The streaming era has its downsides but it’s also helped make the world a smaller place, at least when it comes to entertainment. In an earlier time something like Squid Game might have reached Western viewers as a legend passed around via second-generation VHS tapes or Region 3 DVDs. Instead, it became an international phenomenon seemingly overnight. The same is true of RRR, an Indian blockbuster that’s now just a click away for curious Netflix subscribers after playing to packed houses in India since March (and in a handful of screenings in North America). And, click they have, based on the fevered reactions to the film that have taken over social media since it hit Netflix on May 20 (moved up from a scheduled June debut due to high demand).
So what is RRR? Put simply, it’s an overwhelming, often awe-inspiring action spectacle that uses CGI to bend the laws of physics (and reality itself), sending bodies flying through the air and explosions high into the sky. If that sounds intriguing, consider carving out a three-hour block and clicking “play” before reading any further. You won’t be disappointed.
Anyone wanting a sample, however, might consider skipping to around the thirty-minute mark. There they’ll hit the scene in which the film’s two heroes—Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), both inspired by real-life Indian revolutionaries though the adherence to fact pretty much ends there—meet, lock eyes, and silently concoct a plan to rescue a child from a fiery death after a train crashes into a river. Said plan involves a motorcycle, a horse, a rope, a flag, a pair of daring leaps, and expert timing. As they clasp hands in friendship, the proper opening credits (finally) roll.
It’s an amazing moment of go-for-broke filmmaking from director S. S. Rajamouli. It’s also one of many in a film that features a dance-off, bone-crushing hand-to-hand combat, and a menagerie of vicious wild animals (which, as a film-opening disclaimer needlessly clarifies, are CGI creations). It’s quite possible to watch RRR just for the spectacle, which helps explain why it’s broken through to a wider audience. It also works as a story of friendship triumphing over adversity with clearly defined villains and (extremely handsome and charismatic) heroes. Set in 1920, RRR pits Raju and Bheem against a truly vile colonial governor (Ray Stevenson) and somehow even more despicable wife (Alison Doody), who are introduced kidnapping a child and somehow grow even less sympathetic as the film progresses. After much struggle, good triumphs and evil suffers (sometimes by getting impaled on the horns of a stag).
Put simply, the film’s a blast. But there’s more going on in RRR beneath its eye-popping pleasures. Below are a few facts that help put it all in context.
Don’t call it Bollywood. The term “Bollywood” refers to the Indian film industry based in Mumbai. Its Hindi-language films have become synonymous with Indian popular filmmaking for much of the world. But Indian filmmaking stretches far beyond Bollywood. RRR is a product of the Hyderabad-based Tollywood, which produces films in Telugu, a language spoken primarily in the southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Formidable in their own right, Tollywood and other regional filmmaking centers have mostly operated in the shadow of Bollywood, though recent trends at the Indian box office have started to change that. Somewhat confusingly, the version of RRR on Netflix has been dubbed into Hindi. Also confusing: there’s another film industry called Tollywood, which makes Bengali-language films. It’s a large, complex country.
The central star team-up is a big deal. RRR’s directors and stars are all huge figures. The English-language subtitle of the film reveals that it stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt” (“Rage, War, Blood” in Telugu.) But it could just as easily stand for “Rama Rao, Ram Charan, and Rajamouli.” Writer Ritesh Babu has published a newsletter exploring the film’s origins and implications that sheds light on the historic pairing of its stars, both of whom come from families with deep Tollywood roots and who have fervent followings. “[B]arring very rare exceptions,” Babu writes, “these heroes do not star in films with one another or team-up.” RRR is one of those rare exceptions, which helps explain why both its stars share what appears to be perfectly balanced amounts of screen time.
Rajamouli, who has worked with both stars in the past, is a big name in Tollywood, too. He’s been making films since 2001’s Student No. 1 (starring Rama Rao) and those films have just gotten bigger and more ambitious over time. RRR follows the two-part fantasy epic Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (both of which are also available on Netflix). With a budget of $72 million, RRR is the most-expensive Indian film ever made. Its success suggests that Rajamouli may next move on to even bigger projects.
Reality is out the window, and the stunts are stunning. Watching RRR means forgetting about conventional notions of how the world works. Characters leap tremendous distances, throw motorcycles through the air, and outrun and outwit tigers on their own turf. It would be pure chaos if Rajamouli didn’t orchestrate it so gracefully. He shifts in and out of slow motion with a stuttering rhythm, letting the awesomeness of his images dictate how long he holds a shot. (There are shades of John Woo’s work both in his visual style and in a plot driven by friends who might be rivals but ultimately share a common cause.) RRR is set in a world whose physics operate by movie logic and controlled by an expert choreographer (who occasionally lets full-on musical sequences take over the film). The set pieces go on and on, resurgent after they’ve seemingly reached their climax. The effects seldom look convincing but they’re breathtaking anyway, helping the film create a reality all its own.
It’s a fun reality to get lost in. It’s not fair to the film (or Indian filmmaking in general) to judge RRR by how it compares to Hollywood’s action spectaculars, but it’s worth noting that Rajamouli’s idea of blockbuster filmmaking is refreshingly different than a dominant Hollywood style that builds films around the work of previsualization teams. Anyone tired of that style, or just wanting a break from it, should look to this as a breath of fresh air.
It’s not overtly political (which makes it kind of political). The same opening statement that assures viewers no animals were harmed in making the film also notes RRR is “set in the backdrop of pre-independent India and is purely fictional […] The director or the technicians of the movie have no intention of maligning the beliefs of any individual or group.” That’s fair enough. The British, apart from one sympathetic woman smitten with Bheem, are all snarling racist bad guys and history does little to dispute that view.
They serve as easy-to-agree-upon villains for a film that concludes with a long, (literally) flag-waving patriotic musical number celebrating India that reminds viewers “there is an iron man in every lane and home,” almost as if we’ve just been watching a three-hour recruitment film. RRR’s appearance coincides with a surge of Narendra Modi-stoked nationalism in the country, and while Rajamouli’s film doesn’t overtly celebrate that trend it does little to contradict it.
In a dive into the politics around the film, Slate’s Nitish Pahwa points to the pointed absence of Muslim figures from the icons of revolutionary heroes included in the final dance numbers, explores how the film reinforces stereotypes via the Gond characters, and uses references to the Ramayana to confirm the caste system. As portions of India, like America, try to look back to an imaginary simpler time for solutions to present problems, RRR, in Babu’s words, reinforces a “regressive status-quo maintaining upper-caste Hindu fantasy set in the pre-independence era India.”
All that’s beneath the surface, however, and what’s on the surface is tremendously entertaining. When Bheem and Raju first spy each other from a distance they come to the instant understanding that they’ve met someone they’ve been searching for their whole life but didn’t know it. Those looking for a giddy, enthralling film of the kind they’re never seen before will share that feeling when they discover RRR.