“Bigger than Ben-Hur.” Never again will I bandy around this expression to describe mere weddings, parties or anything else. S.S. Rajamouli’s epic RRR (Rise! Roar! Revolt!), which tells the story of friends who discover they are on opposite sides of India’s struggle for independence, is so massively bigger than Ben-Hur that I’ve almost forgotten that legendary chariot race.
Who needs chariots when you have an army of tigers, jackals and monster stags at your disposal? When one small boy with a lock-and-load rifle can take out an entire British company of colonial lackeys? When two warriors, one unable to walk and riding on the other’s shoulders, become an invincible fighting machine? It simply can’t get any bigger! And look: here comes a chariot, inevitably loaded with tigers!
Rajamouli’s success with his previous Baahubali series and RRR’s starry cast – led by Ram Charan and Jr NTR (aka N. T. Rama Rao Jr), with megastars Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt in supporting roles — meant that the Indian audience was expecting great things this time round. Nobody will be disappointed.
From the first scene, when we see a young “tribal” girl stolen from her mother to become the British governor’s wife’s plaything, we are in a heady world of good versus evil. In the next scene we see Alluri Sitirama Raju (Charan), an officer in the British army, tear through a surging crowd of seemingly tens of thousands to bring down one miscreant. Time and again, he is pulled down, beaten and rises to return to the chase. As the crowd disperses, beaten and dispirited, the one British officer with a lick of sense tells his nervous subordinate that while the angry masses were unnerving, he was much more scared of their own native recruit. Quite right, old chap. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
After that, RRR is one action crescendo after another, never dull but not exhausting either; there are plenty of scenes of Raju’s burgeoning bromance with Komaram Bheem (NTR), a similarly invincible knight come from the forest to find the missing girl, to give cheerful respite. Mostly, however, it’s all about cracking heads and derring-do.
RRR wastes no time on nuance; it doesn’t give a second’s credence to the lingering British belief that theirs was a benevolent kind of colonialism. Governor Scott is an ogre who tells his men not to waste good British bullets on these brown scum when they can easily beat their brains out; his bloodthirsty wife looks capable of poisoning 10 Snow Whites before breakfast. The officers are vain wimps; the men brutes. As for the railways, Britain’s much-vaunted legacy to Empire, the only train in RRR, catches fire on a bridge and collapses into the river that is the people’s livelihood. Nice one, Britain.
That said, there is an interesting undercurrent of intersectionality at the Governor’s garden party (shot in Ukraine, incidentally) where all the ladies are very taken with our heroes and want to give their kind of dancing a go, much to the chagrin of their men. There is even a flicker of romance between Bheem and the Governor’s niece, who lends the revolutionaries a crucial hand when needed. This scene lasts no more than a few seconds, however; RRR is very much about men. That’s an opportunity missed. Even Alia Bhatt, as Raju’s stalwart fiancée Seetha, is barely there.
A serious question emerges, however, between the thrills, whippings, beatings and the happy scenes of boyish togetherness that punctuate them. It is the old chestnut of means and ends. How many innocent people constitute legitimate collateral damage in the fight for freedom? Would you kill your best friend? Should you be capable of that? Maybe if soldiers killed both your parents in front of you when you were a child, you would be — but is that a righteous fury or just another wound? It is a question both heroes must ask themselves, both in the course of battle and its aftermath.
In real life, neither of these revolutionary heroes would live to see their battle won. There is, however, a harbinger of a better future. In the last speaking scene — there is another song and dance to come, of course, in which Bhatt finally joins the boys for some Busby Berkley-style kaleidoscopic swirling — the forest-dweller Bheem announces his new goal: to learn to read and write. Bheem did, in fact, learn to read and write in English, Urdu and Hindi, but RRR makes no claim to documentary truth. The myth is what matters, right down to Raju’s ultimate transformation into Lord Rama, shooting down the enemy with his divinely unerring bow and arrow. But do you want the truth, or something beautiful? RRR’s vision is a far cry from the bitter realities of Narendra Modi’s India, but it makes a truly great story.