How Indian epic RRR became a global phenomenon (exclusive)
Sometimes, a film like RRR just catches fire. For all of the boardroom analysis and box office prognostication that has become bread and butter in Hollywood, there's occasionally no accounting for what audiences will get behind.
Certainly, few outside observers would've pegged a three-hour historical epic about Indian revolutionaries to become arguably the most talked-about movie of 2022. As it turns out, the director of the raucously brilliant RRR is just as surprised as everybody else.
"I never expected or anticipated this kind of success in the Western world. I essentially make films for Indians and Indians across the world," S.S. Rajamouli tells Yahoo UK.
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But Rajamouli certainly hasn't come out of nowhere. One of the leading lights of Indian cinema, his two previous films are among the top five highest-grossing movies in the history of India. For RRR, he was handed a budget of ₹550 crore (£56m) — the most ever for an Indian film, but barely a handful of beans for an American blockbuster.
Watch: Trailer for Indian epic film RRR
The story takes a pair of real Indian revolutionaries and fictionalises a forgotten period of their lives in the 1920s, imagining that Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (Jr NTR) became friends prior to their respective uprisings.
Rajamouli says he and co-writer V. Vijayendra Prasad — who happens to be his dad — used 'the spirit' of the real people to power their story, which features all-out action, high drama and several musical numbers. Also, tigers.
"When I was going through their story again, I found beautiful coincidences," he says, adding that the pair were born at the same time and each left home in their early twenties. "We don't know what happened to them for a period of two or three years. There are no historical records."
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He adds: "After they came back, they were like charged-up men. They inspired the people to revolt against oppression and oppressive rules that were forced upon them. They fought for the freedom of the people, even though they knew the enemy was much bigger and much stronger. Their spirit didn't let them down. So those two or three years, I thought, I could tell of a friendship between these two guys where they inspired each other to become what they became in their actual lives."
Rajamouli has now made several bombastic action movies, but it's RRR that has expanded all over the world. The film is a product of the Tollywood industry in southern India — Telugu-language films as opposed to Hindi-speaking Bollywood — which Rajamouli has helped put on the map. "When people outside of India term every Indian film as Bollywood, it bothers me a little. But not too much. It's okay, people need not know everything."
A huge part of the success of RRR came when it arrived on Netflix, soaring to become one of the service's top 10 films in 65 countries and for numerous weeks. The film is available on the service in Hindi and English dubs, but not its native Telugu, which Rajamouli explains is down to the split sale of distribution rights.
"Streaming platforms are both villain and hero for me. I know the strength of a streaming platform. Every filmmaker wants their story to be heard by a lot more audiences and streaming is essentially the platform which can take you to so many audiences. If so many people got to know about RRR, it's because of the streaming platform Netflix. I'm thankful for that," says Rajamouli.
"But at the same time, I'm so worried like so many others who grew up on cinema. For me, the film theatre is a temple. My heart tells me that film theatres are going to stay, even though the streaming platforms are getting stronger and stronger. Cinema as a communal viewing experience is so great and different from a stand-alone viewing experience. But the fear is that maybe they will disappear. So there's a love-hate relationship."
As for the film itself, Rajamouli would rather people experienced it than waited for him to convince them to watch it. "There are only two things, I believe, that make people go and watch a movie: the trailer and the word of mouth. Only these two things can make people go and watch a film.
"Even for me, when I introduce my film, I just keep it very simple. These characters are historical, but the story is fictional. It'll be a thrill once in every 10 minutes and it's not one emotion or one flavour, but the film has so many flavours all put together and one emotion flowing into another in a very beautiful way. At the end of three hours, if you still want to listen to me, I'm here."
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Now, of course, people are listening — and people all over the world, to Rajamouli's surprise. He said he 'never expected' this level of success in the West, and particularly the fan campaign pushing the movie in the direction of the Academy Awards.
He says: "Doing an Oscar campaign or a Bafta campaign is completely out of the blue. I don't know how to do this. But the love and adulation I have got from the Western world and [the fact] they started the hashtag #RRRForOscars and are pushing it forward. If we don't do something and don't campaign, that would be letting our fans down. That's the actual reason."
As for the future, Rajamouli says he and his father are developing a script for a possible sequel based on an idea his cousin put forward. "We have such a great idea that we can't let it pass. Once it is written down, we will look at how to take it forward," said the filmmaker.
But now that RRR has catapulted him to global fame, will he change the way he makes movies? Rajamouli doesn't think so. "As a filmmaker, I need to constantly improve my craft and I should learn new things. That will happen irrespective of the success or failure of the movies," he said.
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Rajamouli added: "At the core, I have certain strengths, certain tastes and certain ways of telling the stories. RRR succeeded in the Western world not because I changed something in me, it is essentially my way of storytelling that appealed to them. Changing myself into a different person doesn't make sense. I think I would be heading nowhere if I changed myself now. I'll be telling my old stories, but I'll be evolving in the process."
RRR is available to stream on Netflix now.
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