Much before Naatu Naatu won the Oscars for Best Song, Screen Junkies made an honest trailer for RRR. It was the first time I’d seen an Indian film—a non-Bollywood, South-Indian film at that—take up western media attention, at least on YouTube. It was a fun trailer for a fun movie; it would not be a stretch to say I enjoyed it. Then, Naatu Naatu was nominated for an Oscar. The director of the film, S.S.Rajamouli, went on Late Night with Seth Meyers, and very gently corrected the very white host when he called the film Bollywood, because it is not. The Oscars happened, Naatu Naatu won, and India—the pan-India upper-caste crowd—rejoiced for taking the global stage, never mind that “pan-India” is a contentious term that flattens out the regional diversity present in India.
As of today, there are 269 fanfics on AO3 for RRR, of which 252 are written in English. To be sure, that is more than a lot of fandoms produce on AO3 for desi media. I would not personally categorize RRR as a desi film, but it’s not not desi either. It was representation on a global stage; for a moment, the desi identity, held up against that of the Western gaze, burned bright, and a lot of desis, both in India and the diaspora, felt seen and perceived.
In her introduction to the edited essay collection, Fandom, Now in Color, Rukmini Pande talks about the ways in which race becomes an issue in fandom and fan studies only in so much as we talk about racialized media:
“…the discipline of fan studies itself has constructed a default referent for that term [fandom]—mostly white fans located in the US and UK and organized around categories like transnational and global fandom and seen to be somewhat othered by language, geographical location, or media text—K-pop fans in Brazil or fans of Star Trek in Russia, for example (Madrid-Morales and Lovric 2015; Mikhaylova 2012).”Pande, Rukmini. “Introduction.” In Fandom, Now in Color, 1-13. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2020.
RRR, as a film, was a story about two freedom fighters who fought against the British rule in India—two very real freedom fighters, whom the director has admitted the film is not historically accurate about. The optics of it stand out; that, at a moment where anti-racist work seems so imminent, the award went to a song from a movie about a colonial struggle, without truly dealing with the after-effects of such a struggle on most “third-world” countries.
I don’t honestly know what connections I am drawing with this. I’ve been using Pande’s work as a way to reframe my own complex feelings about RRR winning, given the accusations of casteism S.S.Rajamouli has faced across his career, the ways in which the pan-India films have often been repackaged Bollywood, and the internal politics of South-Indian (here, specifically Telugu) identities getting melted into a singular Indian identity on a global stage with no context for the histories of these lived experiences. I’m not quite sure where I’ve arrived, but what do you think?