The cinema aisles are lit up with the screens of a dozen mobile phones as a third of the audience shuffles in unapologetically during the opening 20 minutes of the film. The aroma of popcorn and puffed rice blends with fried onions and chillies as three girls snigger while trying to find their seats in the blackness. A young man loudly takes a phone call, a cheer comes from the back, and somewhere in the dark a hot samosa is eaten too quickly. All the while a melodious cacophony of sound and vision throbs from the screen. This is an Indian movie theatre, and the audiences are back.
And what a film to return to. RRR is the big-budget, multilingual, pan-Indian, historical-action-romance blockbuster from the renowned Telugu film-maker SS Rajamouli, a much awaited, oft-delayed jamboree that not so much defies definition as comprehension. As wave after wave of lush, beautifully crafted bombast is gleefully dished out to a bedazzled audience, minds both complex and simple will spend days processing what they have seen. RRR (which stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”, in English anyway), had the best global opening day takings by any Indian film of all time, beating Rajamouli’s last film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Just as British, and to some extent American, cinemas banked on James Bond to help corral crowds back after a turbulent two years, so Indian theatres hope a clutch of big releases – RRR, The Kashmir Files, the Kannada-language KGF Chapter 2 (Kolar Gold Fields) and Jersey, starring Shahid Kapoor – will bring back the filmi hordes as states lift Covid measures.
“Cinema is 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 events company in the UK: “Most people have had enough of watching movies on their laptops and TVs and are glad to have the communal blockbuster viewing experience.” She adds: “Cinema is a unifying experience in India. People from all walks of life can relate to and bond over the movies they see and soundtracks they hear 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 – yet retains many of its key characteristics. RRR is mainly in Telugu (from the southern state of Telangana), and is dubbed into Hindi; it also features 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 languages during shooting. This only adds to the insanity of the action sequences and the feeling that your senses have been Shanghaied by a succulent, explosive film. A biryani western, on bhang.
The Telugu film world (enterprisingly nicknamed Tollywood) usually sees Bollywood as a rival, but the contemporary spirit of cooperation, personified by Rajamouli, has meant that audiences get the best of both worlds. “How things have changed!” says film critic Anil Sinanan. “It used to be thought that ‘regional’ or south Indian cinema would not work in the Hindi-speaking north, the ‘cow belt’.” Historically, remakes into other languages have been the norm, leading both industries to accuse 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 India” films may be growing, it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to detail just how unorthodox RRR actually is, even for Telugu cinema, where film fans go when they find Bollywood lacking in pageantry. The story is centred on a fictionalised friendship between two real-life Indian freedom fighters in the 1920s, as they take on the might of the British Raj. It features not just the two south-Indian stars as leads, but Bollywood’s current first lady, Alia Bhatt, as well as Hindi cinema veteran Ajay Devgn in a small yet pivotal role. Also a cast of white western actors, led by Ray Stevenson of Thor and Rome fame, having tremendous fun as the evil Britishers, resplendent in pith helmets and petty brutality.
Without spoiling anyone’s fun it feels important to mention the following things occur in a family film within the space of three hours: a revolutionary protest scene reminiscent more of the battle of the bastards in Game of Thrones than Gandhi; a man swinging a motorbike like a club; a man punching 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 ending in blood; the fiendish “purchase” of a village girl for opaque reasons; a man turning into a Hindu deity; a dance sequence in the grounds of the imperial palace in Delhi so extravagantly seditious they may as well have splashed mango kulfi across the viceroy’s dress whites.
But can anything be inferred from the fact a big-budget popcorn – or poori – movie is packing them in at the multiplexes and village halls? Especially when the controversial political drama The Kashmir Files – set during a cataclysmic period in the volatile state’s recent history – has also been doing great box office. “Movies like RRR are pure escapism,” says Bajaj. “While they try and bring an element of history into the storylines, it’s mainly about the lead stars, the soundtrack, melodrama and the full-blown 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 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 seems at times to blend not just Indian styles but aspects of Hong Kong, Hollywood, French and even silent era films. “Do you mean copying?” says Sinanan. “Or as they put it, ‘seeking inspiration’ – nothing new here. The change perhaps now is they are polishing up the technical aspects of the film-making process. but then India has the technology now to do it and at a much cheaper cost than Hollywood.”
RRR may not just be a majestic homecoming for Indian film fans, but could easily become one of those “crossover” foreign language films that arrives at a perfect moment to set western cinema alight – like, say, Das Boot, The Raid, Life Is Beautiful, or most recently, Parasite. It’s certainly plausible, says Nahta. “Hindi film audiences have now accepted Korean films (on OTT) with open arms, the international audience has also woken up to Indian content. Indian cinema is definitely evolving. Otherwise, worldwide acceptance would not be possible.”