Melodrama-Rama: Absorbing Delight
The Telugu film RRR is an incredible mixture of genres, influences, and ideas: a historical epic with obvious ahistorical qualities, a combat-heavy actioner with exuberant song-and-dance numbers, a homosocial friendship drama with recognizably romantic montages. Strong notes of melodrama accent its potent blend. These notes appear not just literally—in musical form—but also within the film’s fabric, in characteristics I find familiar from investigating American melodrama. However, where American melodrama is often self-contained, RRR is part of an international film culture that uses melodrama in all kinds of stories, including those from prestigious directors and in serious genres. Many American critics find melodrama silly and unworthy, but filmmakers from Spain to the Philippines sure don’t.
RRR is the most expensive Indian film ever made, and every rupee is right there on the screen. It’s a gorgeous spectacle, a magnificent testament to revolutionary spirit, and one of the most entertaining films of the decade (God willing—if another comes along that’s more entertaining, my head may explode mid-screening). The two main characters, Ram (Ram Charan) and Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), are fictionalized versions of late Raj-era Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem. In real life, they never met, but in this film, they are bosom friends, nearly brothers. Respectively, they represent fire and water, sophisticated strategy and raw animal power, Rama and Bhima. The plot they drive involves secrets, betrayal, duty, coincidence, love, national pride, and the defeat of evil.
Set pieces are RRR’s most powerful element, whether musical numbers (“Naatu Naatu,” a full-on song-and-dance number pitting Western dances limply performed by pasty Brits against joyful steps danced by enchanting Desi men) or absurd action sequences (a truck full of tigers, leopards, wolves, and even a black bear attacks an English palace). This is not a film in which the audience leaves still wanting more. Along with its pleasurable excesses, it’s a long movie, one in which the title card only appears after 40 minutes. The filmmakers play with time and its passage to great effect, using slo-mo and tableaux frequently and well. The running time does not pass like a three-hour movie by Scorsese or Nolan.
Of course, a Tollywood film is never going to feel like a Hollywood film. The aesthetic traditions are completely different. When the stars of the film sing and dance not long after punching or shooting guns, it feels out of place to Western audiences, yet it fits right into the film’s obvious philosophy: do anything and everything to entertain. When these same stars weep and punch holes in the wall from grief, the mood should descend into camp; yet, again, it all gels. Expert hands mixed these genres, and they dumped in a generous helping of melodrama.
RRR is a deeply melodramatic film—partly because of the original definition of the word (from the Greek mélos meaning song). The film opens with a song that charms an English lady so much she kidnaps a Desi child, putting the plot into motion. Bheem sings a song from the public platform where he has been brutally flogged, stirring the watching citizens to action. As Ram puts it, “Bheem’s emotion turned every person into a weapon.” Bheem locates Ram among prisoners in cells by tapping out a musical rhythm on the earth. And their romantic friendship montage (Ram meets people posing as Bheem’s parents, they ride tandem on a motorcycle, Bheem points an electric fan at a sleeping, sweating Ram) is set to a rousing, minor-key song that both celebrates their friendship, dosti, and spells out anxiety for how their rivalry will end.
But music is not the only reason. As Peter Brooks writes in The Melodramatic Imagination, some of the “connotations” of melodrama are “the indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and schematization; extreme states of being, situations, actions; overt villainy; persecution of the good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plottings, suspense.” It’s also “a concept opposed to naturalism.”
All of this describes RRR extremely well. The British in this film represent overt villainy, and they oppress many good Desi people, who are rewarded at the end—not just with the deaths of their immediate enemies, but with a jubilant musical number performed beyond the borders of the film’s fiction, celebrating heroes of the independence movement. “Inflated and extravagant expression” is everywhere in RRR, in all of the set pieces as well as the characters’ dialogue. The secrets the two friends keep from each other certainly qualify as “dark plottings.” In one sequence, Bheem confesses a crucial secret to Ram while Ram is paralyzed from snakebite; Ram is inertly furious, because Bheem’s secret threatens to ruin all his plans. As Ram comes to terms with the truth, a phrase of Bheem’s repeats in his mind: “your friendship, which is more precious than my life.” This whole chain of events is as plausible as the death sequence in Romeo and Juliet, and almost as emotionally fraught.
As for “opposed to naturalism,” the film discards naturalism entirely, in ways I could write a whole separate essay about. Not only did these two historical figures never meet in life, not only are the feats they perform elaborately impossible, but the film uses visual effects to build “real” parts of its world, such as the palace where the main antagonist lives. A prologue card explains that all the animals in the film are digitally inserted, which theoretically ruins our fun from the get-go, but really just assures we can have fun watching men fighting tigers without worrying for the actors’ safety.
My perspective on melodrama as a genre which tells primarily women’s stories, stories of the drawing-room, has formed largely via how melodrama pops up in American culture. It appears in soap operas, movies classified as “weepies,” and romance novels, all of which target women as their primary audience. These media tell women’s stories, entailing lives and struggles of little historical consequence. Often, critics dismiss these types of media as “low art,” whether coincidentally or, as I suspect, not. In other countries, though, melodramas can be high art, and they more commonly integrate political themes and ideas—battlefield stories—than melodramas in America. RRR is a melodrama, and it’s also a deeply political film, damning the British Raj and colorfully exaggerating heroes of the Indian independence movement.
It’s not just India. The work of Lino Brocka, perhaps the most important filmmaker of the Philippines, is highly melodramatic, invoking individual struggles to stand in for the difficulties of life under the Marcos regime. His Insiang, about rape and revenge in grinding poverty, was the first Philippine film screened at Cannes. It and Manila in the Claws of Light have been anointed by the Criterion Collection, a reasonable barometer for excellence in film art. Brocka did not escape political harassment: the government considered his films to be so subversive that he had to smuggle a print of Macho Dancer out of the country.
German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder worked extensively in melodramas (most famously centering women) that nevertheless condemned fascism, racism, and violence. His peers in the New German Cinema movement include Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, and his Criterion discs number sixteen.
Pedro Almodóvar, easily the most celebrated living Spanish director, is a one-man “women’s picture” factory. His style and skill have been acclaimed by all for 35 years. Unlike the others, Almodóvar does not pair melodrama with politics—he has plainly said he is not a political filmmaker—but the broad respect for his films proves that melodrama is not invariably low art.
If such a distinction even exists. Perhaps it’s an American affectation.
For this critic, the most certain marker of melodrama in any media is whether I experience it emotionally rather than cerebrally. And RRR blows through this test like an adrenalin-dosed A student. The filmmakers have engineered nearly every minute to create emotional reactions, whether awe, glee, pity, or anguish. The “goosebump moments” are numerous, and unfailingly glorious.
If it seems like I’m shilling for this movie, well, I kind of am, but only because I loved it almost as well as something one loves in childhood. That utter, absorbing delight for a thing, so difficult to recapture once study has shown you its innards. In most ways, RRR beats Hollywood at a game Hollywood invented, and it has no interest at all in pandering to a white Western audience, something I appreciate more and more with each passing year. This film is the sound in my throat when I stand up in a theater and scream do better, Hollywood. Give me more than this empty, shaky, dimly lit puppet show. Give me wonder, give me joy, give me warmth. Show me something spectacular.
Melodrama or not, that’s what brings me to the movies. It’s why RRR is what movies are all about.
My thanks to Craig Hammill.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (2020) and a monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space (2021). Her work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, the Believer, Conjunctions, NPR, and many other places. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida