- “RRR” has a political bent too in its support for a benign version of Hindutva even as it pays lip service to secularism through the camaraderie between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
Koduri Srisaila Sri Rajamouli’s much-awaited film (“Rise Roar Revolt” in English and “Roudram Ranam Rudhiram” in Telugu, 2022), was released worldwide with much fanfare early this year. It builds on the historical drama of his earlier film, “Baahubali: The Beginning” (2015) which catapulted the Southern Indian director to fame and has his signature mixture of genres, action, mythological and drama. “Baahubali 2” had in fact set a new box office benchmark for Indian cinema and it remains unbeaten even after seven years. It remains to be seen whether Rajamouli’s new film repeats his earlier hat trick.
It is quite a jaw-dropping leap from the genteel British docudramas of recent times on the days of the British Raj, from “Victoria and Abdul” (2017) to the “Downton Abbey” film (2019) and TV series. The dark side of British imperialism is only hinted at even in the most liberal of British films, as in “A Passage to India” (1984). But we see a very different picture of the days of the British Empire in Indian cinema, as depicted in “Lagaan: Once upon a time in India” (2001), “The legend of Bhagat Singh” (2002), and “Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005).
In “RRR,” the British characters are portrayed as extremely racist, except for Jennifer, much like Elizabeth Russell in “Lagaan,” who falls in love with the native man and takes his side against her own people. Here they appear more like Nero or Caligula in their sheer bloodthirstiness, and the women are no better than their husbands. In one scene the wife of the British Governor demands more blood when a revolutionary refuses to kneel and ask forgiveness. In a scene reminiscent of the gladiators in Roman amphitheaters she calls out to the policeman whipping the hapless man and even throws him a nail-studded whip — “There is hardly any blood, hit him harder!”
Such racism was common in the era of British colonization, where Indians were not welcomed to whites-only establishments but were often murdered in cold blood, as in the infamous Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s leading of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. This film takes it one step further by depicting the sheer cruelty and barbarism of the British military in putting down any rebellion of the natives, as was the case in reality after the so-called Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which Indian historians today refer to as the First War of Indian Independence.
The two desi superheroes are a strange combination of the heroes of the Marvel franchise with Indian mythology thrown into the mix. If you like your revolutionaries dripping with blood and gore, not to mention ripped muscles, this is the movie for you. The bromance between the two protagonists Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, played by Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr., respectively, is reminiscent of the relationship between Jai and Veeru in “Sholay” (1975), right down to the song composed by M.M. Keeravani, “Dosti” (Friendship), much like the Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge relationship although here one rides a motorbike while the other rides a horse. The film rides on their opposing personalities, much as in the 1975 blockbuster, one stoic and reserved, and the other passionate and emotional.
The female characters are unidimensional, playing the traditional roles of devoted wives and mothers, not to mention the helpless little girl whose abduction by the British sets the stage to start with. The Sita character is loyalty and devotion personified, accepting the disappearance of her fiancé without question. It is a far cry from Rajamouli’s fierce Queen Mother Sivagami in “Baahubali,” who becomes the acting Queen and regent of her kingdom and is depicted as being a powerful warrior and depicted as being as multifaceted as the male characters. That is the case too with Princess Devasena as well as Avantika, the rebel warrior from Kuntala. This film though fails the test with regard to its representation of women, as its focus is on the macho bravado of its male protagonists.
“RRR” is based on two iconic leaders from Southern India in the pre-independence era, who have been well dramatized in Telugu pop culture. Alluri Sitaram Raju was a Kshatriya leader who was given the title of “Manyam Veerudu” or the “Hero of Jungle” for his assistance to the indigenous tribes against the British colonizers. Komaram Bheem was a Gond tribal leader from the state now known as Telangana. While Bheem had fought against the Nizam and the British, Alluri Ram Raju’s rebellion against the colonial rulers of 1922 was against the British Raj for enacting a law that limited the tribal group’s freedom of movement in their own land. Both revolutionaries paid for their heroism with their lives — Alluri Sitaram Raju in May of 1924 through a British firing squad, while Komaram Bheem was killed in battle in October 1940, fighting the combined forces of the British Empire and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Rajamouli’s film however transforms history by turning their rebellion into a coming-of-age drama with the two revolutionaries playing a dramatic cat and mouse game with each other. This aspect of the tale reminds one initially of the idealistic ex-felon Jean Valjean trailed by the indefatigable Inspector Javert of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, “Les Miserables” (1862). However, Rajamouli’s characters are more akin to the heroes of Indian mythology, with Ram playing the role of the mythological warrior King Sri Ram and Bheem playing that of the strapping Pandava prince, Bhimasena.
But NTR Jr’s Bheem is a strange combination of the Mahabharata’s Bhimasena and the Ramayana’s Hanuman. He has superhuman strength, as seen by his epic battle with a tiger, and the ease with which he hurls motorcycles around, not to mention pulling down buildings in Samson-like fashion. But he also plays the role of a liaison between Ram and Sita, and even comes up with a sanjeevani like an antidote when Ram is felled by poison. Ram, on the other hand, appears dour and stoic in comparison, driven by his ambition to rise in the British armed forces. But Ram has his own Achilles heel, revealed in flashbacks where we meet his valorous father, played in a great cameo by Ajay Devgan, and his childhood sweetheart, played by a winsome Alia Bhatt.
But the film has a political bent too in its support for a benign version of Hindutva. It pays lip service to secularism through the camaraderie between the Hindu and Muslim communities, demonstrated in the warm and welcoming Muslim community that shelters the Gond tribals. Initially, the friendship between Ram and Bheem in his fake identity as Akhtar is reminiscent of the Hindu-Muslim friendships promoted in older films like “Amar, Akbar, Anthony” (1977) where the Hindus and Muslims share and even eat out of the same thali (plate). But this nod towards the secular state drops as the film moves more and more towards a soft Hindutva, from the frequent references to Hindu deities to Alluri Ram’s donning of saffron attire in the climactic battle scenes with the British.
Films from the southern states in the past few decades had shown more leanings toward more genuine secularism, from Mani Ratnam’s “Bombay” (1995) and “Dil Se” (1997) to Kamal Hassan’s “Hey Ram” (2000). This is of course a discussion of more recent films, for if we go back to an earlier era, as in the famous Shivaji Ganesan film “Parasakti “(1952), they openly adopted an atheist and anti-casteism perspective, having been scripted by M. Karunanidhi, the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party and future Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. We have come a long way from that era to one where the Alluri Rama character metamorphoses into the Hindu warrior god, Ram, clad in the panchagachcham, traditional Brahminical attire with a sacred thread and a tilak on his forehead.
The caste angle too cannot be missed, for Ram is seen as the quintessential Kshatriya warrior, while Bheem belongs to an Adivasi tribe, the Gonds. Additionally, the film depicts the indigenous people worshipping at a Ram shrine in the forest, whereas in reality, the Gonds are animistic, as are most Adivasi tribes. In fact, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand and leader of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Hemant Soren had clearly stated that Adivasis cannot be incorporated within the Hindu fold as they are a separate entity and need to be recognized as such.
The concluding scenes of the film are emblematic of the film’s political leanings wherein we see the famous faces of the freedom movement, from Subash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh to Chhatrapati Shivaji and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and even other lesser-known revolutionaries such as the tribal chief from Kerala, Pazhassi Raja, as well as Kittur Chennamma of Andhra and V.O. Chidambaram Pillai of Tamil Nadu. These are important names and the film’s homage to them should make them more familiar to the next generation across India, but the most glaring omission lies in the renowned faces of the revolutionary struggle that are missing in this tableau of images, such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other luminaries of the Congress Party.
It is all the more surprising because it is widely known in Southern India that Alluri Ram Raju had entered the freedom struggle after being influenced by Gandhi. One might assume that this is because Gandhi was the leader of a non-violent revolution, while the revolutionaries of this film were more of Malcolm X’s “any means necessary” mold. But if that is the rationale adopted by the director for the omission of Gandhi, why would Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s image be used in the tableau of revolutionaries in the closing scene?
One more problematic aspect of the film is the director choosing real historical characters for his film and then turning it into an ahistorical fantasy. Why would he not use genuine mythical characters and create a fantasy film on them as was the case in the “Baahubali” series? Be that as it may, this is the only Indian film I can think of that has been released not only in cinema halls across India but also in theaters across the US in a massive media blitzkrieg. No doubt Rajamouli’s status in Indian cinema plays a role in that as he has garnered numerous awards internationally including the CNN-News Indian of the Year award in Entertainment” for 2015. It remains to be seen whether viewers in the diaspora respond with as much fervor to the saga as they have back in the homeland.
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is a Professor of International Feminist Studies at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she teaches in the Department of Ethnic & Gender Studies. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before she arrived in the United States, she worked as a News Correspondent for the Indian TV networks based in Mumbai, India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-states. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers and feminist magazines such as Ms. in the U.S.