S S Rajamouli has a thing for artistically choreographing chaos. As far as the eye can see, the dusty ground is filled with people wearing large turbans. On the outskirts of Delhi, a protest is brewing and threatening to become a full-fledged rebellion in the aftermath of the arrest of Lala Lajpat Rai. One man gets to the middle of the action and shows people who is the boss. For a split second, a bird’s eye view of this canvas is reminiscent of the battlefield in Baahubali. But then, it is the 1920s and the freedom struggle is brewing in India. People move in on the lone opponent and pile on him, only to understand his tenacity in the next few minutes. This is among the many stunning sequences that show how the stunt directors (Solomon Raju and Nick Powell), junior artistes, the cinematographer (KK Senthil Kumar), the production designer (Sabu Cyril) and the visual effects team (supervised by Srinivas Mohan) have worked in tandem to bring to life the director’s vision.
RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) turns out to be a canvas for Rajamouli to scale up his showmanship after Baahubali. He leads us into the film in chapters — the story, the fire, the water… introducing the film’s context and its protagonists Bheem (NTR) and Ram (Ram Charan).
A lengthy disclaimer emphasises that the story is fictional. That gives the filmmaker the liberty to dramatise rather than build a story on the historical characters of Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. The few years that they had been in oblivion, with no recorded history of their journeys, becomes the film’s canvas.
It can be viewed as a coming-of-age story of these freedom fighters but mostly, it is the story of their friendship, anchored sumptuously by M M Keeravani’s Dosti’ song. Quite a bit of the showmanship comes from Keeravani’s score — from the title cards till the very end — as he blends in Indian and western classical, and contemporary beats to give the film a lot more emotional depth than the storytelling manages to.
There is a story that can potentially move you, make you weep for the characters — but it lies buried beneath the overarching effort to mount one visual spectacle after another. Rousing introductory sequences for both the stars and an extended pre-interval sequence where their energies, represented by fire and water, collide, are all presented with jaw-dropping visuals, punctuated by the superbly choreographed ‘Naatu naatu’ (‘Nacho nacho’ in Hindi) song.
Cast: NTR, Ram Charan, Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn
Direction: S S Rajamouli
Music: M M Keeravani
In the meantime, the sliver of the story that begins in the Adilabad forest languishes on the outskirts of Delhi. The narrative spells out every little detail, leaving little room for disbelief or conceit. For instance, when Ram hides a tear while splashing his face with water after tackling a mob, you know his true intentions and can guess his backstory.
Ram’s camaraderie with Bheem and their polar opposite personalities, one being stoic, sophisticated and presenting an impenetrable demeanour while the other is like an open book, giving in to emotional overtures and wearing both his innocence and anger on his sleeve, help in holding interest. NTR, who is easily among the best Telugu actors, delivers a terrific performance. In one scene where he calls himself ‘adavi manishi’ (a tribal man from the jungle), he sums up the characterisation that he so beautifully presents. Be it sparring with a tiger that is terrifically shot or much later holding attention in a Gladiator-like sequence (we shall get to that in a bit), he is in top form. For Charan, this is his best after Rangasthalam and the actor befits his role to the T. His transformation to a warrior is also convincing and he takes it on his shoulders to steer Bheem to a stunning climactic action sequence.
The crux of the story comes to the fore in the latter half and at least for some time, tries to give the emotional depth to anchor the extravagant action pieces. The action sequences roll out at regular intervals, transforming the two men into superheroes, like a part Iron man, part Thor or Superman. They can also be victims who are beaten black and blue in front of a bloodthirsty and sneering British power. “There is hardly any blood, hit him harder,” says one character in a scene where a man refuses to kneel and ask forgiveness. While a man is fed to animals in Gladiator, here he becomes fodder for the animal instinct of the rulers.
The film is largely about Ram and Bheem, with the help of supporting characters played effectively by Samuthirakani, Rahul Ramakrishna and Shriya Saran among others. Ajay Devgn in an extended cameo gives heft to the larger battle and so does Alia Bhatt in her limited part. Casting her as Sita gives the part credence. I wish there had been more of her in the film.
With its run time of more than three hours, RRR tries to present a fictional chapter inspired by real freedom fighters as an epic story. The painstaking effort shows. In contrast, the showmanship flowed more easily in Baahubali. Remember the statue of Bhallaladeva Vs Baahubali in part one and the coronation sequence in part two? Those were effortlessly spellbinding, rather than the much-laboured action spectacles in RRR.
RRR made me wonder if in a bid to keep scaling up, Rajamouli the storyteller is taking a backseat. Looking back, he worked with an incredulous idea of a housefly as the hero taunting the villain in Eega (Naan Ee in Tamil and Makkhi in Hindi). It could have become gimmicky had he erred. But it worked so well, making us root for the housefly. All the technical effort was backed by brilliant storytelling, which is sorely missing in RRR.
There are small, appreciable flourishes like the British characters not speaking a heavily accented Indian language and sticking to English. A translator is used where needed and in some portions, Rana Daggubati’s voiceover does the needful. But the characterisation of the British parts enacted by Alison Doody and Ray Stevenson remains strictly unidimensional, except Olivia Morris (she is effective and has a good screen presence). Elsewhere, an indigenous bangle gives hope to the tribal child and the yin and yang locket binds Ram and Sita. There is also the effective story of the cost of manufacturing bullets and whether the victims are worth it, which hits the bull’s eye (pardon the pun). I wish there had been more such soulful moments.
Is RRR a spectacle worthy of the large screen? Most certainly. Is it a riveting film? Not quite.
RRR is currently running in theatres