tiger the size of a hot hatchback chases him through the jungle and Bheem, well, opens a can of whoop-ass on it.
Don’t look at me like that. This movie hasn’t even begun to get nuts.
When we meet A. Rama Raju (Ram Charan), he’s an Indian officer in the British run Imperial Police. Thousands of angry protesters have surrounded their station near the village of Anangpur, rocking the fence and making outrageous demands like “please let us have food” and “kindly stop murdering us”.
A rioter throws a single rock that takes out a lovingly framed picture of Ray Donovan hanging over the entrance. Enraged, the station Captain demands the offender be captured. Determined to keep the peace and impress his Overlords, Raju single-handedly wades into the crowd and drags the man back, knocking the absolute snot out of anyone who touches him.
This requires six full minutes.
It’s the first Hero set-piece in the movie, and I’m telling you – it alone outstrips the climax of most Marvel films. And it’s not because anything happening onscreen is remotely plausible. A Bengal tiger could strip the meat from your bones in one sitting. And an angry mob of people could…well…also do that, I guess.
But these scenes actually gain credibility by virtue of how ludicrous they are. This is obviously a comic book version of completely fictional events, and an opening card even tells us so. Combine this with the fact that modern digital effects are almost universally acceptable and your suspension of disbelief can and will extend itself.
Convincing onscreen action also requires story immersion and for me, visual language plays a big part. Bheem is as strong as the tiger, but he also respects it. Raju is mightier than his countrymen, but not better. The camera stays close to the ground, and these expositional brawls evoke brotherly struggle.
They suggest that strength does not bring with it moral superiority.
It does, however, allow you to do this.
Only the nefarious British roll like that, is the suggestion. It’s later, when our heroes are directly facing all the King’s men, that Bheem and Raju are presented as electrifying demigods. Bodies fly through the air, the camera soars, and motorcycles are used as melee weapons.
Anything and everything is on the table.
Despite this, RRR has the good sense to manage its tone, never quite getting too serious or too silly (though opinions may vary). The action sometimes leans toward funny, sometimes toward dramatic and occasionally the brutally tragic. Unmistakable emotional points are scored on numerous occasions.
But they’re always bracketed with colorful, astonishing feats of physicality infused with vibrance and grace. They’re padded with flourishes of super slow motion, saturated with computer enhanced color and awash with music and dance. Whatever you choose to watch this on is a canvas.
I freely admit to being successfully moved and manipulated by RRR. But…isn’t that often the point of art?
I should mention that I am generally not a fan of musicals. But I may eventually find myself a full on Bollywood convert. Maybe it’s because dance is an integral part of Hindu culture in a way that it just isn’t in the West. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand the language, so the songs are less distracting. I can’t explain it except to say that it feels less forced.
Whatever the case, I was on board. Early on there’s a scene where the snooty British are literally danced into the ground by Bheem and Raju, who are high as kites on the sweet twin nectars of cultural mistrust and fanatical patriotism.
And boy, are these guys tight. Moments after seeing each other for the first time, Bheem and Raju save a young boy from the most exploding train I have ever seen using nothing but a rope, a horse, the national flag and their glistening, tightly muscled forearms.
IN. THE. MOVIE.
They celebrate with a Super Best Friends song that ends atop a human pyramid while the Indian equivalent of Randy Newman plays in the background. Up is down. Down is up. I’m not sure about anything anymore except for how much fun I had with RRR.
Not that I don’t have reservations. On the one hand this is a harmless, patriotically themed flight of fancy about a pair of beloved national icons, along the lines of:
Remember when Davy Crockett and Paul Revere defeated the Redcoats with the torch from the Statue of Liberty and an American flag made of razor blades?
Viewed solely in that light, RRR is The Matrix meets Yankee Doodle Dandy. Conversely, I don’t need to know anything about Indian politics to understand that I may be looking at the Eastern equivalent of a right wing fever dream that’s a little closer to:
Remember when Rambo and Maverick melted Hitler’s face with the torch from the Statue of Liberty and an American flag made of razor blades, Tom Cruise turned into Jesus and then the whole cast danced Les Grossman style to a hip-hop version of Stars and Stripes Forever?
There are those who would claim that is closer to what I saw. Should it matter to me? I don’t know. I’d pay to see both of those movies.
And should it concern you, or anyone outside India, for that matter? I can’t answer that question, but I can confirm this:
The King is dead. Long live the King.
Disclaimer: Davy Crockett never fought the British, and Paul Revere’s horse was almost certainly not made out of old clock parts. The British Empire is purely fictional.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."