RRR: rebellious heroes,
roaring stars, and myth-making

by Madhuja Mukherjee

“Do you know ‘Naatu’? Because, if not, you are about to.”
Deepika Padukone at the Oscars

The success story of the foot-tapping song and dance number “Naatu Naatu”, from the Indian (Telugu language) film RRR directed by SS Rajamouli, became part of heated debates. The arguments escalated after its unprecedented feat both at 80th Golden Globe Awards as well as at 95th Academy Awards. For the uninformed, RRR stars Indian superstars NTR Jr. aka Tarak and Ram Charan; it is set in 1920s and opens with graphic depiction of ruthless violence meted out by the British imperialists against the Gond Adivasis (indigenous people), living in South of India.

The film narrates Komaram Bheem’s (NTR Jr.) story, the leader of the Gond people, who eventually arrives at the capital city, Delhi, to find Malli—the abducted Gond girl with a magical voice. Bheem arrives at the fringes of Delhi and masquerades as a Muslim (Akhtar) automobile technician, and later he encounters apparently pro-British, brutal, and ambitious officer Rama Raju (Ram Charan).

Their first meeting takes place at the time Bheem, riding a motorbike, and Raju, riding a horse, jump off their respective ‘vehicles’ into a sea of fire to save a young fisherman boy. In this electrifying sequence, supported by credible VFX, Raju carries a Nationalist flag and while hanging from the bridge he hands it over to Bheem. So, later (predictably), a deep friendship and a ‘bro-romance’ develop between the two. In the scenes in which their friendship develops, they misrecognise each other as ordinary men without any greater motives, although the song illustrating their bonding evokes a sense of impending conflict. Consequently, after their true identities are revealed, they betray and rescue each other a few times, and fight the mighty British army against a backdrop of massive forest fire in the end. 

Unlike most period and historical films, RRR acknowledges and celebrates local heroes (especially evident in the last song and dance sequence), assimilates certain facts, and thereafter creates a mythology from history. The film produces a spectacular fantasy drama about (homosocial) friendship, a bonding that surpasses life and death, as well as about the impossible tenacity of male bodies, union of two states (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), and of the two Telugu stars—NTR Jr. and Ram Charan. All these unfold in the midst of a bloody battle for India’s freedom, and what S. V. Srinivas describes as “the persistence of the feudal”.[1] [open notes in new window]

I am a non-Telugu speaking viewer who has watched the dubbed Hindi version of the film on an OTT platform, yet Komaram Bheem aka Kumram Bheem’s accounts, or the Gond revolutionary leader’s story which has been subsumed by RRR, haunts me.[2] Kumram Bheem had rebelled against the Nizam of Hyderabad (Princely state) during 1930s for indigenous people’s rights. His struggle effectively culminated into the Telangana rebellion (Communist movement for peasants’ rights) of 1940s. The movement snowballed over the years (major ones taking place in 1969, 1972, 2009) and resulted in the division of the state of Andhra Pradesh, and formation of Telangana state in 2014.[3]

Kumram Bheem was from the Deccan Plateau area (Telangana) and is believed to have raised the evocative slogan: Jal, Jangal, Jameen (Water, Forest, Land). He fought and died in 1940, for the rights to one’s own land. Kumram Bheem’s exceptional saga of political strife—working in a printing press, learning English and Urdu, building trade union movement, association with the Left, and the making of a guerrilla army—is the inspiration for the character of Bheem in the film.

Then again, there is the story Alluri Sitaram Raju (also known as Manyam Veerudu or Hero of the Jungle), an upper-caste leader from coastal Andhra, who fought for the rights of the forest-dwellers (known as Rampa Rebellion of 1922).[4] Sitaram Raju looted (British) police stations to acquire arms for his guerrilla forces, and the British spent millions to capture him until he was arrested in 1924, and executed.

The two had never met in actuality, given their temporal and geographical distances—but then, that’s not the point. I don’t intend to discuss the infidelity or improbability of the filmic story, rather, I am thinking about the significance of mythologisation of the two heroes who fought and died for Adivasi rights, and thinking through the loss of the accounts of “water, woods, land”—which is pivotal to indigenous peoples and ecological crises of our times and yet here transforms into a story about men, muscles, and massacre.[5]

And, lest we forget, ‘Jai Bhim’ is a contemporary Dalit-Adivasi movement slogan, alluding to B R Ambedkar, a social and political leader who was instrumental in the making of India’s Constitution. On the other hand, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is chanted by the right-wing parties in the current political environment. So, it is not surprising that critics across the globe have been harsh and divided about a film that is so spectacular and alluring because of the VFX and so problematic because of the onscreen figurations of Kumram Bheem and Sitaram Raju.

Akash Poyam (2022), for instance, is critical about “SS Rajamouli’s dehumanising portrayal of the Gond community” and “Identity Theft”.[6] Poyam states:

“Rajamouli does not treat the two revolutionaries as equals. Alluri—whose caste location is made clear by the sacred thread he wears—is depicted as Komaram’s savarna [upper caste] saviour, teaching the ‘noble savage’ the ways of ‘civilised life.’”

Moreover, Rajamouli is described as a ‘serial offender’ considering his earlier hit Bahubali (2015) presented the Adivasis as savages who literally speak gibberish, and are finally butchered in that film. I think the cinematic ‘theft’ is twice over—that of a long history of struggle and identity, and also of languages and voices.

Pravan Jani (2023) points out:

“Through the film there are gestures to Hindu-Muslim-Sikh solidarity, there are central Adivasi (indigenous) characters [Bheem], and there is an emphasis on national unity against the British enemy. But all of this finally comes together in the same old Hindu-centric nationalism, with the Adivasi character literally putting himself down, and in the service of the sacred-thread-wearing revolutionary [Rama Raju].”[7]

So, while India has a long and layered history of Dalit-Adivasi movements opposing Hindu-Savarna-men, I argue that in RRR this long-drawn battle against inequality gets entangled with the contemporary political situation of Andhra Pradesh, its division, and the formation of Telangana state.

Andhra Pradesh was formed in 1956 by merging Andhra state (created from Madras state in 1953) and Hyderabad state (formally incorporated within the Indian territory in 1950), with Hyderabad city as its capital. Andhra Pradesh was the ‘first’ linguistic state in India, and it witnessed one of the bloodiest battles over state formation. The formalisation of the state was preceded by an extended political movement, signposted by the fasting and consequent death of the revolutionary leader Potti Sreeramulu in 1952.[8] Sreeramulu’s death led to mass agitation, killings, and eventual recognition of Telugu-speaking communities in the region. The state had three major cultural constituencies—Telangana, Rayalaseema, and costal Andhra. A peasant-led movement for a separate Telangana state, however, began around the same period, concluding into the disunion of Andhra Pradesh, and formation of two states in 2014. 

The division is particularly problematical because of the continued tussle over shared assets, institutions, land and water. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have split their assets in a 52:48 ratio, respectively; however, the river water is shared on 66:34 basis, which means the drier plateau area gets less water than coastal Andhra. Similarly, Nallamala forest, which lay at the heart undivided Andhra, is now principally inside Andhra Pradesh.

Writing about the state archive (in Hyderabad) and its invaluable documents (in Urdu and Persian language), Vandana Menon (2023) discusses how this conflict is, “about language, religion, and the cultural identity of two fiercely proud traditions…”.[9] I suggest that this battle of over separate (before 1948), shared (after 1956), and divided (post 2014) histories, is now as much over the major film production centre of Telugu cinema—located in Hyderabad city (now in Telangana).

To complicate the matter further, I suggest that the individual stardoms of NTR Jr. and Ram Charan, as well as their family histories, bleed into the body of the film. I argue that RRR works at three levels:

“Naatu, Naatu”: raw, rustic, and restive

Chris Chekuri (2023) makes an engaging point about “Naatu” and the global implications of the vernacular.[11] He underscores “the vernacular poetics of Telugu language” and explains in what way the term “Naatu” is integral to contemporary Telugu cultures. Chekuri explains:

“As in the English ‘snail mail’ or ‘analog watch,’ Telugu has produced many such retronyms but always with the adjective naatu to qualify the noun. … Naatu, then, is an indigenous response to the arrival of/encounter with new things and a way of assimilating but also adjusting to a redrawing of linguistic, cultural, social, economic boundaries, one that produces a new landscape, perhaps even new subjectivities. … particularly naatu, … draw lines in the encounters between the vernacular and the colonial, the national, the modern, and the global.”

So, the lyrics of “Naatu Naatu”—“pickled chili with red millet bread”—signify a global reinvention of the local. Moreover, in a conversation between film scholars Monika Mehta and Anupama Prabhala (2023), Mehta indicates that “we could also think about how this film pushes audiences outside India to think and to feel differently about cinema and their positions as spectators”.[12] As Prabhala talks in length about “Naatu Naatu”, she proposes:[13]

“One can read the division of the Telugu state as a delayed traumatic response to the colonial encounter as well as the separation of Andhra from Telangana. …

Song and action sequences become vital for mythologizing an impossible brotherhood–the animating principle behind RRR’s anticolonial sentiment and intervention. … Naatu Naatu introduces dance as an energetic sign of social and political navigation. The dance steps are almost geometric. … The entire sequence is a marvelous example of the extreme juxtaposition between their rivalry and friendship. Their staccato but visually in sync steps heighten the emotional intensity of a precarious yet eminently desirable brotherhood. …”[14]

However, I suggest that this “brotherhood” is imaginable and possible at the cost of significant collateral damages—discussed later in this paper.

The story of fire, water, and family trees 

S. V. Srinivas has written in length about two of the crucial figures of Telugu cinema and the political sphere—N. T. Rama Rao (/ NTR) and Chiranjeevi—grandfather and father of NTR Jr. and Raman Charan respectively. A quick web search of “Allu–Konidela family” and “Nandamuri family” will reveal the respective family trees, branching out in many directions, but most important, it shall lay bare how cinema and politics are entwined in Andhra Pradesh.

In 2006, Srinivas argues how Telugu cinema failed to globalize itself, and how the area’s feudal structure subsists by referencing the lineage of the stars. He asserts:

“Star ‘dynasties’ have been created as if nations, and not careers, were at stake. These are but a sign of the multiple layers at which the feudal persists in the Telugu film industry.”[15]

He further adds: “The obsession with a feudal past as well as the practice of inventing feudal figures of authority is a direct inheritance from the NTR vehicles of the late 1970s and early 1980s…”.[16] Moreover, NTR formed Telugu Desam Party in 1982 and became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983.

Borrowing Madhava Prasad’s ‘cine-politics’ argument, Srinivas shows the manner in which audiences, and particularly fans, respond to the idea of leadership emanating from the screen.[17] He illustrates in what ways such figures garnered a “legitimacy to represent” (Prasad 46) the people from cinema.[18] Briefly, NTR became the star-embodiment of ‘Telugu-ness’ and its feudal pasts via his popular films. Following subsequent developments, Srinivas chalks out an exhaustive graph and explains the parallel growth of the Telugu film industry (relocated to Hyderabad in 1960s) and the economic-political changes within the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Srinivas reminds us how the return of the feudal patriarch on Telugu screen is significant:

“the reopening of the feudalism question was a direct consequence of the wide-ranging critique of feudalism in the Telangana region launched by the naxalite [Maoist] movement and its sympathizers ...”.[19]

So, the on-screen dominance of NTR as a feudal lord reinstituted feudal values by making a distinction between good and bad feudal lords, thereby, facilitating a “disavowal” of armed Left struggle, farmers’ movement, and “feudal oppression.”[20]