Near the end of the first act in epic action drama RRR (2022), two men find themselves standing before a mutual foe. The first, Raju (Ram Charan Teja), is suave and muscular, his coiffed mustache draped over a hero’s smolder. He rests his arm on his companion, Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a burly man dressed in the refinery of a 19th-century suit and tie, though his broad shoulders betray the earthy warrior underneath. Both men are established vanquishers of their enemies, equipped with near-superhuman strength as they engage in their respective battles, whether single-handedly defeating the forces of a violent crowd or squaring off against a roaring, furious tiger. Now, the pair face a new opponent: Jake (Eduard Buhac), a scrawny, pompous colonizer at an afternoon garden party. Will the two lay waste to this aggressor in a flurry and sweat and fists? Not exactly. Instead, with a single question from Raju (“Do you know ‘Naatu?’”), this particular fight commences: a dance-off.
RRR, the Telugu-language epic from S.S. Rajamouli, is the near definition of the machismo-oozing action film. Over three relentless hours, bullets fly, sweat and grime glisten across chiseled male abs, palaces explode with the drama of an atomic bomb blast, armies of both men and jungle predators descend upon hapless victims, and endless moments of gripping slow motion highlight each burst of blood, streak of water, crack of the whip, and flex of muscle in vibrant, pulse-pounding spectacle.
At the center of this drama are Raju and Bheem, two fierce fighters drawn together through circumstance — that circumstance being saving a boy from an exploding railcar in a sequence that also includes Raju and Bheem launching themselves from a galloping horse and a motorcycle at full tilt, respectively, off the side of a bridge. In the second act, the pair’s divergent goals will eventually cause them to clash with both the force and opposition of fire (Raju) and water (Bheem). For now, in the wake of their heroic escapade on the bridge, the two are inseparable. “An unpredictable gust of wind has erased the distance between both of them,” a singing voiceover extols over a montage of Raju and Bheem spending time together. “Will their rivalry ever come to the forefront?”
Of course it will. But as scenes flash by of the pair riding the same motorcycle, walking and laughing together through town, and looking fondly at each other, the impending rivalry seems unthinkable.
Now, this montage of brotherly adoration culminates in the second challenge Raju and Bheem will face as a pair, only this time there is a stark lack of explosions and death-defying antics. Where previously Raju and Bheem were brought together out of necessity, literally swooping in to save a child, now the two choose each other, even in a setting where the stakes are much lower.
As Raju rests his arm on Bheem’s shoulder, Jake asks stupidly, “What is ‘Naatu’?”
Raju and Bheem know. Oh, do they know.
With this, the two split apart as the melody commences and Raju sings in Telugu, “Like the lead dancer dancing at a local goddess’s festival, like an aggressive bull jumping in the fields -”
“- like playing with a stick while wearing wooden slippers,” Bheem sings. “Like eating a roti jowar with chili!”
They may both know the words, but the unification between Raju and Bheem is most apparent in the wildly synchronized choreography: shoulders raise, hips dip, and arms swing in perfect unison as the two dance around Jake, proving their physical prowess and mental connection. This confrontation may be a display of the pair’s bodily ability and strength, but there’s no hostility or violence toward their foe, despite the two being proven fighters. As Raju and Bheem begin to dance, the electrifying unification expands the breadth of the pair’s connection, rather than merely functioning as a means to win this particular battle.
Suddenly, Raju and Bheem leap across the lawn towards each other and stand shoulder to shoulder, clasping each other’s waists. As the camera rushes closer to the pair, they look directly into its lens as the sun beams behind them, slightly obscuring their faces with its glare. For a moment, the two look like warm, connected brothers posing for a portrait.
As the melody swells towards the irresistible chorus, Raju and Bheem stand back to back before whipping their heads directly towards the camera and winking. Here, the fourth wall is not just broken but rather smashed with the joy of a shattering piñata; the perfectly synchronized winks not only acknowledge the viewer but seem to extend the union between Raju and Bheem beyond the screen and onto the audience, like a hand offered to a waiting dance partner.
For a viewer, observing synchronized dancing and movement is almost always a deeply satisfying experience. This is particularly true in film where the camera maintains control of the gaze, drawing attention to just the right moments and details.
There are many examples of synchronized male dancing committed to film (It’s Always Fair Weather, Jackass 2, each iteration of West Side Story, for instance), and unified group dancing is a genre-defining element of the Bollywood/Tollywood cinema. However, less common is a dancing sequence featuring a single male pair (particularly in American cinema), and arguably non-existent within the action genre. When this does occur, these interludes do not typically function to further the relational dynamic between the two male characters. Instead, pleasure derives from the movement and song alone, rather than the significance of the particular pairing. Take Singin’ in the Rain (1952), for example: when Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor move in choreographed sync while playing fiddles, the scene mostly functions as a device to move the plot forward and produce viewer joy through the catchy melody and bodily motion. The deeper significance of their partnership is secondary, if it exists at all.
While a dancing interlude may be rare within the action film, the pairing of two heterosexual, cisgender male protagonists is not. Such partnerships practically define the genre in American cinema — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, Men in Black, the entirety of the Fast and Furious franchise — and these plotlines typically play out in similar fashion: two mismatched personalities, thrown together by circumstance, set aside their differences and solidify their partnership through a shared moment of chaos or violence. When this happens, viewer satisfaction derives both from witnessing the culmination of this relationship and the violent act itself as the pair’s enemies receive their comeuppance.
Within the action genre, violent or death-defying sequences usually represent the crux of the film’s intended production of embodied spectatorship, or the bodily sensations a viewer experiences when interacting with a film text. When a chiseled Gerard Butler smashes his shield into an oncoming soldier in 300 (2006), or Tom Cruise hangs from the side of an ascending airplane in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), one may experience an invigorating rush of adrenaline or a drop in the stomach. In some regards, it is this physical sensation produced through witnessing a certain onscreen segment which produces “pleasure” for the viewer. Not bound to only sexual arousal, or even a physical manifestation, this type of pleasure encapsulates a viewer’s sense of satisfaction as a response to a particular sequence or narrative moment.
Of course, adrenaline-inducing moments also define the majority of RRR, which is chock-full of traditional action motifs such as bombastic fight sequences and mind-boggling stunts of physicality. However, while a typical pair of male protagonists in such films would solidify their partnership through sequences of violent camaraderie, Raju and Bheem first establish the depth of their friendship through this moment of united dancing. Here, the pleasure produced in the viewer is not through the duo’s slaughter of their mutual enemies (though this will occur in fantastical fashion in the third act), but rather through the understanding that this shared dance signifies the emotional connection between these action heroes.
As Raju and Bheem move across the dance floor they become one, at one point mimicking a singular body as they stand shoulder to shoulder and holding each other’s waists, turning their heads and rotating their ankles in perfect unison. Every whip of the arm, kick of the foot, and snap of the head begets a oneness. When the two look directly into the camera, these moments seem to give a sly acknowledgement to what the audience already knows: We’re a team, and isn’t that fun? This shared knowing between viewer and character that all this is the culmination of a burgeoning brotherhood produces a distinct satisfaction, compounded by the pulsing melody and whipping camera angles which further the scene’s entrancing energy.
Yes, Raju and Bheem are an action-hero team — in the third act, Raju sits on Bheem’s shoulders as Bheem runs through a prison yard and Raju mows down enemy soldiers with not one but two rifles. There is no shortage of macho heroism in RRR. Yet, “Naatu Naatu” subverts the traditional action-hero pair dynamic — two mostly rigid, heterosexual loners coming together to defeat a common enemy — by uniting Raju and Bheem in a distinctly affectionate moment of bonding, which is further pronounced by the pair’s shared touching. As Raju and Bheem dance, their hands find each other’s waists and their eyes meet in a shared knowing. However, the moment is not sexual. Rather, it is a pronouncement of the deep brotherly love shared by Raju and Bheem, and the power of this affection to elevate their united take-down of Jake.
Yes, “Naatu Naatu” is incredibly catchy, and the song itself compels a bodily response in the viewer or listener (toe tapping, head bobbing, etc.). And yes, the synchronized dance movements ooze a frenetic joy similar to interludes in other musical films. Yet, RRR is not really a musical but an action epic, and what arises from this sequence is a distinct pleasure at the unification of Raju and Bheem not through violence, but through platonic affection.