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If you haven't been back to the movies yet, Indian epic 'RRR' is the reason to go

Ram Charan stars in<em> RRR, </em>an action-packed bromance set in India in the 1920s.
Raftar Creations
Ram Charan stars in RRR, an action-packed bromance set in India in the 1920s.

If you're over the age of, say, 40, you will surely remember the 1975 cult phenomenon The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Weekend after weekend, year after year, decade after decade, audiences turned up at theaters — often dressed in corsets, fishnets and other costumes — to shriek out lines ahead of the characters and sing along with the songs.

I've never seen anything like it — until now. A few nights ago, I went to a packed screening of RRR, an epic action-picture bromance from India. The screening had 900 people — some of whom had already seen the film 10 times — clapping and dancing from the opening credits.

Made by box-office titan S.S. Rajamouli, RRR induces such unabashed giddiness in its audience that Hollywood is witnessing a push to get it nominated for the Oscars. Forget Best International Feature Film, folks are talking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. And having seen RRR twice myself, I'm part of the bandwagon.

Set during the British Raj in the 1920s, the movie tells the story of two heroes with impressive physiques and super-charged abilities. The tightly wound Ram — played by Ram Charan — works for the British as a crack military officer who we see quash a mass Indian uprising single-handed. His tiger-hunting counterpart, Bheem, played by N.T. Rama Rao, Jr., is a tribal villager who has come in disguise to Delhi to reclaim a young girl from his village who has been capriciously snatched by the evil wife of the evil British governor.

Ram and Bheem meet heroically while working in tandem to save a child from a train crashing into a river. Kindred in their bravery, they instantly become fast friends. But they don't know one important thing. While Bheem secretly opposes the governor, Ram is secretly working for him. They're bound for a head-on collision.

RRR — the title stands for Rise Roar Revolt — is populist filmmaking. Its emotions are simple, its anti-colonial politics broad. Rajamouli makes the British rulers of India even worse than they actually were, and they were mighty bad. But his mega-star lead actors play their roles with such ardent conviction that we don't merely believe in Ram and Bheem's friendship, we're moved by it. Rajamouli unfolds the many twists and turns of their story with such confidently rampaging energy that, by comparison, most Hollywood blockbusters feel anemic.

I'm normally bored by action sequences, but from the opening riot to the assault on the governor's mansion to the big prison escape — during which Ram rides atop Bheem's shoulders with guns ablazing — RRR contains more exciting action scenes than all the Marvel movies put together.

I'm normally bored by action sequences, but from the opening riot to the assault on the governor's mansion to the big prison escape — during which Ram rides atop Bheem's shoulders with guns ablazing — RRR contains more exciting action scenes than all the Marvel movies put together. Indeed, there's a slow-motion shot right before the intermission that is one of the most jaw dropping moments in the history of cinema. Just as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix offered American viewers a new vision of action, so RRR possesses a delirious inventiveness and originality that audiences will love. And I haven't even mentioned the marvelous "Naatu Naatu" song-and-dance sequence that recalls the dance-off between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story, but is vastly more alive.

You can currently see RRR on Netflix, and it's a good enough movie that you'll enjoy it. But if you can — and I'd urge local theaters to bring it back — you should see it on a big screen. For two reasons. First, Rajamouli is in love with the sheer bigness that makes movies so much grander than TV. Bursting with fights, rescues, wild animals, surging crowds, sadistic monsters, larger-than-life showdowns and mythic transformations, RRR is not a movie that leaves you asking for more.

Indeed, in these days when the box-office is way down, movie chains are wobbling, and experts wonder whether the movies will even survive, RRR makes the case for returning to theaters. It reminds us that movies are always more thrilling when they're part of a collective experience, when you can share the excitement with the people around you. That excitement is electric when you watch RRR. You may well leave the theater humming the catchy tune, "Naatu Naatu."

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.