This article appeared in the May 5, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
RRR (S.S. Rajamouli, 2022)
S.S. Rajamouli literally puts his stamp on his films. From the 2004 rugby drama Sye to the new revolutionary action movie RRR, a seal reading “an s s raja mouli film” is imprinted on the final shot of each of his movies, accompanied by a celebratory whoosh on the soundtrack. This stamp has become a guarantee of success: Rajamouli’s works have famously never flopped at the box office, even as they range wildly in tone and subject matter—from Buster Keaton remakes (Maryada Ramanna, 2010) to reincarnated-fly revenge dramas (Eega, 2012) to Lord of the Rings–style fantasy sagas (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015 and Baahubali: The Conclusion, 2017).
I was introduced to the Telugu auteur’s work after the colossal worldwide success of Baahubali: The Conclusion, which went viral via a GIF of soldiers forming a human ball and getting catapulted by a tree over a castle wall. Even when encountered in an out-of-context Twitter post, it’s a jaw-dropping bit of Looney Tunes creativity. When I got around to watching the whole two-part saga, I was wowed by how Rajamouli heightens the elements of melodrama with the unhinged ingenuity of his visual effects. The most comparable Hollywood director is James Cameron, who also spends years creating malleable melodramatic worlds with the latest VFX technology—though, crucially, he has millions more in his budgets than Rajamouli.
Rajamouli’s films are primarily made in Tollywood, a.k.a. the Telugu-language cinema based out of Hyderabad in South India. His plots often take the surprise left turns of bedtime stories: Eega, for example, replaces its hero (Nani) with a computer-generated housefly 36 minutes into the movie—a huge gamble in an industry that is built on star power. But the sheer inventiveness on display—Nani plays a murder victim reincarnated as a fly who seeks revenge against his killer—thrilled audiences. Pete Draper, who worked on the film’s CGI sequences as chief technical director at Makuta VFX, told me that when the premiere audience saw the fly emerging from its egg, the theater erupted in cheers, with viewers tossing ticker tape everywhere. One slapstick set piece, a sui-generis marvel of comedic and technical invention, sees the fly attacking the exposed head of the villain (Sudeep) while the rest of him is enclosed in a portable sauna.
The influence of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin comes through strongly, though Rajamouli pulls primarily from the mythos of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the twin epics of Hindu folklore. The director often mentions that one of his earliest influences was the Amar Chitra Katha comic series—a kind of Indian mythological version of the Classics Illustrated magazines in the U.S. “I was fascinated by the forts, the battles, the kings,” Rajamouli said in an interview. “I not only used to read those stories, but I kept telling those stories to my friends in my own way.” All of his movies revel in the sheer, childlike joy of inventing new worlds: Eega and Baahubali 2 both include voiceovers of a child asking his father for a tale. It’s a fitting metaphor, given that Rajamouli’s screenwriter father, Vijayendra Prasad, generates the ideas for most of his films. Other family members are also centrally involved in these productions: Rajamouli’s wife Rama is his costume designer, and his cousin M.M. Keeravani is his music composer.
Rajamouli’s signature combination of virtuosic action (which often pushes Indian VFX teams to their limits) and deep roots in Indian tradition reaches its apotheosis with RRR. A preposterously entertaining buddy epic set in 1920, the director’s latest imagines a fictional team-up between two real-life historical figures, the freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. In reality, Raju and Bheem lived and operated in different territories and never met, but in the film’s imagined history they bond in Delhi, which is ruled despotically by the British governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his preening wife Catherine (Alison Doody). The two heroes arrive in the city on separate secret missions to overthrow the British Raj and become best friends without knowing each other’s real plans.
Raju (played by Ram Charan), who was a resistance fighter from modern-day Andhra Pradesh, initially appears as an emotionless supercop for the colonial police. One early set piece has him single-handedly beating an angry mob of thousands to a pulp. It is a brutal, breathless sequence in which Rajamouli toggles between bird’s-eye views of a British police outpost surrounded by protestors, and extreme close-ups of the brawl, where hands, feet, and elbows rapidly sever the frame in a swirl of intimate, thudding violence. Ram Charan plays Raju with buttoned-up intensity, channeling Lord Rama from the Ramayana. By the end he is literally dressed as Rama as he greets the British colonizers as a god with grenade-tipped arrows.
Komaram Bheem was a revolutionary from India’s Gond tribe. In RRR, he arrives in Delhi in the guise of a Muslim mechanic to free an enslaved Gond girl from the governor. Played by action star N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (aka Jr. NTR), a pivotal actor in Rajamouli’s filmography, the character is first glimpsed in a loincloth, muscles bulging to capacity as he successfully traps a snarling tiger. The earthy Bheem is pictured with animals throughout, most spectacularly when he drives a burning cart of them into a posh English garden party, setting the voracious beasts loose on the revelers. Raju and Bheem’s friendship peaks in a joyful dance-off pitting their high-speed stomps against European styles, before they split bitterly due to Raju’s cover job as a police officer. But once their true identities are revealed, and the sociopathic governor deploys all his firepower to quell them, they are forced to either unite or die.
RRR exemplifies Rajamouli’s pan-Indian address. The film is a high-velocity spectacle of anti-colonial pop cinema that has proven that Telugu cinema can compete with the hegemony of Bollywood, a.k.a. India’s Hindi-language industry. But critics have noted that Rajamouli’s gleefully revisionist tale of nation-building is also troublingly Hindu-centric, particularly in its emphasis on Raju’s Sanskritic identity. Despite Bheem’s real-life legacy as a leader of India’s marginalized tribal peoples (known as the Adivasi), the film also transposes him into the Hindu tradition by aligning him with Bhima from the Mahabharata, who is said to have had the strength of 10,000 elephants. In an India plagued by the rise of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, where mythological iconography is often invoked to violent ends, Rajamouli’s folkloric project may need updating—a cultural reinvention to match his technical innovation.
R. Emmet Sweeney is the director of media production at Kino Lorber, Inc. He is also an occasional film critic whose writings are collected at r-emmetsweeney.com.