It’s been said many times that all art, all film, is political. Despite what seems like just whimsical romances, colorful and spontaneous dance sequences, and comically absurd action scenes, mainstream Indian cinema is no exception. Rather, due to caste oppression and Hindu nationalism, all choices a director makes in film – names, accents, foods, settings, dialogues – can be read as politicized. Although many Western audiences, unfamiliar with the complexity of Indian political culture and society, may view mainstream Indian cinema as pure entertainment devoid of politics or propaganda, it could not be farther from the case.
S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR released in March 2022, to strong commercial and critical success both in India and globally. Starring Jr. NTR and Ram Charan, with extended cameos from Bollywood stars Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt, the Telugu language film depicts the fictionalized accounts of two Indian revolutionaries in the backdrop of 1920’s British India. The film has amassed ₹1,200 crore ($160 million) globally so far, becoming the fourth-highest grossing Indian film of all time. This was to be expected of such a production – Rajamouli has met similar commercial success with the Baahubali franchise. With a budget of ₹550 crore ($72 million), a cast of Telugu and Hindi language cinema’s biggest stars, and Rajamouli’s experience with crafting entertaining films with incredible pan-Indian and global reach, anybody could have predicted domestic success. What is more notable is its widespread critical acclaim from those in the West. Just take a look at the Letterboxd reviews for RRR, and you’ll have to scroll down quite a bit to find the first Indian reviewers. Aside from predominantly white people’s 5 star reviews, gushing about how America could never pull off such a cinematic spectacle or experience, the New Yorker and New York Times – among countless others – have profiled the film, and their glowing reviews make it seem like RRR is what Western critics want Marvel movies to be.
It’s hard to deny the pure entertainment value of RRR, and while the politics of the film made me uneasy, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. The mostly-white twenty-somethings on Letterboxd were right in that it is a spectacle of a film, especially if viewed in the theater. The film boasts a wonderful soundtrack, engaging action scenes, and heavy homoeroticism between the lead characters (the film even includes a whipping scene, which is Queer Aesthetics 101!). Lost to Western, and even many Indian, audiences along the 3 hours of masala, however, is the subtle Hindu nationalism of Rajamouli.
The film beings in the Adilabad Forest, populated by the Adivasi (indigenous) Gond tribe of southeast India. A British family kidnaps a young Gondi girl and maims her mother, in line with the very effective and accurate, if near-cartoonish, villainization of the British in the film. The next scene shows Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) as a police officer for the British, somehow fighting off a mob of hundreds of Indians. Our other hero, Komaram Bheem (Jr. NTR) has a similarly outlandish entry scene, where he covers himself with blood to lure a wolf, outruns the wolf, and then wrestles a tiger. The film goes on to chronicle the two heroes’ struggle against the British Empire (specifically, against the evil white men, and not the beautiful-and-typically-not-racist white women that protect the Indians from the cruelty of their brutish husbands). On the surface, RRR tells the story of two heroic hyper-masculine Telugu men fighting a valiant fight against the sins of the British Empire. What’s not to love about that? Superficially, to audiences unfamiliar with the nuances of Indian society, RRR reads as an anti-imperialist film, à la Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers or Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba.
The most consistent problem from the beginning to the end of the film was Komaram Bheem’s depiction. Bheem and Rama are not portrayed as equals at all, with Rama’s character taking a clearly superior role. Rama is shown as tactical, literate, and scheming, while Bheem has great physical prowess and mentality. Rama’s goal of liberation for all Indians is seen as superior to Bheem simply wanting to save the life of one of his tribe members (a character even refers to Gondis as sheep). Bheem himself even says that “The tribal that I am, I could not understand” the depth and purpose of Rama’s actions in the film. While the two figures never met in real life, their goals were very similar – they both wanted to liberate tribal/Adivasi communities in Telugu speaking regions. Bheem’s character fills the trope of the “noble savage”, while Rama plays the civilized savior. At the end of the main part of the film, Bheem’s one request to Rama is to teach him how to read and write. Bheem’s real life inspiration was literate, impressive considering his background and the restrictions on education placed on him. Rama goes on to write “Jal, Jangal, Zameen” (Water, Forest, Land) – an Adivasi slogan coined by Bheem, not Rama. Rama’s superiority is also shown as he wears the sacred thread on his shoulder, worn only by the high castes. The first film made about the real life Alluri Sitarama Raju, played by Krishna in 1974, did not have him wearing the thread. Bheem also pretends to be a Muslim while hiding in Delhi, but Muslim characters are absent from the entire film, despite their prominence in anti-colonial movements.
The most blatant Hindutva of RRR is in the climax and credits song sequence. The climax involves a now long-haired Rama shedding his top for a bow and arrow, as well as a tilak, or holy mark, on his forehead. Wearing saffron bottoms, it is clear who Rama’s representing – Rama the Hindu deity. In a political climate where “Jai Shree Ram” is chanted as atrocities are committed on Muslims, Christians, and caste-oppressed communities, this is a clear political choice. As Hindu Sanskrit chants play in the background of deified Rama, he eliminates British soldiers with his holy arrows. Rama makes his way out of the forest, a clear allusion to the Ramayana. This doesn’t come as a surprise as Rajamouli and his work is clearly inspired by Doordarshan and their work with using the Hindu myth as state propaganda. The Ramayana allusion isn’t subtle at all, with Rama’s lover being named Sita in the film. As Rama exits the forest, it’s clear who Bheem is in the story: Rama’s Hanuman, his servant, his inferior. Bheem’s role aside, the use of allusion to the Ramayana is notable due to its critiques from Dalit, Dravidian, and Feminist angles, as a story exemplifieng the brahminical patriarchy of Hindu society. Portraying the freedom struggle as a Hindu one, via Hindu iconography and allusion, creates a mythology of anti-colonial struggle as a Hindu struggle. The Indian flag used in multiple instances in the film was partially designed by the foundational thinker of Hindutva himself, Savarkar. The saffronisation of the freedom struggle is by all means in support of Hindutva ideology and practice.
The song “Etthara Jenda”, at the very end of the film, showcases many leading figures of the freedom movement including Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabhai Patel, and Shivaji Maharaj (another highly saffronised figure in politics and film, see: Tahanji, also starring Ajay Devgn). Notably missing, however, were the two most well-known independence activists – Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. While I am not anywhere near a Gandhian or Nehruvian, their omission from Rajamouli’s mantle of independence fighters can only indicate a rejection of the secular India that they ideologically endorsed.
The saffronisation of the Indian freedom struggle and the peddling of ‘soft’ Hindutva in Indian cinema unfortunately is a growing trend in the industry. Recent films that push a Hindutva agenda include Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, Dwivedi’s Samrat Prithviraj, and Anurag Singh’s Kesari. Given the rise of Hindu fascism in India – with no sign of it waning any time soon — it’s important for Western audiences to know what they are consuming. What seems like a simple, action-packed spectacle has subtexts that can not and should not be ignored, at the peril of the savarna-saffronisation of Indian history erasing Bahujan struggle against imperialism.