RRR Movie Review: Ram Charan is all fire in this period film that runs out of steam
While emotionally-driven set pieces invigorate SS Rajamouli's spectacular period epic, the shortcomings in writing play the spoilsport
First things first. SS Rajamouli is a master at transforming the ordinary into extraordinary. He raises the stakes, slows the action, captures the awe of onlookers in a scene… We saw it all in the Baahubali films. This is a rare ability, invaluable in how it maximises the appeal of the big screen experience. Tell him that the scene is of a man climbing a tree, and he will ensure that you are thrilled by the visual of an extraordinary man climbing an extraordinary tree in an extraordinary circumstance. In fact, this idea—of grand scope and scale—is at the heart of RRR, even as two freedom fighters (Komaram Bheem and Rama Raju) are reimagined as larger-than-life personalities (remember the Amarendra statue at Baahubali’s interval?). Rajamouli goes one step further in mythologising them by branding them with a natural element (fire for Ram, water for Bheem). This acts as a catalyst for his wonderful imagination with which he thinks up some memorable set-pieces, built on the idea of fire and water. Take that opening bridge rescue, for instance, that forges the friendship of Bheem and Ram. A train is on fire, and where should a hapless boy be stuck but in water… It’s almost foretold and is fitting that these two legendary men meet in such a situation. He utilises this water-fire idea again and again in the film, to exhilarating effect. For instance, around the interval mark, Ram arrives in a flaming horse-drawn carriage, and admirably, there’s a reason for the fire that goes beyond style and theme—one that takes into account the identity of Bheem as well. These portions stand as examples of this filmmaker’s eye for grand set-pieces and his ability to execute what must surely seem like daunting ideas on paper.
Director: SS Rajamouli
Cast: Ram Charan, NT Rama Rao Jr., Alia Bhatt, Samuthirakani, Ajay Devgn, Olivia Morris
In RRR, the two superheroes (let’s just call them that), Bheem and Ram, have their respective purposes to achieve—and I liked that while one is a contained objective (rescue a girl!), the other is expansive (arm a population!). Rajamouli treats them both with importance, and perhaps can even be said to be kinder to the girl-abduction story, considering its potential for dramatisation. Weapon acquisition, on the other hand, isn’t exactly the most emotional idea out there, and so, he looks to overcome it with a flashback that is unfortunately hurried and cursory. The writing of this film is by Vijayendra Prasad, who we know by now as a lover of mythology. Give him a Ram and Sita, and it’s an irresistible temptation to reinterpret the Bheem in this film as Hanuman. Both mythological characters—Hanuman and Bheem—despite being from different epics, are beings of strength, and in this film, NT Rama Rao Jr infuses his character, Bheem, with even the devotion and naivete of Hanuman. Later, he even admits to his simplicity and is ashamed of it, and goes on to express a type of devotion for Ram. That’s why ‘Bhaiya’ turns to ‘Anna’. That’s why in one scene, he even invokes Lanka and says that he will reunite Ram and Sita even if the whole place had to be burned down. As for Ram, he is an expert at guns for the most part, but when he grows his hair long and he truly comes into his own, it’s like Ram from Ramayana slipped into this universe. It’s all Vijayendra Prasad, and it’s charming to behold.
I was particularly entranced by Ram Charan’s screen presence. A stoic, dutiful policeman for the most part, the actor communicates so much conflict with his eyes. Watch him sink the thorny edges of his whip into Bheem’s body, by communicating just the right balance of duty and emotion in his eyes. In dance, in fight, and in steely resolve, this is an arresting performance. And what a tremendous entrance he gets too, as his character takes on an unruly mob all by himself on behalf of the British government. It’s perhaps because Ram is shown to possess such steel and grit that it’s a tad off-putting to see him suddenly participate in dance battles or play the cheerful friend interested in furthering a friend’s romance with a member of the enemy contingent. I kept wondering if he did not have more pressing tasks on hand.
The compassionate British damsel™ that Bheem falls in love with, is the classic naïve beauty we have seen time and time again—the sort of woman who would be oblivious to events around her, even as she invites hapless victims into her palace and seeks quick forgiveness when they get humiliated or threatened with death. I doubt anything greatly complimentary can be said about the other women in this film either. If you blink a bit, you may miss Shriya Saran. As for Alia Bhatt, she is another docile woman, desperately pining for the return of her beloved—the sort to stand alone and stare into the horizon, waiting for her dream warrior to return. There is, unfortunately, no place for Devasenas in this film.
There are bigger problems in RRR though—forgettable villains, for instance. Contrast that with the menace, ambition and physicality of Bhallaladeva in Baahubali. Here, there’s the nebulous, bad British empire, of course, but films like these need personifications of evil. And the two we get, Scott and Lady Scott, feel more like caricatures than living, thinking, sinister beings. Their English, thankfully, isn’t awful as we have come to expect in our cinema, but they are still under-developed. Lady Scott bays for blood, literally, and as for Scott, he seems strangely obsessed over bullets being wasted. First time around, you get the point, but then, it’s rammed in over and over again, including at the very end. It’s a bit like how the ‘load, aim, fire’ line gets milked too.
And where in Baahubali, emotional bonds were forged everywhere (Bhalla-Amarendra rivalry, Amarendra-Devasena romance, Amarendra-Kattappa relationship, Mahendra-Devasena bond… I could go on) and were crucial to pouring emotion and meaning into the spectacular set-pieces, this film lacks emotional strength. Ram’s flashback feels quick and uninventive, and without it, the film relies largely on the volatile Bheem-Ram friendship, which, too, gets largely defined by unsurprising montages.
RRR’s greatest appeal—as this review began by stating—is in Rajamouli’s ability to turn the ordinary into extraordinary, particularly in the stunt setpieces. A single man steps into a ruthless mob and walks out with his catch; another unleashes a whole jungle into a palace; both combine, one sitting on another’s shoulders, to launch a memorable offensive and escape in the second half. As a side-note, it’s hard not to be slightly alarmed at all the romanticisation of violence around the freedom struggle, especially given the part ahimsa played in our history. In the face of stomping boots and dehumanisation, perhaps violence is instinctive and necessary even, but at a time in our country when violence is increasingly being championed and certain leaders are being methodically cancelled, it’s hard not to be at least a bit discomfited by the choice to celebrate, at the end of the film, only those who championed violence.
However, as the three-hour film goes on and the British body count increases, as the arrows pierce and bombs light up the forest, it’s hard not to get impatient, searching for meaning and emotion behind all the craft excellence. Yes, Rajamouli thinks up increasingly clever ways to spice up action (arrows being shot with attached grenades, for instance), but it gets harder and harder not to notice that while your senses are tingling with repetitive pleasures, your soul is left untouched and craves for more.. And yet, this is Rajamouli we are talking about, and so, I couldn't help but fantasise about this filmmaker going on to make our epics. Who knows, perhaps Rama Raju was a dress rehearsal in a sense. As Ram Charan stands among the trees, tall and long-haired, taking aim with his bow, for a fleeting second, it did feel like Ramayana.