Updated: Apr 5
If there is one director who makes films exclusively for the theatrical experience, it is SS Rajamouli. It is not just about the scale of the films he makes or the grandeur that is visually pleasing and awe-inspiring. We have had a lot of "big" films with these two boxes checked. One needs to look not beyond films like Thugs of Hindustan which were large in their conception and scale. Yet, the response from the audience was only lukewarm, to be modest. What is really interesting about him is the way he mounts basic, even primal human emotions on an enormous scale. The first example that comes to mind is his Eega. Rajamouli mounts the very basic emotion of love and the concept of revenge on a scale hitherto unimagined. What's even more laudable is the way he throws in re-incarnation, a theme beaten to death by filmmakers to date. But he does that in a way that is so fantastic, purely audacious and yet makes it believable.
RRR is yet another addition to his growing list of brilliant films. RRR follows the lives of two individuals viz., Alluri Sitaaramaraju and Komaram Bheemudu in the pre-independent India of the 1920s. Mind you, this is a fictionalized account of what might have happened if these two individuals met. In reality, they never met and were killed 20 years apart by the British.
The film has duality throughout in the film. Right from the casting and the characters that are divided almost equally in terms of screen time, the number of individuals for each of the stories and so on. The duality makes sense only as you continue to travel with the story. For example, I wondered why the governor threw just two coins at Malli's mother. Generally, whenever the wealthy throw away, they do so with pompous eloquence. But in this scene, the two felt odd. However, as the film progresses, the purpose of this apparent "stinginess" (which again could be construed as the haughtiness of the oppressor) of the governor. The duality is explored in the way the characters of Sitaramaraju and Bheem are written (the former is fire and the latter represents water).
The film is also about two different stories. Sitaramaraju has a mission to arm every man to fight against the British. To accomplish this feat, he even though ranked in the British armed forces, has a very long and carefully etched plan of deceiving them at the right moment. Bheem on the other hand is on a mission to find and reunite Malli, a Gond child with her mother. The governor has abducted the girl and kept her enslaved. Beyond the duality in stories observe the duality in the subtext too.
Let me elaborate. The carefully long and detailed plan is also a result of the education he has been able to have. He makes use of all the knowledge to sketch out a painstakingly detailed plan of earning their trust (even if it means apparently turning against his own countrymen) and deceiving them at the right time. Whereas, Bheem, coming from a Gond tribe hasn't had exposure to books. He is, intelligent in the ways of life and is immensely knowledgeable in the ways of the jungle, medicines, etc. But he relies a lot more on brute force to accomplish his mission - which is evident when he goes to release Sitaramaraju from jail.
The wonderful writing continues even in the numerous set-ups and payoffs that we get throughout the film. The screenplay is one of the best when it comes to writing a mass, masala entertainer. No scene is a throw-away or a filler in this film. One of the best echoes in the film is the way the fire and water (read Sitaramaraju and Bheem) fight with each other in the interval block. Beyond the metaphorical fight between the two, what really blew my mind was how the frame freezes on the clasped hands of Sitaramaraju and Bheem. It is a wonderful and ironic callback to the earlier scene where the both of them hanging by a rope from a bridge forge the bond of friendship. Now it is the same friendship that threatens to sabotage Bheem's mission. Also, note the wonderful change in power dynamics. In the bridge scene, both of them are equally at risk, hanging from the bridge by a rope. A mixture of water (the wet tricolour that Bheem uses as he swings through fire) and fire (Ramcharan) help him live. However, in the interval block, Ram has more power and despite trying to use water to his advantage, Bheem is at the mercy of Ram (the fire that threatens to jeopardize his mission and his life).
The most wonderful part of writing is the way no scene, no prop and no moment in the film is a throw-away or a filler. Whether it is the use of a tiger in the introduction of Bheem's character or Bheem riding the bike or Ram riding the horse, these moments are not just placed to enhance the grandeur of the spectacle. Each of these props and scenes has a very significant bearing on the screenplay and has a wonderful pay-off later on, and that too in a way that only Rajamouli can bring about.
Despite all these wonderful flourishes, I was disappointed with how the characters of Samuthirakani and Rahul Ramakrishna were done away with. Both of these are important confidantes (notice the duality) for Ram and Bheem respectively. They, in some ways, define and make the path of their respective missions. However, we don't really know what happens to them. Ironically, the characters of Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt, how a lot more meat to their characters, have a lot more screen time.
The performances are neat and contained. Despite all the emotional highs and lows the film takes us through, the actors perform their roles so well that no scene is melodramatic or makes you roll your eyes. Especially, the way Ram Charan Teja performed is a thing of beauty. I say this mainly because of his loud performances in films like Govindudu Andarivadele and one of Rajamouli's own Magadheera. But his contained performance in RRR is so laudable. I say this because all the pent up anger could burst out at any point which, even though melodramatic, would still work in the universe and the emotional milieu that the film is set in. However, the writing and the direction don't force him into any of these outbursts. While it can be accrued to be a mastery of writing, I would still think it is the actor's brilliance too as like the scene I mentioned earlier there was scope to overdramatize the wait for Bheem.
Junior NTR as Bheem on the other hand makes us believe that he is Bheema incarnate. The scenes where he exerts brute force and during the Komuram Bheemudo son where he stokes the fire of revolt in the hearts of people who witness his flogging are moments of glory, to say the least. I am certain that NTR would be proud of him. The other characters, as I said earlier are largely one-dimensional and don't affect or stay with you much.
The songs in the film are wonderfully placed and don't affect the screenplay in any manner. In fact, (I know I have said this more than once) Rajamouli should do a masterclass on the placement of songs with RRR as his guide. The block before Naatu Naatu song is more than just a mass moment in the film. The same goes with the way Komuram Bheemudo happens. While being flogged by his own best friend, he sings a song that slowly but surely kindles the fire of revenge and retribution in the hearts of the whole tribe that witnesses this injustice. I think this would go down in history as Indian cinema's reply to the famous Mark Antony speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The end credit song got me so pumped up for more than just the patriotic fervour that the lyrics incited. I saw Rajamouli dance in the song and was pleasantly surprised. This song could've been made a part of the screenplay after the governor is killed. But the decision to place it as the end credits rolled up is a masterstroke. He made the audience sit through a part of the film that generally witnesses an empty hall.
The music is yet another great strength of this film. There are certain filmmakers who can bring the best out of the music directors. In the Tamil film industry, we have a lot of such examples. Maniratnam-ARR, Maniratnam-Ilaiyaraja, GVM-Harris Jeyaraj, Selvaraghavan-Yuvan Shankar Raja, Vetrimaaran-GV Prakash Kumar, Karthik Subbaraj-Santosh Narayanan, the list goes on and on. In Telugu, my favourite combinations are Sukumar-DSP and SSR-Keeravani. I loved the way Keeravani mixed the electronic guitars and the old tiffanies to beautifully blend the mass and the times of the yore in Baahubali. He takes it up a notch higher in Magadheera with distinct scores for the present day and the flashback scenes. In RRR, he is as close to perfection as it can get. He perfectly understands the value and importance of silences and uses them beautifully in this film. You should watch it to experience this beauty.
Editing helmed by Sreekar Prasad is superstar stuff. My favourite part of editing is a blink-and-miss, but it had a great impact on my viewing of the film. There is a moment in the action sequence on the bridge where Ram and Bheem forge their friendship. Ram gives the wet tricolour for Bheem to wrap himself with while he swings back into the fire due to inertia. The camera shows Ram's face expectant with tumultuous trepidation. Generally, the camera would stay on Ram's face and would show his joy and then cut to Bheem's emergence from the fire. But here, we cut to Bheem's emergence after staying on Ram's face for just a few seconds. There are slow-motion shots in between as well to increase the heart rate of the audience.
Cinematography by Senthil Kumar K is the stuff of the legends too. One of the best moments is during the introduction of Ram Charan's character. The whole sequence is too good to be true. It could even turn out to be the same on-screen. But Senthil's brilliant camera work takes us really close to Ram that each blow on him and from him is believable.
The reports of RRR breaking records at the box office are testimony to the fact that Rajamouli has truly brought back the glory of Indian cinema - which is people watching cinema at the theatres. To give you a teensy glimpse of how people throng the theatres to watch this film, let me tell you my experience. I had gone to watch this film on a Thursday evening, at a multiplex in a mall. The hall was jam-packed. Wait for the twist... I watched this film in Chennai and in the original language!