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The Small Big Pictures Of Rajamouli And Co

By SREEHARI NAIR
June 09, 2022 14:24 IST
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RRR isn't the "spectacle" it is made out to be, argues Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Ram Charan and NTR Jr as freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem in S S Rajamouli's RRR.

If you are worried that the experience of watching S S Rajamouli's RRR on an OTT platform wouldn't compare to the experience of watching it in a movie theatre, you are worrying too much. Or perhaps, you are yet another victim of that peculiar brand of pre-release publicity which ensures that the reviews of a Rajamouli film get written well before the first show has even started.

But take my word for it, O viewer who has the conscience of a cinema purist and the itinerary of a capitalist slave: in this case, OTT would prove to be less of a dampener and more of a relief.

There are two reasons for my saying this.

To begin with, RRR isn't the 'spectacle' it is made out to be. It isn't, and anybody who says otherwise -- c'mon now, you casual tosser of jargons, let us be reasonable here.

All we get in the name of locales are a few sets created inside the Ramoji Film City and some backdrops for wham-bam whataboutery generated using CGI.

Visual loss, which is what one dreads when a grand cinematic experience is transferred to the small screen, can never be a problem with Rajamouli because the man is hardly a complex screen artist.

 

Take any of RRR's big-ticket sequences -- the energy is almost entirely concentrated in the foreground, the action in the background is perfunctory, and the only thing vying for your attention is the hero (or sometimes, two heroes) towering over a crowd of bobbing heads, each head as dispensable as the one adjacent to it.

And when there's no hero figure at the centre, the major narrative thrust is provided by wide shots of British-backing police officers beating up flocks of Indian sheep so that the illusion of unending torture can be maintained.

Since this routine of baton charging and whipping and head-smashing is all that gets dished out in the effort to move you, watching RRR alone at home wouldn't diminish the film's dramatic impact -- unless you are someone who sees shared consumption of sadistic practices as necessary communal experiences; you know, a throwback to those times when gladiatorial contests and witch burnings were considered valid forms of entertainment. (Rajamouli may or may not be a 'modern master', but his instincts are positively 'medieval').

IMAGE: S S Rajamouli, NTR Jr and Ram Charan. Photograph: Pradeep Bandekar

As I see it, the sanguinary thrash has only one moment of true transcendence, by which I mean there's only one instance of the film quarreling with itself, and that happens when a gang of aquiline female noses turn to the camera and scream 'Go!' and in response our two mechanically macho heroes start dancing like a couple of wind-up toys.

But digressing from the subject of scale to something more intimate, it's especially advisable that parents watch RRR in their living rooms because that way they can exercise openly a privilege that they are bound to exercise with some caution inside a movie theatre: the privilege to hold their children tight.

Yes, if his Baahubali films had succeeded in squeezing out the last drop of 'mama love' bubbling inside you, this time around Rajamouli has your little ones in mind.

IMAGE: Alia Bhatt in RRR.

Oh, how calculatedly he stages sequence after sequence of children in peril, of children being paraded as killing machines, of children being massacred -- so much so that, after a while, the whole thing begins to feel like a running theme! A few cycles of the same cynical manipulation, and I could not help but wonder: How is it that in a prude climate of the kind that exists today, where someone or other is repeatedly hauled up for cracking an innocent joke, we don't question the cunning of a pop culture artist who dares to go so unbelievably low in his quest to deliver a few shocks and elicit a few tears?

Well, Rajamouli isn't questioned because the guardians of our culture are so lost in theorising as to offer a direct response.

Rajamouli isn't questioned because he has the liberal sophisticated audience (the audience whose idea of weekend fun does not include a roster of Set Max movies) divided on the question of whether SS makes 'Spectacles' or whether he makes 'Right-Wing Propagandas'.

And this critical panic, as it often happens in the cultural life of this country, is a case-in-point of a non-issue clouding the real one.

IMAGE: Ajay Devgn in RRR

The evocation of Ram Rajya at the end of RRR -- which many critics have pointed out as the only blotch in an otherwise rich tapestry -- is a piece of corny symbolism that even the manifesto-makers on the Right would happily reject.

I watched the film with three kids who were laughing like hyenas when a sickly-looking Ram Charan suddenly came dressed as Lord Rama, and the laughter soon turned into screeching and hooting even as up on the screen Mr Charan continued to very sincerely strut around in his Vanvas costume. (The reaction of the kids was a wonderful illustration of how the man-in-the-street is sometimes way smarter than a bunch of experts.)

If it sounds improbable that a poorly designed sequence such as the aforementioned one could send our critics into a tizzy, wait until you consider those truly insidious Right-Wing aspects of RRR that were given a free pass because they fall under the rubric of The Rajamouli Spectacle.

Yes, I am talking about the thoughtless representations of hypermasculinity, I am talking about the propensity to exploit the basest of sentiments, I am talking about the complete absence of nuance and density of thought, I am talking about the planned use of violence to provide our noble masses with easy highs.

In these super-ideological times, it would be reckless to state that 'Right-Wing' is an attitude, a matter of sensibility as opposed to ideology, and yet, that wouldn't be straying too far from the truth.

I understand why this is a topic not frequently broached, because broaching it would mean putting many a sacred cow in danger.

Imagine, for example, finding yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain that *feelings of victimisation* and *techniques of exploitation*, those twin engines that drive most of the anti-caste Tamil films being made today, are the same that drove The Kashmir Files as well.

But circling back to Rajamouli -- given how wonky the critical evaluations of his works have been, why shouldn't he, in his next picture, pump in more bobbing heads, more verbal bombast, more sequences of women and children being shot down and dismembered in creative ways? I can already imagine SS declaring in his defence, 'As you can see, I have gotten rid of all those niggling Right-Wing imageries. We are now in the realm of Pure Exploitation. And Exploitation Cinema has no political affiliations whatsoever.'

Come to think of it, there would have been some reason for hope had this delirium stopped at RRR.

But it's now being suggested that Rajamouli's films and other violent wank-fests such as Pushpa and KGF are part of a larger movement; and if its advocates are to be believed, the movement is something to put beside the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, the era of Romantic Poetry, the Southern Literary Renaissance, and the French New Wave Cinema of the 1960s.

Everything about this 'Pan Indian Cinema' movement is so incredibly noisy, in particular the Box-Office hype, that any voice that questions the artistic merits of the films making up this movement, is bound to get drowned out.

You are either on the side of the phenomenon or you are an elitist. That's how it rolls.

And poor Hindi Cinema, forever battling identity crises ('Look up to Hollywood!'; 'Learn from Malayalam Cinema!'; 'Study the Iranian Masters!'), is now being told that it too must get into this world of mindless savagery, a world that it has been, for the past few years, trying desperately to escape.

That said, if any good has come out of the 'Pan Indian Cinema' movement, it's that it gives you a chance to observe the ways in which Bollywood actors perform when cast in one of them overblown monstrosities.

From what I have seen, talented actors can barely stand the ridiculousness of it all, while the mediocre ones go all out, as if this was their big chance to make hay.

For evidence of what I am saying, just look at Alia Bhatt in RRR, the constant cue for whom seemed to be, 'Alia, try saying this line, and try not to smile', and then look at Ajay Devgan, who acts so much that you come to the painful conclusion that the catatonia and non-acting of the last twenty years were not markers of a refined craft but career-saving moves.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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SREEHARI NAIR / Rediff.com