When someone makes a film like Bāhubali & then follows it up with a great sequel, it is hard to expect them to do something nearly as good. Every artiste has their moment under the sun after which they tend to simmer down into some settled form of their creativity. They won’t lose their game, but the best is now behind them. At least that is the convention. S S Rajamouli, the director of RRR, seems to be going against this conventional strain. As someone who’s been watching the movies made by S S Rajamouli right from the first film he’d made, his movies show a progression of dream & ambition. As a fan of his films, I hope RRR would not be him at his best. But so far, it is his best movie & also, one of the greatest Indian movies ever made since Sholay hit the screens. Upon rewatching Bahubali, it is clear that the amount of homework that went into creating RRR is significantly greater in building the characters themselves than the story they’re a part of. The movie has a very simple story – it is the story of two Indian freedom fighters fighting against the injustices of the British empire. However, simplifying that to be the story of the movie is a gross disservice to the grand ambition of a story of 2 characters. I repeat, these are 2 characters built from real people as their influence. In no way is RRR a biopic of what happened.
Ram & Bheem, the two central characters of the movie, are not exactly yin & yang. They’re not order & chaos as uniting forces that run the world. One song sums up the combination of these two characters in the story. In Telugu, the lyric goes so – పెను జ్వాలకి హిమ నగమిచ్చిన కౌగిలి ఈ దోస్తీ (Penu jwaalaki hima nagamichchina kaugili ee dosti). Translated, it means “this friendship is like a crown of snow on the great flames that burn”. The song is filled with lyrics of how two things that could never go together, do the exact opposite by becoming the greatest collaborating force as one. Lyrics aside, this reflects in the story as well. In one particular scene, Rajamouli had to eschew his subtleness by making this opposite really stand out. When a tiger runs towards Bheem, he tries to avoid it. When the same tiger runs towards Ram, he picks up a weapon & hits the tiger across its face. Ram is truly a reckless character willing to go to any length to achieve & fulfill his goal. It doesn’t matter what is in the way; the goal can never be forgotten. This is much akin to a fire – it doesn’t care about the fuel it burns on & regulate itself to last long. Fire will burn & consume itself in the end if need be; but it will be in a blaze of glory. Water on the other hand, is equally chaotic but it doesn’t exist at the expense of something else. It just exists. If this sounds like I am talking about two things in nature, that’s exactly what Ram & Bheem are – forces of nature to be reckoned with.
Ram is introduced as the brown man wishing to be recognised at any cost by the British – almost to convey that he’s Indian by race, but British & English in almost any other manner possible. It is slowly revealed there’s an ulterior motive he’s fighting for. His ambition is grand & epic – taking down the British empire. The word used in the movie is appropriate to sum up his motive – కుంభ స్థలం (Kumbha Sthalam). Roughly translated, it means the most important centre of all. In this context, it means the central fortress on which the injustices are being meted out to the Indian public. Ram isn’t interested in anything except bringing this kumbha sthalam down. Bheem is a much simpler man. He’s a man of the forests & lives to protect his tribe. His tribe doesn’t care who’s ruling India; they don’t care for what is happening on a scale grander than their existence. His people, the Gond tribe, only care for a day to day existence in the vagaries of the wild. A predatory animal might want to hunt them down or raze their village down – that’s a bigger problem to the Gonds than who is ruling India. They’re reminiscent of a primitive pagan people. As long as they’re not troubled, they do nothing. The minute their existence is disrupted, they launch into full force. When the central antagonists disrupt the life of the Gonds by abducting a child, Bheem launches into action. He’s focused only on his next task – getting the girl back to the Gonds.
The friendship of Ram & Bheem seems sudden but it isn’t, if one notices the subtleties. Ram & Bheem need not verbally exchange words to know they’re on the same page. One stare into each other’s eyes & they know exactly what to do. The men trusted each other even when they didn’t know who the other person was. Conventional friendships work up to becoming relationships of reliable trust – this dosti was a friendship that wasn’t ordained to happen but destined to be great if it ever did. Unforeseen circumstances drew these two men together & destiny took care of the rest. Ram’s character flaw is that he only focuses on his goal, much akin to Arjuna when Dronacharya wanted the Kuru princes to shoot a bird. While everyone else would describe the bird & its surroundings, Arjuna said he could only see the eye of the bird. What should be a strength, becomes a weakness when taken to the extremes. Nothing is extreme enough for a man focused on the grand ambition, and therefore Ram never realises when he’s gone too far. That is, until he realises his friend is being flogged & flailed; his very friend had become the sacrificial offering to his flame. Bheem reminds Ram of his long-deceased younger brother with a few of his quirks. That is when he begins to question his world-view; something that he accepted as true & infallible for all his life.
Water may put out fire if it overpowers, and water becomes steam when fire overpowers. But when they’re balanced, there is a chance of having a channeled fire that burns in the direction the water shows. That is exactly what happens in the movie. Bheem sings a song of his tribe to deal with the pain of being flogged & flailed by his friend. As his blood flows, Bheem says his blood is what looks like the smile of his Mother [Earth], and that it is becoming the festive decoration of the feet of his Mother [Earth]. Traditionally, such decorations are done to the feet lovingly as a sign of great love for the person. To Ram, his mother was the land of India; to Bheem, it’s the Earth itself. A blowing leaf touching his face is the Earth [Mother] cajoling her kid like the burning bush comforts Moses in the Biblical Exodus. It’s a parent lovingly and affectionately tending to the youngling to nurture and nourish them. That is enough for Bheem to remain unfazed in the face of certain danger to his life. After all, his mother [Earth] and his people were with him spiritually. In a twist, it’s Bheem who suddenly has the grand vision instead of Ram in the movie. His song riles up the people who don’t even speak his language & makes them rebel against the British by creating a riot. The riot escalates into a stampede and goes out of control, much like fire does. This is the moment when Ram realises he was looking for the wrong weapons all along. You could achieve something with guns only if the people who use them want to. While Ram wanted to loot the armory of the British, the kumbha sthalam, Bheem unwittingly showed him the way how to weaponise the public. Bheem was no longer the aahuti to the penujwaala. He was the snow crown that gave the fire a purpose to remain in control, and, by extension, a part of the fight.
Full credit must be extended to the team that made the movie as convincing as it turned out to be. Ram Charan & NTR Jr don’t just look convincing. They feel like the characters have manifested in them. This movie is part of a wider revival of Indian & Indic stories with a pride of being unabashedly Indian. The song Naatu Naatu, in my opinion, has been lost in its meaning. The word naatu means something that is untouched by any external influence. I remember growing up with the word as a slightly crass & crude connotation attached to it, to signify a lack of culture & civilisation. That song is someone screaming at the top of their lungs that there is something to India & Indian life before the invaders came along. What must be appreciated is that this movie, being close to 3 hours in runtime, has no romantic duet or a raunchy item song to keep the story going. It is all about Ram & Bheem, start to end. Even the title of the movie in Telugu has lost its meaning in its English translation. Roudram, Ranam, Rudhiram means “Anger, War & Blood”. That’s a far cry from Rise, Roar, Revolt. To attract a wider audience, I concede some sacrifices should be made. But as someone who’s seen Telugu films almost die out, it’s a welcome return to the era of great storytelling with well-set characters much like, say Maya Bazaar or Patala Bhairavi.
I will not be surprised if a few decades later, RRR is recognised as a pivotal moment in Indian films. This movie has surely & certainly has heralded the bringing lost Indian stories to the forefront. Indian epics are not just the Ramayana & Kurukshetra in Mahabharata. A special mention has to go out to the song that comes in the end while the credits roll. The song is about all the freedom fighters of India; however two names are conspicuously amiss. Indian history is not just about Gandhi & Nehru. It’s high time we learn that it wasn’t Gandhi’s non-violence alone that got us our independence. It was Clement Attlee, the prime minister at the end of the second world war that decided it was to be the end of British Imperialism. Had Churchill still been in power by then, India’s misery would’ve been extended much longer. More on this for another essay.