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Why ‘RRR,’ the Indian superhero movie, became a phenomenon

The script is scandalous and the result is spectacular. It evokes the Marvel universe more than historical memory. The film’s success marks a new chapter in nationalist film

N. T. Rama Rao Jr as Komaram Bheem in the Indian film 'RRR'.

It is crude. Grotesque. A superhero plot for a film about patriotism. In the most tense scenes, the characters burst into song. It is a nonsense spectacle wrapped in a flag. But it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen during the more than three hours of RRR, the great Indian blockbuster film that has become one of Netflix’s most watched movies. It does not come from Bollywood, Bombay’s fertile audiovisual industry, but from Tollywood, another film center that has sprung up around Calcutta and which uses the Telugu language instead of Hindi.

RRR stands for Rise Roar Revolt. Its message fits well with the new Indian nationalism embodied by President Narendra Modi. Set in the 1920s, the film follows two historical figures in the resistance to the British empire: Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. In this version, the men start on opposite sides, one in the colonial police and the other in the independence movement. The film invents an intimate friendship between two national heroes who never met in real life. The factual inaccuracies do not matter: this isn’t the territory of historians. The only thing that matters is the display of incredible combat, involving animals and near-supernatural powers, an adrenaline show that evokes Marvel more than any true incidents in national memory. The special effects are more clever than perfect, but they work.

It’s Manichaean, of course. The British colonists are evil and sadistic; the Indians in their service are not. The rebels give everything for their country, going as far as taking on suicide missions. In an audiovisual market that longs for exotic products that break up the monotony, the film’s popularity reveals a new potential for nationalist propaganda. In the hands of a professional film production team, action cinema can turn the most infamous ideas into entertainment.

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