Review: RRR

RRR (2022) is an overseas larger-than-life adventure drama, coming from the Tegulu-speaking film industry in India, known informally as Tollywood.

This film was strongly recommended to me, and I am glad to report the recommendations were sound.

Good films are getting so hard to find these days, it is a relief to encounter one filled with epic action, visual splendor, song and dance, well paced, well plotted, based on themes of courage, honor, patriotism.

The director is S. S. Rajamouli, who came to international attention with his equally impressive two-part epic Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017). Because I saw and enjoyed Baahubali, I was eager to see RRR.

The main stars are unlikely to be names recognized by American audiences:  N. T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, Ajay Devgn, Alia Bhatt, Shriya Saran, Samuthirakani, and child actress Twinkle Sharma.

Americans might recognize the name of Alison Doody, who plays a minor role as Lady Scott, the sadistic wife of the tyrannous British lord in the film, for her role as Nazi babe Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

I am a fan, at least in a minor way, of Bollywood, having been charmed or moved by films such as Amar Akbar Anthony (1977),   Devdas (2o02), or anything and everything starring Hrithik Roshan, who is more handsome and multi-talented than any current American actor I can name, even as Aishwarya Rai is more glamourous.

But even  to Bollywood fans like me, the actors and actresses of RRR are all new.  I would be happy to see any of them again, if they turn in performances akin to this.

What the RRR stands for in the title seems to differ from time to time and language to language. It was filmed in four different languages, with the principle actors and singers recording lines and songs in each.

Set in the opulent days of the British rule in India, the plot revolves around the conflict between two men of heroic stature. One is Rama Raju (played by Charan), an ambitious native officer in the Indian Imperial Police, who is introduced to us when he quells a riot singlehandedly; the other is the jungle lord Bheem (played by Rao), who is introduced to us when he wrestles a rampaging tiger.

The names and some details of the two heroes are taken from real life revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, who sought the overthrow of British rule, but in the last act, the two heroes are garbed and presented as the mythic demigods Rama and Bhima, the Odysseus and Hercules of the East.

The story is this:

When, in a remote jungle village, a child named Malli attracts the attention of the cruel Governor’s cruel wife, Lady Scott, who throws a coin to Malli’s mother. The mother picks up the coin, being told it is a gratuity to honor the child’s beautiful singing voice;  but the English think the mother just sold her child as a slave, and so take the child away.

When the valiant mother in tears throws herself in front of the motorcar carrying the crying child away, Lord Scott instructs his officer not to shoot her. This is not through compassion, but because bullets, manufactured in England and shipped overseas, are worth more than native lives. The officer, with shocking brutality, clubs the mother down instead.

But the villagers have a heroic guardian named Bheem, who, disguising himself as a Muslim, enters the bewildering urban world of Delhi, seeking the child to recover her.

The governor is warned of the menace of the jungle hero, and offers the reward of promotion to any of his officers willing to find and face Bheem. Only one man is stalwart enough to volunteer: Rama.

He doffs his uniform and inveigles his way into a local meeting of rebels and malcontents. As he stalks the back alleys of Delhi, seeking Bheem, who is there seeking Malli.

The plot and counterplot take on tragic grandeur when the two men, each ignorant of the mission of the other, witnessing a child menaced by a horrific train wreck, and combine forces to mount an acrobatic rescue: the two become fast friends.

Three action set pieces which would have been the climax of any ordinary film, here are included just as set up.

The dramatic if not overdramatic way the two friends discover themselves to be deadly enemies, one strange and striking plot-twist at a time, is both believable and unbelievable, just as it should be.

Tearful meetings and partings, sad back-stories, parted lovers, joyful reunions, snake-poison, sabotage, torture, wild animal attacks, heroism, and exemplars of unbreakable spirit abound in this wonder of a film.

Also in this film is the best dance-off since Starlord challenged Ronan the Accuser in the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The British make wonderful villains, as every Irishman and Colonial America can understand, sneering, class-conscious, condescending, haughty. I will leave it to Anglophiles and Anglophobes to debate the historical accuracy of a film where one man carrying another on his back can thrash armies while using a burning wild animal zoo-cart as a weapon.

I cannot say the action is realistic — such things are rare in film — but I can say that the stylized fight scenes do not follow the protocols of American style nor of Hong Kong style, both of which are familiar to my eye.

We have all seen scenes were a dogpile of men tackle the stalwart hero, and a stands up nonetheless, flinging them aside. I have never before seen one where the crushed and twisting hero strikes, gouges, or wrestles each tackling attacker, one by one, off his back, creating an opening to escape.

We have all seen scenes where a hero withstands brutal torture without bowing or breaking. I have never before seen one where he breaks into a soul-stirring show-stopping psalm praising mother earth, and incites a riot among the inspired onlookers.

The cinematography is top-notch, and the action set-pieces, costuming, and sets all display the lavish care spent to bring this film to life, from palace to jungle to jail cell. This is the most expensive Indian film ever made, and shows it.

One caveat: no animals were harmed in the filming, because they were computer-generated graphics, which may strike your eye as uncanny and fake. Different viewers have different tolerance for such animation effects. Myself I could see it was fake, but it did not bother me.

One complaint: I would have liked more songs and dances. The times when my nation made musicals is long past, revived only briefly in my youth, only for a few films.

The theme is an unreservedly patriotic one. Every son of India will stand and cheer for the independence of that nation. There is a parade of famous figures from Indian history and politics as the curtain falls, none of whom I recognized.

But one must look back to Busby Berkeley or World War Two USO-shows to find similar outbursts of patriotism from an American film, complete with flags and cannonades. In the same way it cheers the honest heart to see a stranger truly and dearly love wife and child, so it is to see a foreign patriot love a nation not one’s own.

The characters are larger than life in the action sequences, but there are scenes of tenderness, love, meeting and parting, promises made, awkward shyness, grinding humiliation, satisfying retaliation, gruesome death, that spans the gamut of human emotion. This is both epic and melodrama, and none of the situations seem forced or fake, and even when a coincidence worthy of Charles Dickens weaves its way into the plot, the viewer is convinced and enraptured.

The director also plays with symbolism and recurring themes in a thought provoking way: I mentioned two men, one carrying the other on his shoulders, during a jailbreak scene, when one has been wounded by torture and cannot walk. But this reflects and reverses an earlier scene where, responding to peevish humiliation on the dance floor, the two men break out in dance sequence so vehement and long, that the British are confounded. One of the heroes earns a leg cramp for this victory and the other bears him home, smiling. In both cases, the Indians of different tribes and castes are as brothers, each bearing the other in turn, together as one.

Similar symbolism surrounds the fiery hero, his anger and impatience, and the more calm, forgiving, simple and soft-spoken here, whose spirit is like a still pond, but whose strength is akin to an endless flood. At one point, they clash, using flame against firehose as weapons, or, later, one is in a forest-fire while the other waits in ambush under a pond.

There is also a romance sub plot or two.

On a personal note, for this viewer to see a love between man and woman carried out in a chaste and dignified fashion was a relief and a refreshing change from typical American fare, where butt-double hero and harlot heroine routinely leap under bedsheets with each other at first opportunity. I do not recall seeing the courting couple or the parted lovers kiss in this film, but I recall the sincerity and beauty of the scenes.

This respect for the dignity women — there is no better word for it — is one of the several things I admire about Bollywood and Tollywood films, which is also seen in Chinese costume dramas. If there are sick vulgarians in these nations seeking to demean their cultures, they have not achieved dominance there, as ours have here.

That the whole plot is set in motion by a mother’s love for her abducted child, again, is a rarity. I can recall at least three films made in America promoting or justifying aborticide, but damnably few portraying a mother’s love as a good thing.

So in terms of splendor, dance, spectacle, high drama, epic action, deep emotion, thoughtful themes, honest passion, hate and love, comedy and tragedy, there are few films so masterfully combining all these elements into an organic whole.

Here is one, and well worth your time.