#6: Unpacking RRR, Indian Politics, and Cinema
Warning: This is going to be a long one. If you are not interested in Indian Politics and Film or even RRR, I'm afraid this installment of the newsletter may not be for you. We're going to be digging into everything from Mythology to Indian Comics and Propaganda. I get it if this one ain't for you. However, if you are actually interested and want to know more, read on.
So, I trust everyone's at least heard of RRR at this point.
S.S Rajamouli's period-piece blockbuster and historical fanfic about two real revolutionary figures (Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem) has proven to be massive, with a reach for an Indian film I have straight up never seen before in my life. It's spread like wildfire, and it's being talked about in circles I'd never expect to see Indian Cinema discussed. It's invited Video Essays from the likes of Patrick Willems, coverage on pretty much most major outlets I can think of, and it's all over Twitter, beyond the usual Indian circles.
That feels worth unpacking, particularly as it is a film so deeply Indian and so steeped in an Indian context that it's insane. It's a film I do not expect the majority of its wider international audience to fully parse or process all the way, given they lack the context to fully do so. Most folks will not be aware of a lot of what's baked bone-deep into this film, especially given most folks are barely even aware of Indian politics, much less Indian film. Odds are, this might even be their first Indian film!
Which is why, this essay! I'm hoping what I'm about to write provide helps a lot of folks along, providing context, history, and some understanding that allows them to consider and (re)process what it is they just saw and experienced. At the very least, I hope it proves to be something interesting for folks to consider and chew on, which is always the goal with the newsletter.
This essay you're about to read is probably the closest thing to the very first essay that launched the newsletter. It is its spiritual successor, in a lot of ways, and hopefully builds forward.
We'll start with the obvious place to start, without which this movie just cannot be talked about:
Modern India and The Hindutva Hell Of Politics
You see that clown up there? That is the current right-wing fascist who rules over India as of this moment under the title of Prime Minister. If you know nothing about Narendra Modi, perhaps this may be a handy primer to get you caught up.
If you do know of him, however, you know that things are, as they say, pretty fucking bad right now. Though that's putting it lightly. His regime as the Prime Minister, beginning in 2014, has seen a massive rise in right-wing fervor and tons of backsliding and regression on countless fronts. The man is deeply tied into the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an evil Hindu nationalist organization and a monstrous hate-group that traces back to the early 1920s. It's a Hindu supremacist fascist organization that drew much of its ethos from both the long-stoked monstrosities of Hinduism *and* European Fascism. An absolutely insane crossover of clownshit that inspired and counted among its membership the likes of, I shit you not, the guy who shot and assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
If you're wondering just how much RSS and their fascist nonsense was informed by European Fascism, know that it was founded by K.B Hedgewar, who was the pupil of and mentored by B.S Moonje, who straight-up went to Italy and literally met Mussolini, told him personally how much he fucking loved his fascism. And then he wrote about his intense admiration for Italian Fascism. He was a strong proponent for it and literally went around to schools and other organizations to learn how it operated in practice and felt India needed such fascism. There was much admiration for the fascists about the militant Hindu factions, who absolutely saw it as an inspiring, aspirational model to be pursued, emulated and followed. Perhaps the clearest expression of that is one of the RSS' early leaders- M.S Golwalkar. He was a big fan of Nazi Germany and wrote in 1939 that India could learn much from Germany and its many efforts to “keep up the purity of the race and its culture.”
This is Hindutva, the obsession with Hindu Nationalism, which wishes to create a 'Hindu Rashtra' or Hindhu State/Country. It's a belief system and worldview that would look at Nazism and admire it, finding no issue with it beyond the fact that it wasn't a belief system that put Hindus at the top. The whole endeavor is very much a horror that serves upper-caste Hindus and helps them entrench their power further, whilst making them feel proud for doing so. All they want is to dominate others and hold power.
And as you can expect, the whole endeavor is every bit as vile, Islamophobic and foolish as that would imply. If you want to get a sense of how bad this stuff can be in practice, read this and this. If you can read through both of those articles, you'll get a chilling sense of the terror that the militant Hindutva groups can invoke.
These monsters will destroy and ruin inter-faith marriages and demonize and murder Muslim men, and just destroy lives. And they'll feel proud doing it, every step of the way, like they're goddamn Superman on a righteous quest. These fuckers think they're heroes, called on by a divine path and mission. They're hate-groups as horrific as any to have ever existed, and they're further emboldened by Modi and his horrid party- the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP), which translates to The Indian People's Party. A hub for legions of RSS monsters, all of whom are commonly dubbed Bhakts. They're essentially the Indian version of Trumpers with MAGA hats, with rhetoric being not unlike that that of the American right-wing and its Christian Fascist ideology. Modi's infamous 'INDIA FIRST!' mantra and quote all but lines up with Trump's 'AMERICA FIRST!' nonsense. It's an ethos I'm sure the Brexit clowns would be all about.
It's all about going back to some imagined and constructed golden age and fancy past, which was never real, before all those gosh darn Muslims and some scapegoated Other ruined it all for them. They need someone to blame for any and all of their perceived sense of loss, which is deeply tied to their entitlement-complex. They don't actually care about anything or anyone, it's all about building up their power and wealth, and that of their fellow upper-caste circles.
The perfect demonstration of this is perhaps the recent Indian Farmers Protest, one of the largest protests of all time, which was sparked by Modi and his BJP trying to fuck over farmers and help their rich pals in the long run. But that's just scratching the surface of Modi and the BJP's long list of horrid history.
Take, for instance, the revoking of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and the sheer mess he's pushed things to. Or consider for a moment the transparently evil and Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Or perhaps take into account the appointment of a cultist monster like Yogi Adityanath, who openly calls for the genocide and murder of Muslims, as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. This is a guy who openly admires Donald Trump, the Muslim Travel Ban, believes Hindu idols should forcibly put in Mosques, amongst other things. None of which is surprisingly if you know that Modi is pretty Pro-Trump, and went above and beyond to receive him like a super-celebrity in India. These are all pro-hate crime scumbags who are proud of their evil, and love to be cheered on for their bigotry, mythologized into divine heroes.
This is without even getting into Modi's horribly mangled, evil mismanagement of Covid and the pandemic, with them placing election pushes and election wins and power-hoarding over actual real lives, whilst also finding time to blame outbreaks on Muslims and Muslim gatherings. It all tracks from the man who has the blood of many Muslims on his hands from the 2002 Gujurat riots. As an official swore to the supreme court, Modi actively allowed anti-Muslim violence and felt Hindus should be 'allowed' to 'vent' their rage.
More than a 1000 people died. That was in 2002. A lot more have died and suffered since under the BJP.
(For a party named 'The Indian People's Party', they sure don't care about people.)
You may be wondering 'What does any of this have to do with RRR and Indian Cinema?' at this juncture, but please, stay with me. I promise you we'll get there.
Myth and The Alternate Hindutva Reality
So that's Modi and the BJP, whose fascistic Hindu nationalist and supremacist vision rules over India. We've gotten the basics down.
Now imagine all the rhetoric, mythologizing and mess and media around the landscape monsters like this invite. Religion is crucial here. It becomes a weapon, and is wielded like one. And myth serves as the blade to do the bloody work. And that brings us to two of the key mythic Epics of Hinduism, both penned in Sanskrit- The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.
Both stories fall as key chapters in the larger spinal structure of The Avatar Cycle of Vishnu, with Ram (the lead of Ramayana) and Krishna (a key figure in Mahabharata) being the 7th and 8th respective Avatars of the ever-descending god bearing the title of The Preserver, with Brahma being The Creator and Shiva being The Destroyer. The Avatar always descends down when the world is in peril to bring balance back to it (guess where that show got it from) and to help preserve it. He has 10 Avatars, with the final one being Kalki, the rider in white, who is The Avatar Yet To Be, who will arrive at the end of things, at the apocalypse, to reboot and restart reality itself. Both are foundational stories most Indians tend to have some familiarity with and grow up with. The former is the key one we'll be touching upon a bunch throughout this writing.
Ramayana follows the legendary Prince Ram who must live out his life in the wilderness for 14 years with his legendary Princess partner Sita, and his trusty brother Lakshman. But then Sita gets kidnapped by Ravana, Demon King of Lanka (no, not Sri Lanka) while Ram and Lakshman are away. The entire story then is them tracking Sita and getting to Lanka and The Great War that follows over Sita. It involves a colorful cast of characters, the best of which is the beloved Hanuman, the monkey god and son of the wind, who is the most trusted devotee and worshipper of Ram.
And when I say 'worshipper' and 'devotee', I mean hardcore. The guy at one point in the story rips open his own heart and it reveals Ram and Sita, showing the sheer extent of his devotion and love. He's the guy who first finds where Sita is in the epic post-kidnapping, goes to her in Lanka, and offers to take her away in secrecy from her imprisonment. But Sita isn't up for that proposition, as she wants Ram to come. And so she sends him back, and he wreaks havoc in the kingdom of Lanka as he leaves, promising that Ram and Sita will one day be reunited. And they are, by the end, which is when Ram's 14-year wilderness period is up and he returns to his holy and sacred kingdom of Ayodhya to rule over it prosperously. His reign as a king being seen as legendary, and the moment in which the above Hanuman Heart-Reveal happens.
Ram is special, he's seen as the 'pure', 'ideal' ruler and king and hero. The unimpeachable pinnacle of man on earth, and the perfect man to many.
So when you're dealing with a lot of these aforementioned Bhakts who like the worst MAGA chuds and rightwing clowns swarm everywhere online, you'll see something. They dream of 'Ram Rajya' (Ram's Reign/Ram's Rule/Ram's Kingdom), the imagined golden-age of the past and an ideal that could yet be made manifest again. It's why there's been such a strong push by right-wingers on The Ayodhya Dispute, with them finally getting what they wanted and building that stupid temple they're obsessed with, tearing down the Mosque that was once there. If the deadset dream of of wanting to tear down a mosque and build a Hindu temple in its place doesn't illustrate the point here clearly enough, I'm not sure what does.
It's also why it is not uncommon for a Bhakt/Hindutva clown to scream 'Jai Shree Ram!' (All Hail Lord Ram!) after or during committing some horribly monstrous act. It is a phrase that has been heard many a times from the lips of a hateful Hindu. It's a favorite for that Islamophobic crowd. If you don't believe me, take a look:
That's just the tip of the iceberg. This is not new or rare or isolated.
All of which is to say, any idea or pretense that these things are 'apolitical' or can be divorced from politics and the reality we inhabit is foolish. It is convenient lie for those who enjoy privilege and luxury. After all, they're not at threat. They lose nothing, there's nothing at stake for them. It's why my impulse whenever I see an Indian Flag on someone's handle on social media is the same as when I see an American or British Flag. All the alarm bells of fear go up, as red flags pop up in the brain. There's nothing to be proud of here. Nationalism is for the foolish.
But that foolishness runs rampant. Whether it's American, Britain, or India, it holds true. The idea of Nation-Building and nationalism is a dangerous one, because those in power often try to construct a 'unified' identity for its population, and such identities are best constructed against another identity, something that can be Othered. And in each case, Muslims are the preferred boogeyman, it turns out. And in this act of Nation-Building, what you see is a war for truth, as propaganda is everywhere.
There is a war waged beyond the physical and the tangible. A war in the realm of ideas, on the planes of people's minds. The war is waged to tear down and burn down the truth and actuality that is, in order to burn it to ash and replace it with a newly constructed false 'truth'. A 'truth' all built around Othering, dehumanization, and suited to the profiteering agendas of the parties and figures in power. The project then is something bigger:
It's the project of constructing a whole new reality.
An alternate reality suited to the convenience of the bastards. You see it in how history is taught, how education is weaponized to sell certain narratives, and mold a very specific reality for the populace, with anyone questioning it being deemed 'unpatriotic', as 'anti-[Insert Country]'/anti-national and as a traitor who hates their country, with some 'get out of our country' thrown in for good measure. Indeed, the Modi government has been overhauling syllabus a great deal over the last few years, including and teaching students what suits their construction of an upper caste Hindu-ified history, and excluding all that does not suit their grim agendas.
So now you have The Mughals and The Mughal Empire which ruled over so much of India for centuries turned into a big bad Boogeyman. Re-litigated as evil 'foreigners' and 'invaders' who have been wrongfully idolized by the Indian people, and that they're actually Muslim monsters that ought to be loathed. It is not enough to tear down a people in the now, no, history itself must be rewritten and reforged to construct a pattern of the demonic, foreign, and invading other, a muslim other, against which a flattened, reductive construct of 'The Hindu' can be unified. All specificity and truth is discarded for a Evil Muslim Invader vs Generic Good Hindu of Hindustan (another title for India, alongside Bharat). Even the sheer breadth and difference of various differing Hindu communities is forgotten to construct 'Hindu' into perhaps something akin to 'White', defined against something, as these things tend to be. (The Nazi Germany adoration with the 'racial purity' shit is once again worth remembering.)
They want to present this abstract Hindu as The Oppressed Rebel kept down by society, with RSS clowns even saying shit like 'Hindus have been treated like second-order citizens by successive governments'. Now, if you've ever seen a white supremacist spout nonsense about how White ppl are under attack and are oppressed, or say shit like 'reverse-racism', you know and see exactly what this is. This nonsense is so obvious it's insane. It's why you now have these dipshits saying shit like 'Hinduphobia' and trying to use and even co-opt social justice language to try to sell people rubbish as reason.
Now, why does all of this matter? It matters because Media can't be divorced from any of this. Media is the means by which narratives and beliefs can be manipulated, twisted, and spun. And much of the media and press now plays to the tune of Modi and his goons, and the Hindutva hegemony that seems to rule all. Whole new channels and outlets that never existed just came into existence to drip feed people Modi's talking points or distract them with nonsense to help Modi's system of terror do what it does a lot easier. And entertainment is part of that.
You take one look at the landscape and you see legions of movies that just help sell Modi/RSS/BJP's new Hindutva reality. You see period-piece dramas starring Big Name Stars in Bollywood with The Bad Muslim Invader vs The Hindu Resistance. Whether it's Ajay Devgn in Om Raut's Tanhaji, or even Deepika Padukone in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavat, it's everywhere. The narrative is clear. The appeasement is obvious.
As a prescient piece in The Atlantic last year put it:
Like any tyrant, Modi and his government obviously understand the power of entertainment and wish to hold sway over it. It's perhaps why a few years back, Modi held a big meet-up between many of the Big Names (minus the Khans, who're Muslim), and you had a plethora of selfies and photo-ops being done between the stars and the fascistic prime minister.
And the context of this whole mess?
Bollywood Super-Producer Karan Johar, who's in the above picture (the guy next to Modi in glasses), laid it all out rather clearly:
“As a community, there is a huge interest to contribute to nation building. There is so much that we want to do. And can do and this dialogue was towards how and what ways we can do that. When the youngest country (in demography) joined hands with the largest movie industry in the world, we hope to be a force to reckon with. Together we would love to inspire and ignite positive changes to a transformative India."
Now, this is not subtle. The picture being painted here, and the message it sends, is clear. And it is a bleak one.
Everything must conform and play to and contribute to this monstrous landscape and new reality that Modi/RSS/BJP are so determined to construct. And it's a reality wherein Hijabs are not permitted and are viewed as a problem in schools. And if all of this seems pretty goddamn dire, well, it's because it is.
That all his vile Islamophobia seems to work and proves viable perhaps makes sense when you consider how much the Indian national identity and the very idea of being Indian are so often defined and positioned in opposition to Pakistan. That endless conflict, which is emblematic of a historic rift (one deeply made so much worse by the fuckery of the British and their monstrously poorly executed Partition) makes it very easy for scummy politicians to use, and for Hindutva mobs to say shit like 'Go back to Pakistan!' or some nonsense in such vein.
Shit's bad, folks. It's bad.
And the extent to which it is, and the nature to which art can be wielded as propaganda for an in-power fascistic government, is perhaps best represented in this year's biggest Bollywood film, Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files. That title alone should invoke worry and fear, and the reality of it validates every bit of that fear. It is a right-wing conspiracy theory vision of the past, and it is backed big time by Modi/RSS/BJP, from it getting tax exemptions to government employees even being given leave to watch the film. It is the embodiment of a Hindutva movie, helping spread Hindutva history and sell their new constructed reality to people via the power of entertainment and the arts. You will find it is their absolute favorite film, and they will endlessly shill it to anyone they possibly can. (If you meet someone telling you to watch it: Run)
The film, obviously, inspired tons of hate-speech and bigotry.
And of course, Modi and his goons would go on to straight up bring up/reference and use the film in arguments and political discussions. It's propagandist nature, as a tool of the ruling fascist party, is utterly obvious. And, of course, it is the highest grossing and most successful film of Bollywood in 2022.
That's the world we inhabit now. Imagine if someone like Trump were still in office, and the biggest and most successful Hollywood film of the year was not some MCU blockbuster but a full-on rightwing conspiracy theorist exploitative propaganda piece to fuel his evil White Supremacist rhetoric. The kind that is used in and cannot be divorced from politics. Now you'll get a sense of how truly fucked things are. Things are real fucked, and this is where we stand now. The horror is in the fact that the alternate new reality being constructed through lies and propaganda? It's working. The horrid Hindutva vision of history is taking root in the minds of too many, and the damage is hard to undo. That's the landscape we're in. That's the context and moment we're living in.
That's the world RRR is arriving into.
The Ascent Of South Indian Cinema
Let's talk a bit South Indian Cinema now, which should contextualize certain things about Indian Cinema as a whole for readers.
India is a large country. It is a massive place with 28 states and 8 union territories. It used to be even bigger once, pre-Partition. But point being, it's a big place, and each of those aforementioned states could effectively be described as like nations unto themselves, with their own distinct languages, food, history, cultures and more. India is, afterall, the country that ranks #4 on the world list of countries with most languages. India has 447 languages. Take a second to really take that in and process that. That's a lot. Now factor in that a vast place like this has not one or two but over a dozen different film industries easily, each catering to a different language and its speakers. At least a dozen, really take that in.
Now consider the fact that when you say 'Indian Cinema', people think 'Bollywood!'. Indian Cinema is synonymous with Bollywood, the Hindi-language industry based in Mumbai. What happens to all that is not Bollywood then?
This is part of the problem with the overall flattening and reduction of 'India' and what it is and considered to be by most on a wider scale. Most have likely not even heard much of languages such as Telugu, before even getting to film industries based around it, like Tollywood. Hindi dominates, being the ur-language in the eyes of many. The actual variance, diversity, and richness of the millions in India gets reduced to a generic abstract. It's partly why I joke 'India is less like one country and more like all of Europe, except White people don't even know it'.
But this overall flattening isn't purely an external understanding. Given the prominence of Bollywood and Hindi, internally it is very much the synonym for 'Indian Cinema'. So to return to the earlier question- What happens to all that is not Bollywood?
It's simple. It gets flattened and reduced under one label- Regional Cinema.
Hindi and Bollywood is Indian Cinema, and 'all those others' are Regional Cinema.
It's a flattening that puts one thing above all else. And as you can guess, a lot of folks don't like that! In fact, it might even piss them off!
South Indian Cinema (primarily the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam industries) suffers from this a great deal, despite being big. You'll hear many a tale of iconic Southern Actors going up to the North and Bollywood and feeling insulted and hurt with how little the people truly knew or appreciated their works, and how they were reduced to 'Regional Cinema' in the face of the Hindi Bollywood. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule and Pan-India hits that spread wide, but still, it's largely how it's been.
But that's slowly started to change. The Hindi and Bollywood dominance is no longer quite so strong. And part of that shift, particularly in the past decade, has a lot to do with S.S Rajamouli's work. His fantasy film Maghadheera (starring Ram Charan, who plays Ram in RRR) set around a re-incarnating trio broke big. Following that, his film Eega, about a man reincarnated as a fly after his murder and deadset on revenge, also blew up across the country. But it's really his big Baahubali duology of films that broke through everything in a way that was unprecedented.
Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion both became two of the biggest and most successful Indian films ever produced, achieving unprecedented Pan-Indian success. They changed the game for what South Indian film could be and do. And 5 years later, the proof is very visible, as Prashant Neel's K.G.F. Chapter 1 and K.G.F Chapter 2, a series of period-piece action crime films from the Kannada-industry of Sandalwood, have found massive Pan-Indian success, alongside the likes of Sukumar's Pushpa: The Rise (soon to have a sequel in Pushpa: The Rule) from Tollywood. Now Rajamouli returns with another offering of his own in RRR and joins them in their success. These South Indian films, from the lands of Dravidian tongues, have far-outperformed Bollywood and drawn in a massive audience that Bollywood seems to have lost. It's crystalized perhaps in the fact that as of this moment, Tollywood has surpassed Bollywood to become the now most profitable film industry in India.
The message is clear: South Indian film can no longer be brushed aside or covered under the blanket of 'Regional Cinema', particularly not when they're making Bollywood look bad with how they're outperforming their output. The phenomenon has been celebrated, as that Hindi dominance has been loosed up more, and these films in other languages, from other industries, now also have every bit of claim to being Indian Cinema as any Bollywood picture ever will. It's no longer something questioned. Success speaks louder than anything else, and money talks. No one can dispute it.
The 'why' and 'why now' of the rise in South Indian film's influence and power might be of interest to people, and essentially there's two key factors:
a) Many South Indian films being dubbed and aired on TV for a wider audience, particularly a Hindi-speaking audience. The dubbing scene has only improved with time, and the endless re-airs of classic, beloved South Indian films featuring its wide array of stars has led to the popularity of said stars across India. The audience that follows Bollywood is now much more familiar with Southern stars and films, they're used to it, which means they're more receptive. There's in-built fanbases that can and will support the work of these stars now, more than ever before.
b) Bollywood largely moving to films that are aimed more towards a 'Multiplex Audience', leaving behind the broader 'mass' films and filmmaking aimed at a greater audience, with what is left of that kind of mass-filmmaking being done poorly. The Southern films are, it has been said, much, much better at doing the spectacle and adrenaline-pumping thrills and fun of such 'mass' blockbusters over their Hindi peers. And the Southern films like the ones mentioned above now fill that void and hunger. They own that space and wide audience. Afterall, you'd be hard-pressed to find a widely appealing Bollywood film in recent years that is anywhere near RRR. (If you'd like to read more on this shift, there's a ton of pieces on it, but I'll leave you with this solid BBC coverage on the matter.)
(All of this is why Netflix getting only the Hindi dub of RRR, which is what most will ever see and experience, is annoying. It's the biggest, grandest display of the Telugu language and Telugu cinema that broke through the Hindi dominance, but now will be synonymous with Hindi for most who see it and lack context. It's why you'll see many who are unaware even call it and speak of it as a 'Bollywood' film, which is irritating. But at the same time, it absolutely makes sense for Netflix to buy and push the Hindi dub, as Bollywood/Hindi are so synonymous with the idea of 'Indian Cinema' given history and it's easy to capitalize. Whereas most folks have never even known Telugu existed. So it's an easy deal. It's why if you're wondering why the Telugu version isn't on Netflix, that's certainly part of why, with the other part being that the Telugu version is being used as bait to get people to sub to the stupid Zee5 streaming service/app.)
All of which is to really say- RRR is important, and so is its director S.S Rajamouli.
But to understand just how important requires digging into the specifics of Tollywood and the context of its history.
The Clans Of Tollywood
I first experienced Rajamouli's work as a kid, starting with his very first film Student No.1 (starring and acting as the debut of Junior NTR, who plays Bheem in RRR). I've since seen all his work, and his films used to play constantly in my home. I've never not known his films, I've grown up with them, and I've seen each one. They were something of a connection with my father, so there are fond memories associated with them.
He's a creator I know fairly well, which is perhaps seeing him blow up to the extent that he's being effusively praised on Film Twitter is still a bizarre and surreal experience. But also, it means I can actually provide some meaningful, informed perspective on the matter of his movies. But before we do that, we must contextualize the stars of RRR, both real and fictional, and touch on the history of Tollywood to understand why RRR is such a big deal.
The first Telugu film ever made is the 1921 silent film Bhishma Pratigna, and the first non-silent Telugu film is 1932's Bhakta Prahlada. What do both of them have in common? They're both adaptations of Hindu Epics. The first is about Bhishma, a legendary hero and immortal mentor figure from The Mahabharata who makes a vow to be celibate forever and never have children. The title 'Bhishma Pratigna' is very literally 'Bhishma Oath/Vow'. Bhakta Prahlada meanwhile is about the tale of Prahlada, the little child who is a devoted worshipper of Vishnu, The Preserver, aka The Avatar. It, too, much like The Ramayana and The Manhabharata falls in the Avatar Cycle. The tale of Prahlada is the tale of the arrival of Narasimha, the fierce fourth Avatar of Vishnu. I talk about it at length in this prior essay of the newsletter.
But point being: The roots are very much in adaptations and echoes of Hindu Epics. They were a big deal. They were a defining part of Telugu Cinema, and remained as such for decades. And it is in these Hindu Epics of the screen that the now-legendary actor NTR Sr. found his great fame.
Portraying legendary heroes and divine figures like Ram in Ramayana, Krishna and Karna in Mahabharata, he became one of the biggest stars of the industry. And in portraying these legendary figures, his image was forever bound to them in the eyes of many. He became synonymous with them, which meant he became akin to God in the eyes of many. The intense fervor the man inspires would make you think he actually had been a literal god who walked the Earth. The way people talk about him, the way people think of him and remember him, he is absolutely in the realm of myth.
And he represents the epitome of the power at the heart of the kind of cinema that is at the root of Telugu filmmaking to begin with: Mythmaking. Reality and fiction bleeding into one another, to create something larger than life. The most potent product of the Hindu mythologizing film trend and school. The man is one of the iconic pillars of Telugu cinema, impossible to divorce from its history and evolution. Particularly so as he would establish a filmic 'dynasty' of sorts, with his own and family being very involved in film, and his two sons going onto be major stars in the industry.
This is the grandfather of one of the stars of RRR.
NTR or Junior NTR as he's commonly known is the big symbol of his film family, bearing the name of his nigh-mythic grandfather.
But he's not alone in this sense. Much like NTR, there are other icons, most of whom established filmic dynasties like he did. Which means you have an array of 'houses' and families who hold great power and have historically had great sway in the industry, and 'legacy' is a big operative word. This is an industry where there is no such thing as 'IP' or 'Franchise'. Why would you even need them? The star is the IP, they are the franchise. And any member of the family or family approved-supported figure can be built up into another major star/hero.
(The families are all, as you can guess, upper-caste ones. Any Desi person who tells you shit like 'We live in a Post-Caste society' is like a white person telling you we live in a Post-Racism society because Obama was President. Total bullshit. Casteism is very much alive and Caste privilege permeates everything)
Ram Charan is, similar to NTR, the big symbol and 'legacy' of his own film family, established by his father Chiranjeevi. Here's the two of them together:
These families are adored and beloved, with some intense fandom, bordering on cultism. It's perhaps why you'll notice if you tweet 'RRR', your feed might be hit by some wild stan accounts. The best way to perhaps express the context and landscape they exist in is this:
Imagine you're in the DC Universe, with all your Supermans, Batmans, Flashes and so forth. They all have their 'super-families' and 'legacies' and that idea of legacy is super important. Imagine how these super-people and their super-families might be revered, adored, and loved. Now imagine that in real life but film stars, and you get a sense of things.
It's why when these stars announce films, they're not announced by titles. God, no. They're announced like NTR 30 or RC 15, as these people are not just actors who star in any movies. They star as The Lead and every film they star in/launch is kept in the count like above, and every film they do progresses that number and is counted. Each and every film is an event. And here's the thing, barring very rare exceptions- these heroes do not star in films with one another or team-up. They might do it within their own family (see the above picture of Ram Charan with his Dad), but that's about it. These are not exactly the Super-Friends. These are Rival Families, as NTR himself once put it in his own words. They're competing with one another, one way or another.
Rajamouli's made movies with both NTR and Ram Charan, these two big heirs of their respective film dynasties, but never together. And having become India's biggest filmmaker post-Baahubali, he called up both to propose the idea of them being on film together. A proposition that could work given that NTR and Ram Charan were actually really close and good friends. And so it did, bringing together these two big figures in Telugu cinema together on screen for the very first time under the banner of the biggest Indian film director. Thus the title- RRR, Rajamouli, Ram Charan, Rama Rao. The Rs from their names being put together for the title, and them just running with it.
That's why it's a massive event.
And to add to that, the subject matter being about two legendary revolutionary figures like Rama Raju and Komaram Bheem? It was obvious to see the brew for a commercially successful enterprise, particularly given Rajamouli's impeccable no-flop-or-failure track record. So it happened.
I grew up with this film and other 'freedom-fighter' films in its vein, which were a whole other trend of Tollywood filmmaking. The anti-colonial freedom fighter fiction which went over quite well. Rama Raju is a curious one in this regard given he existed in the consciousness of a Telugu-speaking audience, but also, his last real meaningful depiction was in the early 70's, which never really broke beyond the Telugu-bubble. So here was a known figure who wasn't known enough, and here was Komaram Bheem who had never been given the cinematic treatment despite being also well known to a Telugu-audience. That gives Rajamouli a lot of room, in a certain sense, while letting him capitalize on the legacies of these very real people. But also, why these two specifically?, you might ask. And it's a good, fair question. Here's from the man himself:
RRR is about an "imaginary friendship between two superheroes," according to Rajamouli. The genesis of “RRR” has its basis in a deeply emotive subject for him. In 2014, Rajamouli’s home state Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for political and economic reasons after a decades-long separation movement. Both states speak the same language, Telugu; share the same food and culture; and watch the same movies.
“Everyone knew it was inevitable that the state was going to split but there was an animosity between the brothers — both are Telugu people but Andhra is different and Telangana is different and that animosity made me feel sad,” says Rajamouli. “So that was also running through my mind: If I can tell a story about them being unified rather than fighting. I had this thought that Komaram Bheem is from the Telangana region and Alluri Sitarama Raju is from the Andhra region. So, if I can bring those two heroes together, it’s my way of saying we are one, we are not separate.”
This is, if you are in any way familiar with the Andra Pradesh/Telangana bifurcation situation, exceptionally funny. But it also illustrates the roots of the idea and how the politics of 2010s India gave birth to the film as it is and exists. And that's important.
Reflecting on RRR/The RRR Review
From the moment it was announced, I was gripped by fear at the prospect of RRR. Sure, the team-up or Ram Charan and NTR with Rajamouli is a fun enough idea. But a 1920s pre-Independence era India film about Indianness and Indian identity and the fight for a nation in Modi and the BJP's current India? It sent chills down my spine. Regardless, I kept an eye on it.
And then I saw it. And cards on the table? It is probably the greatest theater experience I've ever had with a film. I had a blast with it. It's a grand piece of pop spectacle that boasts great, exhilarating set-pieces and boasts a shonen-manga tier ode to The Power Of Friendship. But at the same time I was deeply, intensely uncomfortable watching it. Now, those two things might seem like they're at odds, but I don't think they are. To me, that's the nature of the beast. I loved it where I could whilst finding it deeply, deeply discomforting and chilling.
At its core, it's a film combing two types and trends of Telugu cinema- the Hindu myth-making epics at the roots of Telugu film, and the aforementioned freedom fighter tales. Here the two intertwine deeply to create a cohesive whole and construct that may not be malicious in the way that The Kashmir Files is, but it is troubling and deeply revealing in its unthinking nature. It may not be a capital H hindutva film, but it is a film that is very much an upper-caste Hindu lens projection and fantasy of the past.
To touch on what I mean, let's talk about Rajamouli's influences. He's a big fan of Ben Hur (1959) and Mel Gibson films, but that's not what I wanna focus on here. His prime influence is something else:
The Amar Chitra Katha comics, effectively meaning 'Immortal Picture Stories' are the key fuel animating Rajamouli's imagination and sensibilities. These were the comics depicting grand tales like The Ramayana, The Mahabharata and anything and everything else 'Hindu' for a wide audience in comics form. This Al Jazeera interview with Rajamouli lays things out rather well enough:
These retellings are ones many grew up with, and much of Rajamouli's work depicts the sheer extent of influence these comics and Hindu epics had upon him. The apotheosis of which is his aforementioned Baahubali duology, which liberally pulls from both the tale of Krishna and Karna and tells the tale of two rival branches of a royal family vying for the throne. Two cousins who are kin and yet opposed, and a woman who is chained by a tyrant and must be freed. You see the elements of Ramayana and Mahabharata all over the work. But it's amidst that loud, proud celebratory display of influence and synthesis that Rajamouli's greatest flaw as a creator is out on display:
He has never had to truly consider and process these stories, these characters and fictions beyond his hyper-comfortable, luxurious, privileged upper caste Hindu lens. He's never had to actually think about them critically and unpack them. His lens is that of a child in awe, his cinema that of emotions, eschewing 'politics', which is why he says in that very same interview that his movie is an ode to friendship and is not about patriotism. And he's likely being entirely honest, which betrays his own blinders and blindness. Rajamouli is someone who understands the potency and the power of that which he invokes, whether they be ideas or images or real life figures, but he cannot begin to fully unpack the meaning of those things. He's a boy still romantically in love with the tales of his youth without a capacity to consider the flaws and failings of that which informs him. He reveres what he loves. It is why he reproduces all of their worst aspects, in his careless, unthinking approach. Whether it be his mishandling and complete lack of imaginative capacity when it pertains to anyone who isn't man, or the deeply rooted, fundamental Casteism rife in his work, it's all a byproduct of him reproducing things he loves without ever bothering to really think about them.
And while RRR isn't outright as overtly bad as 'Dark Skinned Savages who speak a language modeled on Tamil, and must be massacred by the badass Kshatriya warriors of order' like in Baahubali, wherein Kshatriya Dharma and caste is impossible to not see, you do still see Rajamouli's unthinking, careless upper-caste Hindu lens everywhere.
Let's start with the obvious one: The casting of NTR, an upper-caste Hindu like Rajamouli, as a Gond Adivasi legend. And even more specifically the casting of him as a Gond icon who spends much of the film in Muslim attire, pretending to be Muslim, hiding under a Muslim name and persona, with the key moment of revelation in the film being that he is no Muslim. The whole thing reeks of careless 'You never gave this a second's proper thought, huh?', but the film keeps proving that impulse true the more it goes on. It's a film built around stereotypes and constructs of Adivasis in the popular imagination than it is a film actually interested in representing them, which is why you have an upper-caste Hindu playing the role to begin with. It's why Komaram Bheem, a smart man who could read and write is reduced to an uneducated simpleton and savage who need be thought the 'civilized' ways by the more explicitly upper-caste Hindu Rama Raju. It's why you have lines describing the Gonds as a simple people, with the analogy of sheep being utilized. It's why you have Bheem in the 2nd half of the film bemoaning what a foolish, narrow-minded tribal he is, for he could not see and had not the vision of the upper-caste Hindu Rama Raju. It's why the film bends over backwards to make Ram into The Great Man Burdened With Sacrifice, while Bheem and his story exist in subservience to him.
It is why in the climax Ram is presented as effectively Lord Ram, with Sanskrit chorus beating you over the head with it, just in case you didn't get it. It is why a Hindu-lens rewrite of Bheem leans to the notion of 'Bheem' as in 'Bheem' from The Mahabharata, as opposed to the actuality, which is that Komaram Bheem's name 'Bheem' emerges from Bheemal Pen, a spirit. But then such specifics or truths of the Adivasis don't matter, not in the face of the Hindu-washed mythologizing that Rajamouli wants to do. That is why Bheem is also framed explicitly as the 'Hanuman', the devotee and trusted best pal of Ram, with the work making it extremely explicit when Bheem promises to Seetha that Ram and Seetha should not be apart and he'll bring him to her. A blatant riff, if there ever was one.
It doesn't get better, as by the end you have the film ending on Bheem asking for an education from Ram, and Ram writes 'Jal, Jangal, Jameen' (meaning Water, Forest, Earth) on a flag. A phrase iconic to and associated with Komaram Bheem, which is now something the upper-caste Hindu savior and sacrificial hero Ram gives to Bheem. It is, as critics with far more authority than me put it- a deeply dehumanizing and appropriative presentation.
Rajamouli can duck flack all he likes, say the film isn't about patriotism or anything else beyond friendship, and his diehard fans can insist that what he's doing is entirely fair and nothing objectionable, but the writing is on the wall. The math is clear. This isn't progress. It's regressive status-quo maintaining upper-caste Hindu fantasy set in the pre-independence era India. And much as I can respect its contempt for The White Man and his evil empire forged in imperialist ideology, as much as I enjoy a good 'Fuck the Colonizers!' tale, it's not enough for me to ever be able to overlook these things.
Rajamouli's vision is firmly a man looking from on-high, and everything in the end conforms to his status-quo affirming narrow structures, which is why the Adivasis and Bheem are the way they are, which is why Seetha just exists as more of an object to drive the story than as an actual character. It's also why the film doesn't actually go anywhere interesting with Jenny, like reckoning with complicity. Instead she's just The Good White Person/Ally. His stories operate on a powerful aesthetic and auditory dimension but are lacking when you get beyond the thrills of that.
And I think that's a shame, because he is clearly a very talented draftsman who makes really thrilling Big Movies that nail spectacle in a way most struggle with, and are just a great theatrical experience. Were he ever able to actually get beyond his narrow upper-caste, upper-class Hindu perspective to actually get critical, he might actually make some truly amazing work, beyond anything he's ever done to date. But sadly, I do not anticipate that coming to fruition anytime soon.
All of the above is why I was not shocked to see and hear how much Bhakts and right-wingers loved RRR, with lines like 'Nationalism is my favorite subject, and this film truly has everything!' being uttered by some of the most diehard Bhakts. It makes sense. I knew it'd be the case when I walked out of that theater, when my discomfort began to crystalize into coherent thoughts. And certainly, the nature of fascism anywhere is co-opting things and certainly fascists can and do like a lot of good things that are antithetical to their very essence, but I don't think this is a situation like that. The film in being what it is, in its careless unthinking Hindu-washed perspective, is right in line with the Hindutva vision. It may not have Muslims as terrorists or invaders and enemies, the film leans to a more Hindu 'liberal' approach with a Muslim family of allies for Bheem, but it's also not a film that could ever imagine or dare to envision a Muslim man as a leading heroic figure standing tall, proud and equal next to its upper-caste Hindu hero. The Muslim is instead just a cosplay, a play-at-pretend for a strategic purpose, with Hinduism Hell Yeah kicking into high gear in the latter half.
I don't necessarily think the film is dangerous or anything like that, I just find its Hindu-washed fantasy deeply discomforting and unpleasant in the particularly charged climate and context of Hindutva fascism hell. And more than ever, in this context and climate, works like it that pertain to our past or even our ideas and fantasies of our past, they must be understood. For we are living under the active project of constructing a new alternate reality and Hindutva history. It is something to be watchful for, and it is something to be wary of, and it is something to educate others about. We must all be able to see it, and observe the true nature of the so-called 'neutral' works that in the end conform to its plan and project in the long run.
It's why when Ram goes full God Ram Mode at the end, with Sanskrit lyrics about his greatness, I do not cheer (though I'm sure the Bhakts absolutely did). I merely think of every 'Jai Shree Ram!' chant as I watch. It's why when I see Indian stans try to discredit people's real meaningful criticisms and try to 'gotcha' them by telling them stuff like 'Actually, that's how Rama Raju dressed irl, a lot like Ram, so acktually...' I just stop and chuckle. It's a trick that might work on someone who'd never heard of Rama Raju prior to this film, but given I grew up knowing him and watching him on screen, I know, and think all those 'um actually' attempts are foolish. It's poor defensive shit that is lacking in basic ability to parse media. No matter what, in the end, the film very deliberately evokes and explicitly references Ramayana and frames Rama Raju as God Ram, which is a foolish choice. The whole thing just cheapens and reduces the very stories and struggles of revolutionaries like Rama Raju and Bheem by turning them into Hindu-flavored superheroes. If this is supposed to be respectful to the freedom fighters, the Telugu icons I grew up hearing about, I sure don't see how. Every aspect of this film might be more tolerable if decoupled from the very real people it is so determined and deadset on using and riffing on. It cares little about them beyond their names and aesthetics, which is really Rajamouli's fatal flaw and problem. He just isn't considerate or thoughtful, when he really should be. I think that's a very fair thing to say, given I grew up with the guy's work and have a lot of fond memories attached to it. It comes from a place of disappointment and annoyance.
Oh, how I wish he could be better. But alas.
Rajamouli's long said that his dream and career goal is making a sprawling cinematic adaptation of The Mahabharata and it's what his entire career has been building to. It's a day I do not look forward to, given all the above factors, which make him a good pick for its spectacle, but a poor pick for literally anything else. He would not be able to be critical of it or engage with its politics, as would be necessary. He'd just blindly recreate. For now though, his next film is with Mahesh Babu, the son of the aforementioned super-star Krishna who once played Rama Raju, another heir to another filmic dynasty. It's said to be an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure. I'm sure it'll be a fun spectacle. But also, like with RRR, I'll be walking into it with fear.
Reflecting On RRRespones
Now, you might wonder, given all the issues I've laid out- Do I think you should watch this film? I've been asked that. And absolutely, 100%. It's big, it's inescapable, so watch it, have your experience with it. Just also make sure to read-up. What's the worst that could happen at the end of the day in watching it and then diving in? You end up learning more about India and its people and politics, and its cinema, which can't be a bad thing in my book.
So yeah, watch it, absolutely, but also be sure to don't just stop there. Widen your horizons, baby!
That about concludes all my Big Thoughts of the film itself, which means I get to now talk about everything around it.
For instance: My favorite moment in the film by far is with the Black drummer at the party.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the brief but touching acknowledgement of solidarity between the oppressed. Only that man knew what was up at that party apart from all the Brown folks. And it's why I fucking love that in what follows, a gloriously rip-roaring expression of a fuck-you to colonizers, he's the one who gets to play the sick beats and be on the drums. He's the guy who's with us all. Solidarity, boy do I love that. I generally tend to expect anti-blackness and racism, so I was very pleasantly surprised and thrilled at this little nuance with genuine resonance. It's perhaps the most thoughtful Rajamouli ever gets in the entire film.
Now, that said, with that off my chest, something I've been mulling over is the non-Desi response to the film. Very specifically the Western Lens put on it when discussing it, particularly by a plethora of White critics. I appreciated Patrick Willems in this regard going 'I know fuck all, let me actually hire my Indian mate to co-write this video' and getting the excellent Siddhant Adlakha on-board his coverage and video essay. But he's a rare one there. So still, I think about the Western Lens by which it is discussed.
You know the one I mean. Every single 'Bro, the MCU looks like dogshit compared to this', 'India is beating our asses so bad', 'This puts all the American blockbusters to shame', so on and so forth, you get the idea. Everything is framed through the lens of Western understanding and comparisons. Now, one one level, it makes sense. People will obviously talk about something through that which they know, but also, to understand everything through only the frame of a limited American reference and comparison feels foolhardy. Why must this be talked about in relation to and in comparison to the MCU or anything like it at all? Why not just engage with it purely on its own terms and try to parse it by digging into its own wide field and range of influences, from which it emerges? So many times, one thinks of of every one of those 'Man this anime shits all over this western..', 'Japan makes the best shit ever', talking points of weebs. Rather than use that narrow Western Lens and impose that on the work, I wonder if it isn't better to just 'surrender' to it, as it were. To embrace and accept the not knowing and not be declarative, but driven by discovery. We don't need to do the 'The Foreign Eastern Art is Better' all over again, it's not a versus game or competition, though our culture and spaces like Twitter certainly encourage that.
In any case, this is a lot of what I've been thinking about. Some things you just can't tweet out. Some things need a shit ton of contextualizing. I hope I've done that, and have given you that. If you have read this far at all:
Thank you, sincerely. I do not know if this was worth your time and effort, or if this was interesting at all (though I hope it was), but writing this was cathartic and akin to exorcism, just for myself. It feels good to let it out, to just share it. Perhaps that is why I write.
That's it for this installment of the newsletter! This is probably the longest one I've ever written, and I never thought I'd write an even longer one than the X-men essay.
This would've been even longer, because I'm currently working on my own personal English Translation/Subtitles for the film, due to my displeasure with the Official English Translation/Subs. I intended to link that and let folks download it with this piece, but if I'm putting it out there, I want to do a whole bunch of translation notes to go with it, digging into Language and Translation. And this is running way too long as it is (9.8k words!), so sadly that'll be saved for the next installment of the newsletter.
I was asked to do a recommendation list of South Indian Cinema, so that'll go in there as well, as I couldn't fit it in here.
But again, if you've read this far, you have my eternal gratitude. I hope you do not regret it, and I hope you get a lot of reading material from it. If there's anything else you'd like to see me eventually talk about or dig into in the future on the newsletter, do let me know!
Until next time, my friends.
Take care of yourselves, and have a good one.