Cinema & Bollywood · Culture & Life · History India South Asia · Religion

Marvel and RRR: Who Needs to Learn From Whom

[This essay contains several spoilers for RRR]

Like many music lovers, I absolutely revel in listening to a newly favorite song over and over, and over again. For the past month or so, the two songs which have boomed repeatedly into my headphones are Calm Down and Naatu Naatu (I admit I am generally late to new, trendy music). The latter incidentally landed both a Grammy and an Academy Award this year. For those in India who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Naatu Naatu’s composer M.M.Keeravani (or “M.M. Kreem”) was one of those music directors whose name you’d know only if you had more than a superficial interest in Bollywood music. Aa Bhi Ja by Lucky Ali was, as far as I can remember, my introduction to Keeravani, and then came the massively popular songs from Jism. Honestly, it feels quite surreal to realize that the artist who composed KK’s Awarapan Banjarapan two decades ago, is the same who wrote music for the grandiloquent Baahubali (the rousing Mamatala Talli and Nippulaa Swasa Ga from which are a constant presence in my playlists), and whose Naatu Naatu is so very popular today around the world.

Apart from being an excellent aural treat, Naatu Naatu is a spectacular visual riot. I like it when videos of film songs feature an engaging plot in themselves, and as a delightfully choreographed narrative within the larger story of its film (RRR), Naatu Naatu is eminently watchable as well as danceable. It was performed at the recent Academy Awards ceremony, where they said that the song illustrated its film RRR’s “anti-colonialist themes”. In the movie, Naatu Naatu shows a condescending British officer in 1920s Delhi mocking and racially abusing an Indian man, claiming that “these brown buggers” know nothing about “art, finesse, dance”. The protagonist Indians respond to this abuse by performing “desi naach” (featuring the above-mentioned spectacular choreography) and prove to the assembled colonizers that the colonized can also dance — that too astonishingly well.

Dancing with “finesse”; Still from Lagaan (2001); Courtesy YouTube

In the confined context of the party at an elite colonial club which forms the backdrop for the song, this foot-tapping resistance by the Indian men can perhaps well be termed “anti-colonialist”, more so if we ignore the highly simplistic, almost comic binaries, exaggerations, and gendered assumptions interspersed throughout the song’s narrative. But when we zoom out of the giddying Naatu Naatu moment and take stock of the whole of RRR, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of it as an anti-colonial story and to ignore its serious and pervasive flaws, some of them pretty revolting as several reviewers have noted (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

These distasteful aspects of RRR came as a rude shock to me when, after hearing a lot of buzz about the film for months, I finally sat down to watch the global blockbuster on a February weekend. My excitement, however, lasted as long as the duration of meaningful screen time women characters get in RRR. Within the first 10 minutes itself came a protracted and painfully absurd action scene in which the character of Raju plunges in a massive mob of hundreds of angry people to nab one of them for his British superiors. I absolutely could not stand the scene. For the eternity that it went on, I kept wondering why reviewers in the US and UK heaped overwhelming praise on a film which had something like this, when they most certainly would have panned a Hollywood movie for that kind of mediocrity. Several viewers were indeed put off in the first half hour itself of RRR.

Stills from Captain America: Civil War (2016) and RRR (2022); Disney Plus and Netflix

The entire film features similarly protracted action sequences with stupendously ridiculous elements, in addition to an almost juvenile storyline full of convenient accidents and coincidences (this video skillfully, even though perhaps not fully intentionally, encapsulates RRR’s outer sheen and inner hollowness). Not that RRR is unenjoyable — there are indeed genuine moments of thrill and brilliant spectacle throughout. In fact it is the combination of absurdity and spectacle that seems to have won RRR countless fans internationally. Which is all well and good, and pretty unremarkable news for folks like me who remember the unexpected but concrete global popularity of Why This Kolaveri Di and Gangnam Style. But the craze around RRR was often accompanied by cursory, offhand comparisons with Marvel movies. Many people within and outside India seem to be saying that Hollywood’s Marvel movies fare poorly compared to RRR, and that Marvel makers need to learn much from RRR and its acclaimed director SS Rajamouli. When I came across these Marvel-RRR comparisons, I was like, this is really getting out of hand!

You may well diss Marvel all you want, but let’s be real: the Marvel universe is hulkloads better than RRR and the Rajamouli style of moviemaking in general. For starters, no Marvel movie has committed the unforgivable sin of prominently featuring a religious figure (the deity Ram in RRR’s case) who is constantly invoked by contemporary extremists and militants when they taunt, beat up and/or murder people of other religions and sects. As things stand today, one can trust the formidable creators and writers of Marvel content, and even the Marvel powers-that-be (the Kevin Feiges as well as K.E.V.I.N.), to not flaunt a deeply troubling religious figure in their films, one whose appearance on Marvel will surely be used by extremists to amplify their bigotry and fanaticism. In the making of RRR, no such self-awareness and sensitivity seem to have prevailed.

Still from Baahubali: The Beginning (2015); YouTube

RRR is not the first Rajamouli film in which a righteous male protagonist and a Hindu deity are projected as almost one and the same to an enthralled audience. In his other global hit, Baahubali, we were expected to think of the character of Shiva (in the Hindi version) as almost an incarnation of the deity Shiv (or Shiva/Shankar). This cinematic focus on valorizing Hindu deities, especially those which are part of the more elite Brahminical pantheon — different from the imposing variety of hundreds of divine figures patronized by Bahujan communities across South Asia, like the Maharashtrian Jotiba and Khandoba which were my own family’s primary deities — dates back to Indian cinema’s earliest years, which film scholars describe as dominated by stories based in religion and mythology. This early twentieth century obsession with Brahminical religious symbolism, though it never completely disappeared from mainstream Indian cinema, has indeed been largely replaced by a tremendous diversity of stories and narratives over time.

So in the twenty-first century when a Rajamouli film with almost impeccable CGI and world-class stunts still regurgitates some of those same old religion-themed storylines, one can’t help but exasperatedly remember historian Meera Nanda’s acute observation that (in paraphrased words) for a large number of especially privileged-caste Hindus, being “modern” has simply meant being religious and casteist in newer, fancier, and hi-tech ways. A Rajamouli film on the quantum realm, for example, would have somehow found a way to jostle in a deity or two, wielding one or another weapon, as the original and timeless inhabitants of the subatomic “brahmaand”. Should Marvel films be really dipping their scripts and themes in the murky inkpots of religion as Rajamouli does? I absolutely don’t think so.

[It is also worth noting that while India has a poor record at producing great animated movies, even the popular films in that genre have been dominated by religion and mythology.]

So RRR’s religious machismo is something the Marvel Universe can very well do without. But surely there must be other things to be learned from this global hit? Perhaps. But certainly not intricate narrativization, or human complexities in characters and their decisions, or riveting dialog and exchanges between individuals. For all its epic visual spectacle, RRR has no memorable line or quip or conversational segment, and is devoid of humor altogether (despite some insipid and dated comedic maneuvers like the character of Akhtar mispronouncing the name of the Governor’s niece). There were several reviews of RRR which, even as they lavishly praised its action and direction, noted its “cartoonish” and “cartoonishly evil” villains, and how it offered “neither psychology nor history nor social context” to enrich its narrative.

In some ways, RRR can be compared to the bombastic speeches of charismatic talkers (or bol-bachchans): the rhetoric has no real substance but is so well packaged and delivered that the audience is swept up and fully captivated, at least for the duration of the speech. As one reviewer noted: “RRR is such a satisfying movie to watch. Now, when it’s over and your higher brain functions start to kick back in, you might start to feel a different way about it.” Or as another articulately wrote: “It’s all presented in such visually dazzling fashion that your eyes are fully satisfied before your brain can make any objections.”

It would be one thing if the objections the brain made to RRR after soaring on its wondrous visual flights were only of the more basic intellectual type, which is common with many other visually spectacular films (like Alice Through the Looking Glass the “blitzkrieg of digital effects” of which, one reviewer wrote, could not “distract from the fact that the storytelling is all smoke and mirrors”). Such is the case with RRR too. As reviewer Tanul Thakur noted, it starts with an Adivasi group’s valiant efforts to find and rescue a girl and sets the stage for intricate and engrossing “detective flair”: but it offers none of that, with the whole plot moving forward simply “through coincidences and heroism”. In many ways, RRR packs in a mix of different phases in Indian cinematic history: 1920s-30s Brahminical religiosity, 1980s weak, simplistic storytelling, and 2020s state-of-the-art CGI.

Unlettered/Learned; Still from RRR (2022); Netflix

But the brain’s objections don’t just stop at the weaknesses of the story, script and dialog. Soon one is confronted with more unsavory elements: the casteism and Hindu supremacy that strongly undergird both the verbal and visual narratives of RRR, and which have been panned by many in India even as oblivious foreign reviewers and viewers have mostly missed the seriousness of those aspects. The character of Raju/Ram — shown sporting the sacred thread that marks the “upper” castes — is so arrogantly convinced of the validity and superiority of his own ideas and narrow goals, that he displays no sense of introspection or empathy as he goes about mercilessly assaulting and crushing fellow Indians in his supposedly noble “anti-colonial” pursuit. What is more, the film then goes on to claim that his cryptic and self-obsessed approach (along with its “collateral damage”) is not just laudable, but is also “greater” than the “simple” one of the Adivasi people focused on rescuing one of their members and who seem to refrain from harming innocent people and justifying such violence. Such clear hierarchies and binaries of simple-complex, primitive-civilized, unlettered-learned, et al — characteristic both of Orientalism and casteism — pervade RRR. As someone who has always enjoyed the complexities and nuances of sociopolitical and historical realities that Marvel films portray, I will be truly disappointed if the Marvel universe were to go the RRR and Rajamouli way.

Can Rajamouli films ever, like the Black Panther and the Captain America films, feature complex historical, cultural and sociopolitical elements, capture their nuances, indulge in humanistic portrayals, while at the same time providing blockbuster entertainment? For now I am skeptical, especially after reading a New Yorker interview wherein Rajamouli’s comments on Indian history, society and politics weren’t all that inspiring (it must be noted that this is the case with a large number of Indian film celebrities).

Above, Amarendra Baahubali refusing to kill and shed blood in the name of religion; Below, Amarendra Baahubali being liberal and “woke” by rejecting violent traditions and suggesting new, more humane ways of worshiping; Stills from Baahubali: The Beginning; Netflix

But despite my skepticism, I do wish to see Rajamouli working on something that is as honestly political + wildly entertaining as many Marvel Universe films are. I really do wish and hope. There is no denying Rajamouli’s enormous creative talent and imaginative prowess: if those skills are used to tell a powerful story which, for example, features the bravehearts who have rallied against casteism and Hindu extremism in twentieth century India, wouldn’t that be an appropriate sequel to the “anti-colonial” RRR? And if Rajamouli insists on employing religious symbols, wouldn’t it be only right to show a cinematic Shiv or Ram raising their weapons against the fanatic militants, scheming politicians, and paramilitary organizations which use their names to justify cruelty and violence? The compassionate and ethical leader Amarendra Baahubali would, I am sure, wholeheartedly agree.


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