The New Yorker called it ‘an exhilarating musical’; to The Atlantic, it was ‘maximalist poetry’; and the Guardian deemed it a film full of ‘air-punching brilliance’. Why the western adulation for RRR is unlike any enjoyed by an Indian film before.
Last Updated: 04.33 PM, Dec 31, 2022
When SS Rajamouli’s RRR released in India — hampered by many-a-delay — its box office blockbuster status wasn’t ever in doubt. What it accomplished internationally, however, could not have been foreseen by even the most ardent of Rajamouli fans, those worshippers at the altar of his loud, over-the-top cinematic grammar. As a phenomenon in the West, RRR has been propelled by sheer adulation and love, rather than by box office numbers or any other metrics — to the point that it has featured on several international publications’ “must-watch” lists for 2022. Back home, this sudden outpouring of adoration from the West for a syntax we are all too familiar with, has been somewhat perplexing. What is it about RRR that has made it a global breakthrough moment unlike Indian cinema has experienced before?
Let’s first accept that Indian cinema simply hasn’t seen days like this. There have been notable films, some of them nominated for the Oscars even — Lagaan, Salaam Bombay etc — but none have enjoyed quite the level of fervour surrounding RRR. Films have grossed impressive numbers outside India, but this was driven largely by an audience comprising second and third-generation Indian migrants. The Chinese love for Aamir Khan’s films, SRK’s overseas allure, Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty’s Russian fandoms, Rajinikanth’s popularity in Japan— these are all centred on personalities. On the contrary, the intrigue around RRR has bloomed on its own, out of locker room and workplace conversations, weekend watchlists and social media buzz.
The New Yorker has called it ‘an exhilarating musical’, The Atlantic termed it ‘maximalist poetry’, and the Guardian has declared it a film full of ‘air-punching brilliance’. Deliriously potent as it is, the seed for this frenzy may not have been sown by the extravagant, audacious physiology of the film alone. There is probably more than meets the eye, in terms of socio-cultural context, behind this conquest of the world’s most common and hierarchical canons — the action film.
RRR arrived in a saturated Marvel/Disney space: at least half of the year’s action entertainers come out from the same studio dispensing excellent CGI with the consistency of a tech company enabling digital payments. It was ecstatic and brilliant for a while but now it feels too painfully vast, hopelessly interconnected and tiringly bloated, for its own good. These films are still successful but they have now started to resemble the theme park rides Scorsese compared them to — rides that most people might go on one time, because missing it ostracises them from a hallowed cult they believe exists for and because of them. RRR, on the other hand, feels like the antidote, a fresh ballast of imagination that poeticises the now sterile nature of the action ‘superhero’. Power here isn’t just muscle, but also, faith, emotion, and political subtext (even if flawed).
It’s harder to imagine RRR having a similar impact in-between the Avengers films, considering it was possibly the highest point of comic book fiction and fandom. Though there continues to be a market for that kind of cinema, people are actively seeking more diverse interpretations of the traditional action/sci-fi film. This in part explains the unlikely success of the similarly whimsical but comparatively subdued Everything Everywhere All At Once. This fascination, as one critic recalled in his piece, mirrored the warmth and love that Ang Lee’s bewitching Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon received almost 20 years ago. A film primed and possibly pedestalled (which makes RRR’s achievements even greater) at the time by a reverence for Asian action stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. A film whose action, unlike RRR, you could refer to as ‘minimalist poetry’.
Superhero fatigue is only a part of the argument here. The anti-colonial stance of the film is a popular point of entry for most viewers around the world, especially where the Empire’s most renowned proprietors have embarrassed themselves. “One message is clear to the entire world. Seriously f**k the British,” the Honest Trailer for RRR, by the hugely popular channel Screen Junkies, says. It’s ironic that the populist undertone of the film is lost on most viewers and critics around the world, and yet structurally at least, RRR qualifies as an anti-colonial maximalist ballet punctuated by the tenacity of will and the defiance of faith.
There are possibly other prominent markers behind RRR’s gladiatorial success in registering with the international viewer. Could this have been achieved without streaming’s easy penetration and access? Probably not, because unlike the era of Ang Lee’s martial arts gem, RRR hasn’t been a film festival fallout or a theatrical discovery. It has instead travelled via word-of-mouth, discovered by audiences first and critics later. Its reach also indicates the rising influence of streaming in the way some films are now discovered. To which point, while Parasite kneed itself into the West’s consciousness through the door of recognition and reputation, RRR has practically waltzed over reluctant connoisseurs to become the film that has, out of nowhere, grabbed the mic, and looks set to have its say. Then there are elements within the film — the ridiculous visual lengths it is prepared to go to, the emotional depth it is willing to suffer for, and the good old bromance it doles out in spades.
There has obviously been a more operative catalyst powering RRR’s ascendance to international film folklore. From one-night screenings to carefully calibrated distribution, the mechanism has delivered, but so have the socio-cultural context and the persistence of a visionary grammar that refuses to be flustered by some obvious criticisms. RRR’s popularity and politics will be analysed in the years to come, but it has already edified the conversation around Indian cinema, by elevating it to a pedestal we simply haven’t touched. Whatever it does or doesn’t do during the awards season, things for Indian cinema — as a global entity — can and should only get better from here.