The best part of watching Spider-Man: No Way Home in a theater last December was all the hooting and hollering in the audience whenever familiar actors appeared. But the sound of Marvel fans losing it over Andrew Garfield amounts to a polite whisper compared to the thunderous in-theater responses to RRR, S. S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language Indian blockbuster that hit over 1,000 North American screens (and over 8,000 worldwide) last month.
Watching RRR with a packed audience familiar with Tollywood means getting swept up in fiery, frenzied action scenes that defy physics without apology and in fist-pumping dance numbers that invite you to join in. It means cheers and wolf whistles whenever its revered stars, Ram Charan and N. T. Rama Rao Jr., make their entrances — or sing or dance or do practically anything else onscreen. One sequence, the pulsating, passionate musical number “Naatu Naatu,” has resulted in impromptu theater-wide dance parties, especially in Indian cinemas, where the line between appreciation and celebration can be razor-thin. On YouTube, you’ll find dozens of clips of audiences tossing homemade confetti in the air and dancing in front of the screen.
While this mode of participatory viewing may seem alien to western viewers — apart from designated midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the like — it’s par for the course when it comes to South Indian blockbusters. Films like RRR exist a world apart from the Hindi-language, Mumbai-based Bollywood industry that once dominated the Indian mainstream but has been eclipsed in recent years by films in languages like Tamil (Kollywood) and Telugu (Tollywood). Where Bollywood actors are adored, their southern counterparts are practically worshipped — statues of perennial Tamil superstar Rajinikanth are often bathed in milk like Hindu idols.
I thought it would be fun to relay exactly none of this cultural context to my two American friends, who I convinced to accompany me to a packed opening-night screening of RRR in Manhattan. Neither had ever seen an Indian movie on the big screen. As far as I could tell, they were the only two non-Indians in attendance. And three hours later, they emerged not just as fans but as advocates; they’ve been singing the praises of “Naatu Naatu” to anyone who’ll listen. As one of them told me, “When the lights came up, I felt like I could have walked through a brick wall.”
“Naatu Naatu” is a standout scene in a film made of nothing but standout scenes. Back in November, a ten-second clip from the sequence — appearing 30 seconds into a promotional video — went viral online, inspiring fan-made copycat videos in India and abroad. It showed its two leading men dancing energetically arm in arm, grinning as they stepped and bowed their way across an opulent backdrop. No trailer had been released yet; all anyone knew about the film was that it focused on two men’s friendship at a fraught time in history, 1920s colonial India. Yet Prem Rakshith’s zestful choreography and the camaraderie palpable between its stars were enough to convince legions — myself included — to purchase a ticket. (Within just two weeks of its release, RRR has become the fifth-highest-grossing Indian movie worldwide, and the second-highest domestically behind Rajamouli’s own Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.)
When the film finally hit theaters worldwide in March after nearly two years of delays because of COVID, and we at long last saw the “Naatu Naatu” sequence in full, there was a surprise: That ten-second bit that had gone viral is actually the most low-key part of the entire thing.
Charan and Rama Rao Jr. play real-life Indian revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, respectively — two men who never met in real life, but whom Rajamouli transforms into big-screen superheroes in fanfiction as ludicrously over-the-top as it is nakedly sincere. “Naatu Naatu” comes along when the duo is invited to a party at a British mansion. Bheem has covert reasons for attending — the plot concerns his attempts to rescue a young tribal girl from the clutches of a British officer, played by Ray Stevenson — but all of that is briefly put on hold. Not that the sequence is a meaningless detour; instead, it’s a concentrated dose of the film’s anti-colonialist themes. When a group of white men begins ruthlessly mocking Bheem for being uncultured (he doesn’t speak English and is unfamiliar with “classy” European dances like salsa and flamenco), Raju comes to his rescue with an impromptu drum solo. This kicks off an explosion of song and dance that allows both leads to let loose, demonstrate the wild energy of Indian choreography, and show up their snobbish oppressors.
Both men have been onscreen for an hour by this point. But when Raju strides toward his friend in slow motion (as composer M. M. Keeravani’s percussions envelop the soundscape), it’s like watching him walk out onto an enormous stage and grab the spotlight; cue the first of many, many audience cheers during the sequence. The camera luxuriates in Charan and Rama Rao Jr.’s unabashed vigor. Rajamouli and cinematographer K. K. Senthil Kumar’s frame stays wide enough to capture both men’s movements in full, and editor A. Sreekar Prasad rarely cuts away, allowing their steps to play out as if each shot is its own action set piece. The lyrics, meanwhile, aren’t about anything except the dance itself, and it’s an absolute blast (is there anything more Indian than comparing lively choreography to spicy food?).
The scene plays out like a mini-movie with its own dramatic beats, character arcs, and romantic subplots, all building up to an extended dance-off for cultural supremacy. At one point, the duo dances spiritedly toward the camera, and their intense star power seems to push the entire frame backward in response. In another moment, they perform a stupendous routine involving their suspenders, which they tug and jostle in slow motion as their feet shuffle sideways at lightning speed, making it look like they’re floating on air. There are multiple shots in which they ramp up and slow down their movements, turning their physicality into seamless special effects. The pièce de résistance, however, is that with every step Charan and Rama Rao Jr. take, they kick dirt and dust up into the air, adding a sense of tactile weight to each movement. It’s like the ground is quivering beneath their feet.
With the right crowd, the earthshaking energy of this scene ends up being drawn from the screen out into the theater. One of the friends I saw it with had seen Rajamouli’s two Baahubali films on Netflix and was surprised not only by how boisterous the screening was (“There were some points in the movie where the whistling had become so loud that I wasn’t sure if it was part of the movie or not,” he said) but by his own participation, too: “I was confused, but I got swept up in it. I even cheered several times. I had no idea that would happen.” Few films demand house-full theatrical viewing as much as RRR. Luckily, it’s still playing in cinemas.