RRR film image

CREDIT: Variance Films.

Jul 12, 2023 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "RRR"

RRR, released in 2022 and directed and co-written by S. S. Rajamouli, is a groundbreaking film. It is one of the most expensive movies in Indian cinema history and had the highest opening-day earning by an Indian film; it is the first Telugu-language film to be nominated for a Golden Globe; and, with “Naatu Naatu,” it became the first Indian (and Asian) film to win an Oscar for Best Song. It’s probably safe to say that no other Indian film (and certainly no Telugu film) has resonated so strongly with a global audience.

For many people—especially for those watching outside of India—it resonated because it is intense, thrilling, and filled with likeable and larger-than-life characters. Its action and dance sequences are endless but never dull, as the momentum keeps building until the scene explodes into something fantastical. The story of redemption, love, pride, and loyalty is also easily relatable to a worldwide audience.

But there are different levels to this film. If you’re looking for it, there are dark undertones of nationalism and classism, made even more potent when combined with the knowledge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision for India and the current Hindu-Muslim tensions. And the violence, though cartoonish at times and mostly directed at British imperialists and criminals, has its roots in the horrors of colonialism and is at odds with the non-violent strain of protest that many think of when they think about Indian independence.

Synopsis

RRR (which stands for “Rise Roar Revolt”) is a fictional reimagining of the lives of two legendary anti-colonial fighters, Rama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), who existed in the early 20th century. Though they never met in real life, their fictional relationship—from strangers to best friends to enemies to heavily armed allies against the British—forms the central story of the film.

The pair meet by chance while spectacularly saving the life of a young boy caught in a massive train accident in Delhi. Unbeknownst to either of them, they’re already at odds. Bheem, a warrior from the forest who trains by fighting wild animals, has been sent to Delhi disguised as a Muslim merchant (all of the main Indian characters are seemingly Hindu) to rescue a young girl from his village who was kidnapped by the British governor’s family. Raju, a supernaturally gifted police officer working for the British, is told about the rescue plan and poses as an anti-colonial firebrand to get close to the infiltrators. Still, even after meeting him, he doesn’t realize that Bheem is the man he is after. Instead, the likeminded pair become fast friends and are soon sharing meals, life lessons, and motorbike rides. Eventually, through his friendship with Raju, Bheem ends up at the governor’s mansion and finds the imprisoned girl. Raju soon connects the dots, and the bromance then falls apart amidst a garden party turned into an all-out assault from Bheem’s forces and a cadre of fierce zoo animals.

But that just gets you to the halfway point. From there, the film progresses from plot twist to brutal torture scenes to singing and dancing to action sequence to background stories to more plot twists, culminating in an even more breathtaking attack on the British. Through it all, the bond between Raju and Bheem strains and nearly falls apart, but by the end, it has become unbreakable.

RRR & Tensions in India

Writing in Slate, Nitish Pahwa sums it up well: “I can’t say you shouldn’t experience this dazzling roller coaster of a movie, but I will say that you should keep your eyes open while doing so.”

With a film as complex as RRR, existing in early 2020s India, incorporating elements of the ancient Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, with real episodes from colonial history, someone should (and probably will) write a book about the ethical and political themes on display. For an American who is not an expert on Indian history, contemporary society, or film, it’s complicated, to say the least, to parse these issues. The characters’ names, the geographical locations, the fighters’ flags, and the clothes are all packed with symbolism. Some have written that this symbolism strongly alludes to Hindu nationalism at a time when inter-religious tensions are high in South Asia. Others also point out that the story excludes the contributions of Muslims in the fight against the British Empire. A montage at the end, honoring several historical figures, indeed, features no Muslims—and also conspicuously excludes Mahatma Gandhi, who preached non-violence and supported a secular nation.

Class and caste issues are also a sore point for some observers. Bheem is presented, some say, as a version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage.” And his people, the Gond, are depicted as poor and simple and living in harmony with nature. This is a stark contrast to the slickly dressed and cosmopolitan Raju, who takes Bheem under his wing and “teaches” him to dress and impress a British lady. To an American audience, this could seem like a typical “buddy movie” trope, but in India, it might take on a different tone.

In an extensive New Yorker interview, Rajamouli mostly dismisses these controversies. He said that, while he was growing up, his family rejected the caste system and that informs his views of this subject to this day. As for the Hindu nationalism criticisms, Rajamouli, a noted atheist, said that he simply took inspiration from Hindu epics and, in the montage, featured historical figures who moved him, especially as a child. He further states that he “hates” extremism in any form, whether Hindu- or Islam-inspired. While all this is probably true, an argument could be made that these themes could have been toned down, with the history and current societal state of India in mind.

Violence in Blockbuster Movies

Like Avatar, All Quiet on the Western Front, and many other blockbusters, RRR is an extremely violent film. Pointedly, much of the violence used against the British is cartoonish—depicting the freedom fighters as superheroes, using CGI jungle animals to attack a mansion, turning a motorbike into a weapon—while violence against the Indian characters has a much more realistic and somber feel—they are brutally tortured, kidnapped, and beaten with truncheons. The message here is not subtle: The Indians are victims who deserve sympathy, while the British deserve this violence for what they have done to South Asia. This all culminates in a shot with blood splashing on a map adorned with the words, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

The British reign in South Asia in the 1800s and early 1900s—and really throughout the world—was indeed brutal and unjust. It’s understandable that citizens of the former British colonies would delight in violence against an oppressive governor, his psychopathic wife, and the entire system of subjugation. But, as has been mentioned previously, the anti-violent strain of protest and civil disobedience popularized by Gandhi is nowhere to be found in RRR. Of course, Gandhi’s story has already been celebrated in an epic Oscar-winning film but celebrating violence in any form can be dangerous, especially in a charged society like Modi’s India.

"Despite these issues and controversies, it is undeniably positive that a blockbuster award-winning movie came from somewhere other than the United States or England."

A Global Phenomenon

Despite these issues and controversies, it is undeniably positive that a blockbuster award-winning movie came from somewhere other than the United States or England. For many watchers, this is probably their first introduction to “Tollywood"—a term that Rajamouli dislikes. Some maybe assumed that “Bollywood” just referred to all Indian cinema, not realizing the diversity of the country’s film industry, where thousands of films are made each year in dozens of languages, including Kannada (“Sandalwood”), Tamil (“Kollywood”), Malayam, Bengali, and Marathi, just to name a few.

Similar to how Korea’s K-Pop genre has become part of mainstream music in America and throughout the world, RRR could be the first of many Indian films that become part of the West’s cultural landscape. In his New Yorker interview, Rajamouli said that Indian audiences expect “big action set pieces” and the best filmmakers will use the “power of song and dance” to push the story forward. Neither sound like revolutionary ideas to an American audience, but the action scenes and dance numbers have a different sort of energy and exuberance as compared to what you’d see in a Western film. Whether the politics and ethics of RRR overshadows the spectacle that Rajamouli and his massive cast and crew engineered is entirely up to the viewers’ perspective.

Discussion Questions

1. Should artists take politics into account when making and presenting their work? Was RRR an irresponsible movie to make at a time when societal tensions are high in India?

2. Is there a line when it comes to violence in films? Was the cartoonish violence directed at the British in RRR appropriate?

3. How do you feel about the class/caste issues in RRR? Was Bheem depicted as a “noble savage”?

4. What are some of the differences in RRR as compared to American or British films? Do these differences come down to culture or something else?

5. Is it fair to criticize a culture or society that you’re not a part of? How should non-Indians think about the claims of nationalism and classism in RRR?

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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