Jhe aisles of the cinema light up with the screens of a dozen mobile phones while a third of the spectators enter shamelessly during the first 20 minutes of the film. The aroma of popcorn and puffed rice mixes with fried onions and chili peppers as three girls giggle as they try to find their place in the dark. A young man loudly takes a phone call, a cheer comes from behind, and somewhere in the dark a hot samosa is eaten too quickly. All the while, a melodious cacophony of sounds and images pulsates from the screen. It’s an Indian movie theatre, and the audience is back.
And what a movie to come back to. RRR is the big-budget, multilingual, pan-Indian historical action-romance blockbuster from acclaimed Telugu filmmaker SS Rajamouli, a highly anticipated and oft-delayed jamboree that defies less definition than understanding. As wave after wave of lush, beautifully crafted bombshells are gleefully served up to dazzled audiences, both complex and simple minds will spend days processing what they have seen. RRR (which stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”, in English at least), had the world’s highest opening day gross of any Indian film of all time, beating Rajamouli’s last film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Just as British, and to some extent American, cinemas have bet on James Bond to help bring crowds together after two turbulent years, Indian cinemas are hoping for a handful of big releases – RRR, The Kashmir Files, the KGF Chapter 2 in Kannada language ( Kolar Gold Fields) and Jersey, with Shahid Kapoor – will bring back the movies hordes as states lift Covid measures.
“Cinema is a religion in India. You can’t keep religion away from people for too long,” says Komal Nahta, a film industry analyst and host of Bollywood-focused TV shows. This sentiment is echoed by Jaspreet P Bajaj, a former film journalist and founder of Bombay Funkadelic, a Bollywood-themed event company in the UK: “Most people are tired of watching movies on their computers laptops and their TVs and are happy to have the blockbuster viewing experience. He adds, “Cinema is a unifying experience in India. People from all walks of life can identify with and bond with the films they see and the soundtracks they listen to and dance to.
Few would argue with that, but RRR is not your archetypal Bollywood smash. For starters, it’s not strictly a Bollywood film – that is, Hindi-language cinema – but retains many of its key characteristics. RRR is mostly in Telugu (from the southern state of Telangana) and is dubbed in Hindi; it also includes English, Tamil, tribal languages and, at one point, Bengali. The two main stars, Ram Charam and NT Rama Rao Jr (aka NTR), dubbed their own dialogue into Tamil, Hindi and Kannada, and most of the actors spoke in their own language during filming. It only adds to the craziness of the action sequences and the feeling that your senses have been Shanghainese by a luscious and explosive film. A western biryani, on bhang.
The world of Telugu cinema (enterprisingly dubbed Tollywood) generally views Bollywood as a rival, but the contemporary spirit of cooperation, personified by Rajamouli, has allowed audiences to get the best of both worlds. “How things have changed!” says film critic Anil Sinanan. “Previously it was thought that ‘regional’ or South Indian cinema would not work in the Hindi-speaking north, the ‘cowbelt’.” Historically, remakes in other languages have been the norm, leading to both industries accusing the other of ripping them off, but RRR – like recent hits such as Pushpa and Baahubali – are now dubbed into Hindi.
While the trend for “all-Indian” movies may be on the rise, it might be worth taking a moment to detail how unorthodox RRR is, even for Telugu cinema, where moviegoers go when they find Bollywood lack of pageantry. The story centers on a fictional friendship between two real-life Indian freedom fighters in the 1920s as they confront the might of the British Raj. It not only features the two South Indian stars as the protagonists, but also the current first lady of Bollywood, Alia Bhatt, as well as Hindi cinema veteran Ajay Devgn in a small but pivotal role. Also a cast of white Western actors, led by Ray Stevenson of Thor and Rome fame, having a great time as evil Brits, resplendent in pith helmets and mean-spirited brutality.
Without spoiling anyone’s enjoyment, it’s worth mentioning the following things that happen in a family movie in the span of three hours: a revolutionary protest scene that’s more reminiscent of the Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones than Gandhi; a man swinging a motorcycle like a club; a man striking a tiger; scenes of torture so brutal that parents shielded their children’s eyes at the movies; chorus-like meta-Greek witty songs with lyrics about a friendship that ends in blood; the diabolical “purchase” of a villager for opaque reasons; a man transforming into a Hindu deity; a dance sequence within the grounds of Delhi’s Imperial Palace so extravagant and riotous they might as well have splashed mango kulfi all over the Viceroy’s white garments.
But can anything be inferred from the fact that a big-budget popcorn – or poor – the cinema packs them in the multiplexes and the halls of the festivals? Especially when the controversial political drama The Kashmir Files – set during a cataclysmic period in the unstable state’s recent history – also did an excellent box office. “Films like RRR are pure escapism,” says Bajaj. “Although they try to bring a story element into the scripts, it’s mostly about the main stars, the soundtrack, the melodrama and the full fledged spectacle that Indian cinema offers.
“Serious dramas like Kashmir Files have their audience and serve a different purpose. They aim to provoke debate rather than entertain. There is room for both types of genres to coexist at the box office.
And that’s not even taking into account the evolution of technical prowess and creativity shown in RRR and other recent Indian films, which means new international audiences are eager to come to the party. Rajamouli sometimes seems to mix not only Indian styles but aspects of Hong Kong, Hollywood, French and even silent films. “You mean to copy?” said Sinanan. “Or as they say, ‘seek inspiration’ – nothing new here. Perhaps the change is now that they are tweaking the technical aspects of the filmmaking process. but India now has the technology to do so and at a much cheaper cost than Hollywood.
RRR may not just be a majestic homecoming for Indian moviegoers, but could easily become one of those “crossover” foreign-language films that comes at a perfect time to ignite Western cinema – as, for example, Das Boot, The Raid, Life Is Beautiful, or more recently, Parasite. It’s certainly plausible, says Nahta. “The Hindi movie audiences have now accepted Korean movies (on OTT) with open arms, international audiences have also woken up to Indian content. Indian cinema is definitely changing. Otherwise, global acceptance would not be possible.