Watching RRR: Film Scholars Monika Mehta and Anupama Prabhala Discuss the Movie’s Many Audiences and Contexts

Monika Mehta is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Binghamton. She is the author of Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (2011). She has co-edited Pop Empires: Transnational and Diasporic Flows of Korea and India (2019) and Industrial Networks and Cinemas of India: Shooting Stars, Shifting Geographies and Multiplying Media (2021).

Anupama Prabhala is Associate Professor of Film, Television and Media Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. She is co-editor of the award winning collection Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (2014).

Monika: The Telugu blockbuster film, RRR, has received tremendous international attention recently. Can you talk about your experience of watching the film in the United States?

Anupama: I first saw RRR in March 2022 as a special event release at the Playa Vista theater in the heart of Silicon Valley. Ironically, this theater never plays Telugu Cinema. The ticket was $25, priced like big American films. The screen was massive. But there were only two people – a couple sitting quietly in the theater, far from me. I had the big screen practically to myself.

I saw RRR again in October 2022, right after it had been screened at Beyond FestLA, to a packed house. This time, I saw it with fellow film scholars at the historic Monica (Laemmle) Film Center. I go there to watch independent, foreign, and arthouse films. Standout sequences from RRR played to loud seetis (whistles) and claps from a diverse audience blown away by its insouciant charm. I have never seen a North American audience cheering so loudly before, at any film screening.

It’s popularity remains unabated as it was re-released theatrically this year on March first as a LIVE RRR Fan CelebRRRation. I can’t think of any other Indian film that has enjoyed this kind of theatrical response or popular cultural presence in recent memory globally.

RRR is unapologetically playful. It gets to the heart of the movie-going experience and speaks to a pandemic-era audience hungry for a theatrical experience. It would be blindsided to put this film into just one box. We need to account for RRR as a cinematic event, both in terms of scale and appeal.

Monika: I was surprised that the film even reached Ithaca in upstate New York. It ran for several weeks at a commercial multiplex and was screened for a day at a local art theater. What are your thoughts on RRR’s global popularity and its numerous awards?

Anupama: Telugu cinema is the largest film industry in southern India and second only to the Hindi film industry in India. Americans are just beginning to learn that Indian cinema is notjust Bollywood, that it includes films in Telugu and several other languages.

My first thought when I heard about enthusiastic whooping in LA cinema halls was that the Telugu diaspora, who have a strong presence in Southern California, showed up excitedly in large numbers. But this account does not match my own experience of watching it nearly alone at a large theater in Silicon Valley or in LA’s arthouse circuit.

Nor does it account for how RRR piqued the interest of Variance Films–a US-based distribution company that caters to independent cinema and arthouse audiences—to acquire and re-release RRR on a much wider scale. What’s interesting here is the co-existence of Variance’s theatrical release and Netflix’s digital release. These are simultaneous media events that complement each other in unprecedented ways, extending RRR’s reach to a mammoth international audience.

Regarding awards, I know from teaching at the Los Angeles School of Film and Television that the key to earning recognition is to know how the award cycle works.

Recognition can be achieved in two ways: the first is to show a film at major film festivals like Cannes or Sundance. The second is much harder to achieve. It cannot be forced and contains the magic sauce everyone wants – a surge in viewer-generated publicity.

RRR attracted spectacular numbers of young audiences hungry for a cinematic event. It is this audience that spread the word and turned RRR into the phenomenon that garnered nominations at the Golden Globes, the Oscars, and many more.

Monika: The multiplicity of audiences makes it difficult to speak of a uniform critical response to RRR. Multiple contexts are shaping how the film is being interpreted and received. The film’s reach and the awards showered on it by Western institutions has astounded many in India. 

One could think about it as the West once more recognizing and applauding the “exotic,” while ignoring contemporary politics in India. This is precisely what some critics have argued. 

Alternatively, we could also think about how this film pushes audiences outside India to think and to feel differently about cinema and their positions as spectators. For example, I was struck by your comment that American audiences were cheering and whistling while watching this film. I associate this kind of response with audiences in India. I have never seen it here. So, we have to think about how this film literally moves people, generates these bodily responses. 

The first time I saw RRR was on US Netflix. Strikingly, Netflix only bought the rights to screen the dubbed Hindi version of the film. The company also did this with Rajamouli’s earlier hit Telugu film Baahubali. I don’t know the reasons behind Netflix’s preference for dubbed Hindi versions but it has had the consequence of erasing and undermining key aspects of cinemas in India.

Here, one can think of the history of linguistic nationalism in India and the importance of cinema in building those identities – especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Then, you have the fact that the Telugu film industry, which has been producing more films than Bombay since the 1980s, has become a source for many Bombay remakes in the last decade. Telugu films have been ruling the box office both domestically and internationally for the past few years. 

To me, Netflix’s privileging of the dubbed Hindi version just re-asserts the hegemony of “Hindi” and of “North India.” Interestingly, this is exactly the position that the film argues against!

Alluri Sitarama Raju on Hyderabad’s Tank Bund row of Telugu cultural icons
Source: Wikpedia

Anupama: The theme of linguistic nationalism is very important. RRR is widely perceived as an anticolonial film due to its engagement with two historical figures from the Telugu region: Alluri Sitarama Raju (1897/98 -1924) and Komaram Bheem (1900/01-1940). How do you understand the film’s depiction of these men and their fictionalized friendship?

Monika: The two protagonists of RRR are based upon the lives of lives of two celebrated rebels from colonial south India. However, the film also braids these historical figures with reel, real-life, and mythic figures. 

For me, it is useful to think about the film’s anticolonial message more generally by comparing it to the Bombay film Lagaan (Tax, 2001). Lagaan locates anticolonial sentiments and an emergent nationalism within the Hindi-speaking heartland of the north. It affirms a nationalist social hierarchy that places the North Indian upper-caste Hindu man on top, followed by the North Indian upper-caste, Hindu woman, the Muslim man, the Sikh man and lastly the Dalit man.

The film’s hero, Bhuvan, who is played by the star Aamir Khan, leads the rest of his fellow villagers who consist largely of supporting actors. There’s one hero and one narrative of anticolonialism which is inseparable from nationalism. Lagaan ends with an epigraph stating that people like Bhuvan and his fellow villagers contributed to the nationalist struggle but have been forgotten. Here, the local struggle of a group of villagers is seen as part of a larger national struggle against British colonialism.  

Komaram Bheem on Hyderabad’s Tank Bund row of Telugu cultural icons
Source: Wikipedia

Compare this to RRR. Its social vision enables multiple stories of anticolonialism to be narrated. Here, two South Indian men, Rama Raju, an upper-caste Hindu man and Bheem, a Gond Adivasi man who later masquerades as Muslim, share the spotlight. Part of this “parity” has to do with the fact that Rajamouli has to manage a tight balancing act because he is directing two male stars, Ram Charan (Rama Raju) and Jr. NTR. (Bheem). This casting choice has consequences for RRR’s narrative as well as its social vision.

Another important piece here is the cinematic trope of friendship. In the commercial cinemas of India (e.g. Namak Haram, 3Idiots), representations of friendship often cross class, ethnic, and/or religious boundaries; friends can also have dissimilar personalities (e.g. Sholay). The fact that difference is an organizing principle of on-screen friendship allows Rajamouli to narrate two—even three, given Jr. NTR plays both Bheem and Akhtar—different narratives of anticolonialism and craft two (or three) different protagonists.

If Lagaan suggests that the anticolonial struggle was singular and its endpoint was Indian nationalism, RRR depicts multiple challenges to the British Raj, including ones that did not imagine “India” as their ultimate goal. 

Both RRR and Lagaan depict an anticolonialism where male characters (and male stars) drive the narrative. RRR’s Bheem is presented to us as a strong, steadfast and ethical masculine hero much like Bhuvan in Lagaan. RRR positions us to like Bheem wholeheartedly; we completely support his mission to rescue his kidnapped sister. 

The construction of Rama Raju, on the other hand, generates a more ambivalent response. Rama Raju is absolutely single-minded about getting access to British weapons. This leads him to beat anti-British protesters, torture Bheem’s brother, and betray Bheem himself. Rama Raju’s flashback gives us access to his traumatic past, helps explain his motives, and nudges us to sympathize with him. However, it’s difficult for viewers to forget violent acts against people that the film positions as underdogs and with whom we are supposed to identify with and support. 

Rama Raju’s dosti (male friendship) with Bheem/Akhtar humanizes him. We as viewers are positioned to like this friendship and, by extension, to like Rama Raju.

Ram Charan and Jr. NTR depicted as the anticolonial rebels Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem.
Source: RRR Promotions

Interestingly, this relationship depends on Bheem’s masquerade as Akhtar. As soon as Rama Raju discovers that Bheem is the Gond man he’s been looking for, he takes him to the British. Bheem’s public beating, executed by Rama Raju, is difficult to watch not only because it is violent but because Rama Raju violates a key tenet of commercial cinema in India: thou shalt be loyal to your male friend. It is only when Rama Raju decides to help Bheem again that we are drawn to him once more.

For me, the moral and emotional pivot of RRR is Bheem. He is constructed as an ideal masculine hero. Rama Raju, on the other hand, is a flawed hero who gets redeemed at the end.

Monika: Can you comment on the stardom of Ram Charan and Jr. NTR in the Telugu context? Are there any notable differences between the Telugu and Hindi dubbed versions?

Anupama: You are so on point about Rama Raju (Ram Charan aka Charan)’s unlikability! The film unfolds its most irreverent subtext here: RRR makes “Ram” an unlikable figure. Only an incredibly charismatic “mega power star” like Charan could pull this off.

RRR positions itself as a fantasy–about historical events that are then interlaced with mythological figures embodied by stars that set off a double; even triple fictionalization.

Fantasy is a distinctly Telugu film genre that has undergone several transformations in response to formative historical events as well as the needs of the Telugu film industry. However, RRR does not, at any point, deny that Ram and Bheem are historical figures. It is their improbable association, under fictional circumstances, that drives the film’s astounding mythologization.

The elements that structure this fantasy are easily missed or delocalized when RRR is viewed outside the Telugu context. At the same time, it is entirely possible to watch this film without reference to any of these historical events or its imaginative interpretation of their contexts. 

The scale of the stardom of Charan and Jr. NTR (aka Tarak) is at the core of RRR’s imaginative enterprise. Indeed, the use of cutouts in RRR, which might seem crude at first glance, form the bedrock of their giant, larger than life presence in the cinematic landscape of Southern India.

Supersize cutouts of RRR Stars Ram Charan and Jr. NTR at RTC Crossroads, Hyderabad

Rajamouli has worked with both before, but never in the same film. Each has a separate and massive following in the Telugu-speaking states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Bringing the two together on the same screen is a coup in itself. First, it calls for the budget of two blockbusters. Second, it makes a risky bid to consolidate two otherwise separate fan bases. Most importantly, disparate star personas must be brought together for the storytelling to be effective.

The distinctness of each star persona is critical for sparking the rivalry that lays the foundation for their eventual coupling/coming together in the film. The impossibility of this feat is staged by a spectacular action sequence: as Jr. NTR rides a bike, Ram Charan rides a horse – both cross an exploding train that splits a bridge in two. The two heroes are suspended by a rope, on top of a flowing river, as they rescue a young boy and sing a song called dosti. The fictional universe of RRR and its two stars are absolutely crucial for bringing together two historical figures that can only meet within the make believe world of fantasy as a genre.

The use of the Dakhni (Deccan) word “dosti” becomes quite significant here. Bheem, in his skull cap, and his use of the Dakhni language, is explicitly identified with Telangana, such that Ram represents its Telugu other: Andhra. The nuances of Bheem’s Telangana speech are flattened by the use of Hindi in the dubbed version. Although Ram Charan and Jr. NTR declined to use voice artists and “dubbed” their own Hindi lines, it is much harder to catch the emotional meaning behind the Telangana lilt that often gets superficially glossed as “Hyderabadi Hindi.”

Evacuated of this linguistic distinctness–for everything sounds like standard Hindi in the dubbed version–dosti’s signaling of the coming together of Andhra and Telangana is as unbelievable as its incredible enactment. 

This sequence is highly potent not just because of the coming together of Telugu cinema’s biggest stars, but because two revolutionaries who never met and two impossible histories, that of Andhra and Telangana, come together after the moment, despite their inexorable separation and repeated bloodshed. 

If the violation of the codes of friendship and brotherhood seems especially aggressive, it is because this rupture embodies the violent–and painfully bittersweet–histories of the formation and bifurcation of the Telugu states. It is a memory-trace that drives the film’s powerful emotional architecture of brotherhood and betrayal that can only be reconciled through the trope of a repeatedly tested friendship.

Monika: Several critics have argued that this film promotes a Hindu majoritarian narrative. While I do not dispute this reading, I think that this interpretation relies on reading the film via its last 30-40 minutes; the film’s last stretch redeems and celebrates a violent, muscular masculinity that we associate with Hindu nationalism. Compared to a propaganda film such as Kashmir Files that has received official backing from government authorities, the bulk of RRR actually offers a more complicated account of Hinduism as well as Hindu and Muslim relations.

Ram Charan as Rama Raju in RRR
Source: RRR Promotions

RRR gestures to the Ramayana through the characters of Rama Raju and Sita. As I have mentioned previously, Rama Raju is more ambivalent as a character than Ram in Tulsidas’ Ramayana. Could this be a gesture to the multiple versions of the Ramayana? In RRR, it is Rama Raju who requires rescuing, not Sita. Rama Raju also has a close bond with Akhtar/Bheem and his Muslim family. Moreover, this Muslim family supports and makes possible Bheem’s masquerade as Akhtar. The Muslim characters in this film are largely shown to be “good” people with the exception of the Nizam who is depicted as ineffectual against the British.

We need to think about how and where these representations fit or do not fit with the rhetoric of Hindutva. Is this a Hindu majoritarian world that, as Meenaskhi Shedde points out, is “inclusive?” If so, what are the terms of this Hindu nationalist inclusiveness?

There is also a criticism that the film misrepresents the Gond tribe. I don’t think the film is meant to be an authentic account of history. As Shedde also mentions, RRR draws on many sources – real and mythic – to construct its fantasy narrative.

While such readings have their merits, RRR can also be read as a film that stretches the boundaries of the anticolonial genre.

First, it’s striking that what steers this film’s narrative is the kidnapping of a young Adivasi girl by villainous British colonizers rather than Sita’s kidnapping (a reference to Ramayana again). Second, it stages multiple anticolonial narratives. Third, these narratives are recounted from the vantage point of Andhra Pradesh.

Both location and multiplicity are important ways to approach this film. The film begins in different locations in Andhra Pradesh, comes to the outskirts of Delhi and then returns to these locations in Andhra Pradesh. One would think that if either of these characters wants to be part of the “national” struggle against the British they would contact the Indian National Congress and its affiliated icons such as Gandhi, Nehru etc. But they don’t! Instead, they return to their respective communities.

Moreover, we don’t get a sense that Bheem and Rama Raju will be joining forces to fight against the British in the future. The film underscores that anticolonialism and anticolonial nationalism originate in multiple places in India. 

Monika: What does the success of the song Naatu Naatu say about RRR?

Anupama: Naatu Naatu is critical for staging RRR’s anticolonial project, which is embedded in the idea of a Telugu nation.

One can read the division of the Telugu state as a delayed traumatic response to the colonial encounter as well as the separation of Andhra from Telangana. It is hard to locate historical trauma at a precise moment in time and space: this is how fantasy becomes vital for storytelling in RRR.

In fact, Charan and Tarak aren’t simply dancing together but unwittingly fighting against each other in Naatu Naatu. Song and action sequences become vital for mythologizing an impossible brotherhood–the animating principle behind RRR‘s anticolonial sentiment and intervention.

Naatu Naatu plays out on two emotional and historical levels that piggyback on each other: 1) as an interracial colonial romance and 2) as a masculine dance off between friends who stand for different sections of Indians. Their presence is cast against a wider backdrop of British male, White, and Female dancers as they diverge and coalesce into a heady mix of social formations. Ram is not only teaching the guileless Bheem how to get the girl but also some nasty tricks of the trade: the British provide lessons in deceit that he faithfully imbibes to navigate muddy colonial waters.

Naatu Naatu introduces dance as an energetic sign of social and political navigation. The dance steps are almost geometric. They are far from graceful as they bristle with uncontainable tension. Charan and Tarak have repeatedly discussed how tough it was to dance in syncopated rhythm. The dance itself, fabulously executed, is meaningless without this syncopation.

Naatu Naatu‘s Choreographer, Prem Rakshith, created the “synchronized head and foot swivels and stretchy suspenders moves” that transform Bheem and Ram into figures of unfettered action. As B.J. Colangelo writes, the foregrounding of suspender movements incorporates isolations where their arms and feet are moving but their faces remain relatively still, as they force their bodies into unnatural positions.

The entire sequence is a marvelous example of the extreme juxtaposition between their rivalry and friendship. Their staccato but visually in sync steps heighten the emotional intensity of a precarious yet eminently desirable brotherhood. Will they come together? Won’t they stay together?

When I screened RRR in my class, I could identify the exact moment when my students (a mix of intersectional affiliations) plugged in: when the Black drummer stops and rolls his eyes at the British bully. Then, drum roll.

Syncopation was immediately legible to my students on musical, choreographic, and emotional levels. It is at this moment that I heard the first audible gasps. They began cheering. The use of irregular beats and gestures results in a radical disruption of viewer expectations, such that it arouses a simultaneous desire to reestablish visual and aural harmony.

It is hardly surprising that both the film’s dance and action sequences were choregraphed by the same person. The final, jointly fought action sequence, makes no sense without the coming together of Charan and Tarak as two-bodies-in-one as they rhythmically synchronize “dance” steps that could only be syncopated in Naatu Naatu.

Fascination for RRR has persisted in no small measure because Rajamouli is adept at maintaining emotion as the key driving force behind action – whether through dances or fights. Emotion, he says openly in his native Telugu, is “the invisible thread that binds precious gemstones together.”

Rajamouli may not have not intended his film for a western audience. But for me, the Black musician in RRR constitutes a pivotal moment of emotional access. By using the drum, the musician’s body, and its uncoordinated movements as tools, he establishes an affectively charged connection with the audience.

The use of creative set design, rather than exact locations, to transform New Delhi into a space of historical imagination acts as mirrors for representing a Telugu nation. Naatu Naatu, which means “raw and rustic,” enacts the distinctive flavors of what it might mean to be Telugu at different moments in a colonial arc imagined through the present. Shot in Kiev in Ukraine before the war, location is indispensable to understand Naatu Naatu‘s resourceful use of cinematic space as a site for projecting this desire.

Rajamouli is effortless and totally at ease with his style in RRR, the twelfth film in his directorial oeuvre. All have been hugely successful. While only the last three were dubbed in Hindi, Telugu viewers and media possess a lively and sophisticated understanding of Rajamouli’s use of history because they are familiar with his unique style of representation. Viewers of Hindi cinema and international audiences, on the other hand, are just beginning to understand the contradictory sensations RRR evokes as well as its frequently uncomfortable pleasures. 

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