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‘Casting the British as villains to make up heroic stories’ — Cambridge professor’s take on RRR

In scathing review published in The Spectator, Robert Tombs writes that the film ‘doesn’t record nastiness of 1920s British rule, but does reflect growing nastiness of today’s India’.

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New Delhi: The SS Rajamouli-directed blockbuster RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) took India by storm when it was released on 24 March.

But the movie has found critics in British academic circles.

According to Robert Tombs, an author and emeritus professor in history at the University of Cambridge — the film, set in the backdrop of colonial India in the 1920s, is filled with exaggerations about British rule. “It does not record the nastiness of 1920s British rule, but it does reflect the growing nastiness of today’s India,” he wrote, in a scathing review on The Spectator.

He sees the film as no more than a slander of past events, and argues that the unscrupulous killings by the British government or the torture it inflicted on Indians is either absolute dishonesty or sheer ignorance. The portrayal of the two main villains, Governor Scott and his wife, is not just “nasty but also silly”, according to Tombs.

His views have elicited strong reactions. Dr. Lavanya Vemsani, a professor of history at the Shawnee State University in Ohio, who specialises in Indian history and religions, took to Twitter to express her views.

Screenwriter Aniruddha Guha has also commented on Tombs’ review. 

A piece published earlier this month in the Daily Mail, UK, has also criticised the film. It quotes Dr Zareer Masani, an expert on British colonialism, as saying, “The entire plot is a travesty of history. Far from brutalising natives, British governors and their wives enforced the rule of law and opened schools and hospitals. There may have been occasional acts of violence in the 19th Century, but not in the 20th.”

The plot

When it was released earlier this year, Rajamouli’s epic action drama received positive reactions throughout the country. However, for Robert Tombs, it’s a movie that did not lend itself to much more historically. “It’s a way that quite a few countries make up heroic stories about themselves,” he wrote in The Spectator piece.

RRR is a fictional storyline about two Indian revolutionaries — Alluri Sitarama Raju (played by Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (played by N.T. Rama Rao Jr) — who cross paths, and their uprising against the British Raj.

The film stars Rao and Charan in leading roles, while Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn feature in cameo roles. Made at a budget of Rs 550 crore, RRR is the most expensive Indian film to date, according to IMDB.

The movie starts with a shot of Governor Scott Buxton and his wife Catherine visiting a tribal forest, where they purchase a young girl from the Gond tribe named ‘Malli’, against her parents’ wishes.

The plot thickens as the tribe’s guardian Komaram Bheem (NTR Jr.) travels to Delhi in order to rescue her from the Governor’s palace. On the other hand, Rama Raju (Ram Charan), an officer in service of the Indian Imperial Police, must protect the Governor from this threat, but ends up joining Bheem in his quest against the British.

Depiction of British Raj in RRR

Robert Tombs in his review wrote that while there are deeply regretful events that happened during British colonial rule in India, atrocities such as the Amritsar Massacre were acknowledged and dealt with by the British government. He said, “I mention this because hardly any British person who has been to India — and I have been half a dozen times to as many different regions — can have experienced hostility arising from the memory of British rule. Usually the opposite is true.”

He further wrote, “Indeed, in the 1920s, when this film is set, India was mostly run by Indians, under fairly distant British supervision.” While they try to stir up “synthetic emotions”, he says, such films are absurdly unbelievable, “but these days people will swallow anything bad about the British Empire”.

Further commenting on the state of Indian politics today, Tombs adds that the film “panders to the reactionary and violent Hindu nationalism”, and it is the Indian minorities such as Muslims, Christians and liberals who will suffer due the depictions in the film, rather than the British.

Netizens disagree

Netizens did not take Robert’s review of the film too well.

But overseas, that sentiment is not really shared. Many continue to re-share this review, one even called Netflix a “disgrace” for releasing the film.

(Edited by Shyam Nandan Upadhyay)

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