New Delhi, India – “I only know great emotions,” says SS Rajamouli, currently India’s most commercially successful film director.
Rajamouli, who makes films in Telugu, a language spoken in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, talks about his latest blockbuster, RRR – India’s second most expensive film and the world’s third most successful. But he could also be talking about his predominant emotion right now: irresistible joy.
Rajamouli is thrilled that foreign audiences, as well as Indians at home and abroad, also “loved” his film – and that it is not a “paternalistic kind of love”.
“You know, sometimes when you’re a larger audience and some small movie tries to make some attempt, you’ll say, ‘These guys made a good effort.’ It’s not like that… It’s like, ‘Wow, guys… There’s something here that’s really, really fascinating.’ I didn’t expect this,” Rajamouli told Al Jazeera via a Zoom call.
Made with a budget of $72 million, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) was released on March 25 in 21 countries. A three-hour, seven-minute action adventure about India’s struggle against British colonialism set in the 1920s, it debuted at No. 3 at the US box office and No. 2 at the UK and Australian box office. In four weeks, it has raised $141 million worldwide.
Some critics consider Rajamouli, 48, a pioneer of Telugu cinema who challenged Bollywood’s traditional dominance in India and abroad.
“Rajamouli has an impeccable record. All of his movies worked… It wouldn’t be wrong to say he’s the greatest [Indian film director] never,” Komal Nahta, an Indian film trade analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Riding the Rajamouli Wave
Since his film career began in 2001, Rajamouli has directed 12 films – all blockbusters. All were originally filmed in Teluga, with some dubbed into other Indian languages.
His creative ambitions and film budgets grew over time. Simultaneously, the audience for South Indian films has increased.
India speaks 121 languages and makes films in around 24 of them, including Hindi-language Bollywood films. Its film industry, valued at around $2.3 billion, is also the world’s largest film producer.
In 2020-2021, Bollywood’s box office collections were $200 million while Telugu movies grossed $215 million.
However, Bollywood is not just synonymous with Indian cinema but receives a disproportionate amount of attention and financial support while the rest are beaten under the ironic label of “regional cinema”.
Rajamouli challenged this tendency; particularly starting with his 2012 film Eega (The Fly), a fantasy film in which the hero is killed, reincarnated as a fly, and sets out on a quest to avenge his murder, and then even more successfully Baahubali (One With Strong Arms), a two-part fantasy action swashbuckler released in 2015 and 2017.
Eega was critically acclaimed and a satellite TV hit with Hindi-speaking audiences and Bollywood lovers in India, while the two-part Baahubali, made on a budget of $59 million, took in $314 million at the worldwide box office. .
The second installment of the Baahubali franchise, Baahubali: The Conclusion, released in 2017, remains India’s second most successful film at the worldwide box office. It is also the highest grossing and most watched film in India. It expanded the box office of Telugu films in India by five times, while the US market for Telugu films grew from around US$1 to US$2 million to US$20 million.
He catapulted Rajamouli to become India’s most expensive director, raising an estimated $13 million to direct a film.
Films by other directors in Telugu and Kannada, another South Indian language, are riding the wave of Rajamouli; their ambitions and budgets grew, as did their profits and markets.
Pushpa: The Rise, first of a two-part Telugu action drama about the rise of a worker in the red sandalwood/sander smuggling syndicate, released on December 17, 2021, was India’s second biggest hit of 2020-2021 .
KGF: Chapter 2, the second in a two-part film about an assassin and the gold mafia, released worldwide on April 14, is the first film in Kannada to gross $5 million in the US in five days. Made on a budget of $13 million, its worldwide box office collections in 15 days top $125 million.
Meanwhile, many great Bollywood movies have flopped lately.
Bollywood’s 83, a film about the historic victory of the Indian cricket team at the 1983 World Cup, was made for $35 million but barely managed to recoup $25 million. Bell Bottom, a plane-hijacking drama based on a real event, released in August of last year, lost a staggering $15 million — despite starring Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actors.
“I don’t want to make this a me versus Bollywood thing,” Rajamouli said when asked about the diverging fates of his films compared to recent Bollywood productions. He attributed his success to his work ethic and “continuity” and to thinking big, growing, learning from mistakes and building on successes.
“It’s not because I have any special storytelling skills, definitely not,” he said.
Shobu Yarlagadda, part of the duo that produced the Baahubali franchise, told Al Jazeera that Bollywood isn’t earning much at the box office because it has become more urban and has “steered away from the heroism, raw emotions and other elements that make up the commercial. movie theater”.
“[Telugu cinema] still does it very well.”
RRR tells a fictional epic of two real-life Indian revolutionaries who fought the British Raj. The two main characters of the film are played by two of the leading actors in Telugu cinema – Ram Charan and Jr NTR. But the film also features a large cast of British, Irish and American actors, and to further expand the market for his films, Rajamouli has cast two big Bollywood stars – Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn – for the first time.
The stories Rajamouli likes to tell are inspired by his screenwriter father – who wrote nine of his 12 films – and the wildly popular Indian comic book Amar Chitra Katha (Illustrated Immortal Story), which he grew up reading.
Created in the late 60’s and 70’s, these comics told moralistic, mythological and inspirational stories about Indian gods, gurus, kings and queens. Mainly drawn from the two Hindu epics – Mahabharata and Ramayana – men fought honorable battles while pious, voluptuous women in tiny blouses suffered humiliation. Evil was often depicted as bearded, mercenary, and Mughal.
But for Rajamouli this was a world where, “When the hero is walking, the ground opens up and the sky bursts into flames.” This “grand scheme of things,” he says, fired his imagination. “And when I started telling stories, I didn’t want them to be different.”
RRR features several elaborate battle scenes and a 4.5-minute animated music and dance sequence filmed in front of Mariinskyi Palace, the official residence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with about three-quarters of the film consisting of visual effects.
Bhatt, one of Bollywood’s leading actresses, is the film’s female lead. Her presence is fleeting and some critics have said her role feels like an afterthought in a high-octane bromance about two patriotic men driven by love, honor and revenge.
Rajamouli has also faced criticism that the patriotism in his films often borders on jingoism, and that his films are male-centric, even sexist.
Rajamouli rejects both claims, saying that his focus when writing and directing a film is to tell a story and convey his emotions, not on the genre.
“At RRR, I didn’t talk about patriotism. I talked about friendship. And if someone [says] It’s an over-the-top patriotic movie, I can only smile.”