(By Aditya Shrikrishna)
Fine, I will not lead with that.
Two men go after a kidnapped offspring. One is a bounty hunter, the bounty being a promotion that will give him power that he craves. Another is a reluctant workhorse, a bodyguard for the masses. A mother recruits him for the job. Both pursue their jobs with much sincerity, one to retrieve and another to deliver. One is on the wrong side of the law and the other longs for justice. They meet by chance, a rescue job that ends with conjoined hands. There is even a prison break, hands holding legs and swinging upside down in a trapeze performance followed by a madcap getaway. I am of course talking about NK Vishwanathan’s Tamil film Inaindha Kaigal (1990, translates to conjoined hands), largely realized by the vision of Aabavanan, a lost auteur-relic of South Indian cinema.
This is also more than just the logline of SS Rajamouli’s RRR starring Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr and written by Rajamouli’s father Vijayendra Prasad, himself a doyen of masala cinema. All the sequences described above occur in RRR too with keen eye for action and imagination and a bravura precision in set piece construction. When it comes to set pieces, Rajamouli remains an undisputed king in Indian cinema. A rescue operation is set in motion—of a boy fighting for his life with fires raging all around him— without spoken word followed by the first instance of the conjoined hands. It’s the short film version of RRR, our two heroes—Ram Charan as Rama Raju and NTR Jr as Bheem—coming together for a child.
Malli, a little girl belonging to the Gond tribal community is taken away from her land and people by the British governor and his wife. Rama Raju, a police officer is trying to help the British governor keep the child and capture Bheem who is on a mission to unite Malli with her people. The bounty hunter for upward mobility in pay grade and the guardian for the sake of family and community. Rajamouli’s films are about the set ups and the payoffs and that become both the boon and bane of this filmmaker who loves to craft one zanier action visual after another.
We get Rama Raju (based on Alluri Sitarama Raju) taking on a whole mob of protestors singlehandedly, Rajamouli crafts this sequence tongue firmly in place, we can feel the breathlessness of the man in uniform as he climbs over men and hillocks with the same agility or breaks apart a throng of people huddled one over another attacking him. If Rama Raju must take on freedom fighters, Bheem (based on Komaram Bheem) of the Gond community must take on animals, or so Rajamouli thinks. But before we get this introduction, we get a verbal description of Bheem’s machismo, and the timing of this scene—set soon after Rama Raju’s assault on the crowd—makes us feel them in our bones. We don’t even need the action. These are the big set ups with big payoffs. But there are smaller setups with bigger payoffs. Like Bheem carrying fresh work of a butcher and Rama Raju quipping that it’s probably not enough for him. Here is Rajamouli’s long game – they are not meant for Bheem, they are for the wild animals he captured for the film’s tasteful massacre that closes the first half. Rajamouli doesn’t waste a single moment when it comes to foreplay.
Unlike Baahubali, the films that achieved their epic ambitions, RRR doesn’t possess the bedrock of myth making in its writing. It takes modern Indian history’s two enigmatic but obscure characters and brings them together in a work of fiction. This is the part that requires solid writing. How do they meet? They meet by chance trying to save a boy, just like their larger purpose will bring them together in complex ways. Great! But the rest of the storytelling doesn’t fall into place as neatly. Their friendship blossoms too quickly which is alright but what about Rama Raju’s change of heart? Or his sudden change in demeanor when not in khaki? Bheem switching between beefy, indefatigable superhero persona and the one projected as an innocent haberdasher? It’s fine to make a film of set pieces and storyboard, say hi to Mad Max Fury Road or closer home Kaithi, but that requires commitment and relentlessness, no time to breathe. Not a film with warring purposes and backstories running decades.
Now, we can talk about that.
RRR throws in a quaint conceit of a colonial India where the best cover for a man hiding from the police in Delhi is a Muslim household. Bheem takes the alias Akhtar and works as a mechanic while he devices ways to find Malli. But for Rajamouli, these characters are mere props (as is one of the best actors working in India currently—Alia Bhatt. Talk about a bigger crime.) in an elaborate setup for Alluri Sitarama Raju unleashed himself on the British. Rajamouli’s bid to feature Rama Raju’s guerrilla warfare comes off great visually, but it takes forward the filmmaker’s penchant for celebrating his Kshatriya heroes forward.
“You must remember that Raju came from a traditional Kshatriya family. His mother was orthodox and short-tempered— she did not allow people from lower castes to enter their home. But he left at a young age, and for the rest of his life, remained a guest, visiting every couple of months or so,” says Alluri Satyavati, 50. Although, on some level, estranged from his community, Raju could never give up the cultural inhibitions he had grown up with, preferring for instance milk tinged with the thangedu flower (Senna auriculata) over the food of the tribals, and believing in the power of mantras to heal the body”, says a 2018 essay in Open Magazine. A hotbed like the freedom struggle or a genre like fantasy myth provides an opaque veil to scatter the ideas of caste and other forms of hierarchical oppression. Without Rama Raju, Bheem is lost. Without Rama Raju, Bheem cannot talk to a woman in a city. Without Rama Raju, Bheem doesn’t realize the cause of independence.
Yes, Bheem does save Rama Raju but it’s out of charming naivete. The real life Bheem’s revolution was against the feudal system, the marginalization and for the autonomy over forest lands. His was a people’s movement that led all the way to the Telangana uprising. It is reflected in the film in a minor fashion, he has nothing against the British and Rajamouli spins it as not being sophisticated enough to think big. “I am after all a tribal man, my mind isn’t elevated enough to understand your larger purpose”, he tells Rama Raju further lionizing Rajamouli’s real protagonist. It’s Bheem’s brawn with the brain and brawn of Rama Raju in RRR, the design an extreme disservice to the lip smacking idea of bringing together two hero figures from the states of Andhra and Telangana. The problem is not Ram Charan appearing as Lord Ram with a bow and arrow, that’s iconography associated with the real life figure. The larger issue is with the juxtaposition of Rajamouli’s two chosen characters and how they are represented on screen.
Masala cinema is thriving in Tamil and Telugu, which is great, I am tired of people ironically enjoying films or talking about the genre with a cheery hand wave of condescension. Supercilious critics brought up on non-Indian cinema and pursuing those values while critiquing Indian films are dime a dozen. Rajamouli is the genre’s foremost practitioner and if you need spectacle, you look towards him. But the genre is not just spectacle. There is more to masala film than a volley of set pieces. It’s about how characters get into the story, how they meet and what they can do. It’s about shock and awe with very little material. More than three decades on and one’s jaws still drop at the screenplay structure of Aboorva Sagodharargal. And today there are filmmakers operating within the medium and pushing its boundaries both in terms of form and its politics. For masala cinema is powered by its ability to contain the most obvious and accessible politics. If the end credits video of RRR is anything to go by, a chest beating Rajamouli—long co-opted by Hindi cinema—is here to stay and reiterate Hindu pride. Only with beautiful, imaginative and masterfully executed filmmaking.