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The 2022 film RRR (meaning Rise, Roar, Revolt), directed by S. S. Rajamouli, is a gripping story about friendship, community, and the uprising against British colonial rule in the 1920s. The Telugu action drama (the industry of which is frequently dubbed Tollywood) is a 3-hour-long spectacle. Its main characters, Bheem and Raju, are loosely based on real personalities. With its tremendous cinematography, award-winning soundtrack, and magnificently choreographed action sequences, it leaves little to be desired.

Except for one thing: its disappointing female characters.

Bheem (Ram Charan) and Raju (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), the heroes of RRR

A recent BBC article highlighting a study about female representation in the Indian Hindi film industry – also known as Bollywood – points out some of the main problems that remain in Indian cinema. RRR, while not being outright misogynistic, still falls into the trap of giving its female characters little room to grow. This, despite how highly enjoyable the film is, leaves a bad aftertaste.

There are different ways to assess the performance of female characters in films. One of the most basic ones is the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test is a tool often used to assess if a film passes the simple requirements that (1) there are at least two women in the film who (2) talk to each other at some point (3) about something other than a man. Whether RRR passes the test depends largely on how you interpret it. While Malli and Jenny interact once, they cannot understand each other because of the language barrier. Even then, the interaction is about Jenny giving Malli a bracelet that Bheem manufactured, which means that the central meaning of the moment revolves around a man.

Catherine Buxton, played by Allison Doody

Another way to look at representation is to check the numbers. Despite the involvement of women in the Indian Independence Movement, and the fact that the film is inspired by two real men, the film does not highlight any of the important female figures in Indian history. Overall, the number of female characters in the film is relatively small, and except for a handful, none of these have a big enough role to be worth mentioning. There are Jenny and Sita, of course, as well as the little girl Malli and Catherine Buxton, who may be the only exception in this otherwise disappointing group. 

Catherine Buxton breaks the mold in the sense that she is one of the villains and has a sense of agency. However, her cruelty seems to be her only personality trait, and she is still mostly defined by her marriage to the Governor. He, too, does not seem to have any level of personality other than his evilness, to the point where both of them seem almost caricature-ish. 

The two biggest female characters are simultaneously the most problematic ones – Sita and Jenny. The two main issues that plague both of these characters are 

(1) that their main personality trait is that they are the love interests of the male protagonists, and 

(2) how incredibly passive they are throughout the movie.

Sita, played by Alia Bhatt

We first learn of Sita’s existence when Raju reveals that she is his fiancée. Eventually, we meet Sita in the village she and Raju come from, where she patiently waits for his return from his mission. While the rest of the village people doubt he will ever come back, she still has faith in him and waits. She waits for him at home, then she waits for his body to be delivered to her in a city near Delhi after she learns that he will be executed, and after that, she waits for Bheem to bring Raju back to her (safe and in one piece) – truly, waiting is almost all she does in the movie. 

Sita’s one redeemable scene is when she takes action to hide Bheem and his friends from the British by lying to them that their house is infected by smallpox. But even then, she follows it up by saying “My fiancé always says that we should help other people.” You could almost think she has no ability to think for herself.

Jenny, played by Olivia Morris

Worse than Sita’s portrayal is only that of the young British woman Jenny. Jenny is first introduced through Bheem’s (male) gaze, immediately classifying her as his love interest. In this scene, she saves an Indian man from a beating, which demonstrates her moral superiority to the rest of her British family and the British soldier. She is, however, also very naïve, to the point where it sometimes seems like she is completely removed from reality. She agrees to ride Bheem’s bike with him, alone, without hesitation, after barely knowing him for a minute, not being able to talk to him because of the language barrier, and being in a strange country. She takes to Bheem quickly after meeting him, in a manner that is reminiscent of a teenage crush. She admires him dancing and creating the bracelet for Malli, but there is no substance to their connection.

It turns out that Jenny’s only purpose in the film is to be a tool for Bheem to use to save Malli. Through her, he manages to get into the house where Malli is held, and later on, she gives him access to a map of the prison facility where Raju is held. I presume the aim was to make her look goodhearted, but unfortunately, she mainly comes across as gullible.

Both of these women are soft and pliable, ready to be shaped like playdoh into whatever the filmmakers need to advance the plot for the benefit of its male heroes. They are used to give the men depth of character, to make them look like bigger, better men, but barely possess any depth themselves. It is an archaic narrative we are all too familiar with. Allowing more female voices to be heard and tell their own stories is the best way to overcome this problem, but theory is hard to put into practice. Especially in Indian film industries such as Bollywood, women in film crews are still hard to find, and it remains a question for the future whether this circumstance will change for the better anytime soon.

By Jenna Wiedorn

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