Bestinau got that-
tThe cinema’s aisles are lit up with the screens of a dozen cellphones as a third of the audience unabashedly shuffle in during the film’s first 20 minutes. The smell of popcorn and puffed rice mingles with fried onions and peppers as three girls chuckle as they try to find their seats in the darkness. A young man takes a loud call, cheers and somewhere in the dark a hot samosa is eaten too quickly. All the while, a melodious cacophony of image and sound thumps off the screen. This is an Indian cinema and the audience is back.
And what a movie to return to. RRR is famed Telugu filmmaker SS Rajamouli’s big-budget, multilingual, pan-Indian, historical-action-romance blockbuster, a highly anticipated, oft-delayed jamboree that defies not so much definition as it does understanding. As wave after wave of luscious, beautifully crafted bombast is gleefully handed out to an intoxicated audience, minds complex and simple alike will spend days digesting what they’ve seen. RRR (which in English stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”) had the best worldwide opening day shoot of any Indian film of all time, beating Rajamouli’s latest film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Just as British, and to some extent American, cinemas leaned on James Bond to get the crowd back on track after a turbulent two years, so Indian theaters are hoping for a series of major releases – RRR, The Kashmir Files, the Kannada language KGF Chapter 2 (Kolar Gold Fields) and Jersey, starring Shahid Kapoor – bring the movie hordes as states lift Covid measures.
“Cinema is religion in India. You can’t keep religion away from people for too long,” said 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 laptops and TVs and are happy they the common blockbuster viewing experience.” She adds: “Cinema is a connecting experience in India. People from all walks of life can relate to and bond with the movies they see and the soundtracks they hear and dance to.”
Few would argue with that, but RRR is not your archetypal Bollywood hit. For starters, it’s not strictly a Bollywood movie – that’s Hindi cinema – but it still retains many of its key features. RRR is mainly in Telugu (of the southern state of Telangana), and is dubbed into Hindi; it also includes english, tamil, tribal languages and at some point bengali. The two lead actors, Ram Charam and NT Rama Rao Jr (aka NTR), dubbed their own dialogue in Tamil, Hindi and Kannada, and most of the actors spoke in their own language during the filming. This only adds to the frenzy of the action scenes and the sense that your senses have been stimulated by a juicy, explosive movie. A biryani western, on bhang.
The Telugu film world (with the entrepreneurial moniker Tollywood) usually sees Bollywood as a rival, but the contemporary spirit of collaboration personified by Rajamouli has resulted in audiences getting the best of both worlds. “What has changed!” says film critic Anil Sinanan. “It used to be thought that ‘regional’ or South Indian cinema wouldn’t work in the Hindi-speaking north, the ‘cow belt’.” Historically, remakes in other languages have been the norm, leading both industries to accuse the other of defrauding them, but RRR — like recent hits like Pushpa and Baahubali — is now dubbed in Hindi.
While the trend for ‘all India’ movies may be on the rise, it might be worth pausing for a moment to consider just how unorthodox RRR really is, even for Telugu cinema, where movie fans go when they find Bollywood pageantry. is missing. The story revolves around a fictionalized friendship between two real-life Indian freedom fighters in the 1920s, as they battle the power of the British Raj. It features not only the two South Indian stars as protagonists, but Bollywood’s current first lady, 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, who have heaps of fun as the evil Britons, resplendent in pith helmets and minor brutality.
Without spoiling anyone’s fun, it’s important to mention the following that set in a three-hour family movie: a revolutionary protest scene more reminiscent of the Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones than Gandhi; a man swinging a motorcycle like a bat; a man hitting a tiger; torture scenes so brutal that parents shielded their children’s eyes in the cinema; witty meta Greek chorus-like songs with lyrics about a friendship that ends in blood; the diabolical ‘purchase’ of a village girl for reasons unclear; a man who turns into a Hindu deity; a dance sequence on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Delhi, so extravagantly incendiary they might as well have splashed mango kulfi all over the viceroy’s clothes.
But can anything be inferred from the fact that popcorn is on a big budget — or? poor – film packing them in the multiplexes and village houses? Especially when the controversial political drama The Kashmir Files – set during a catastrophic period in the recent history of the volatile state – has also hit a stellar box office. “Movies like RRR are pure escapism,” Bajaj says. “While they try to bring an element of history into the storylines, what matters most is the protagonists, the soundtrack, the melodrama and the full-blown spectacle that Indian cinema offers.
“Serious dramas like Kashmir Files have their audiences and serve a different purpose. They are meant to provoke debate rather than entertain. There is room for both types of genres to coexist at the box office.”
Not to mention the evolution in technical prowess and creativity shown in RRR and other recent Indian films, meaning new international audiences are eager to come to the party. Rajamouli sometimes seems to mix not only Indian styles but aspects of films from Hong Kong, Hollywood, French and even silent films. “Do you mean copy?” says Sinanan. “Or as they say, ‘seeking inspiration’ – nothing new here. The change now might be that they’re polishing up the technicalities of the filmmaking process. but India now has the technology to do it and at a much lower cost than Hollywood.
RRR may not just be a majestic homecoming for Indian movie fans, but could easily become one of those foreign language “crossover” movies that arrive at the perfect time to set western cinema on fire – like, say, Das Boot, The Raid, Life Is Beautiful, or most recently, Parasite. It’s certainly plausible, Nahta says. “Hindi movie audience has now accepted Korean movies (on OTT) with open arms, also international audience has woken up to Indian content. Indian cinema is definitely evolving. Otherwise global adoption would not be possible.”