S.S. Rajamouli’s movie “RRR” became the first Indian film to ever win an Oscar when it snagged the award on Sunday night for Best Original Song. Less than 24 hours after making history — and, no doubt, fielding all sorts of invitations to celebrations — Rajamouli sat onstage at the School of Film and Television answering LMU students’ questions.
“I was essentially making this film for Indians in India and across the globe,” the acclaimed writer and director told The Lion in an interview before he took the stage. “So it was a pleasant surprise that the American audience liked it as well.”
Rajamouli is no stranger to success, being one of the highest-grossing Indian filmmakers of all time — but he had never had a movie explode worldwide like “RRR.” According to Netflix, the three-hour-long film has reached 73 million streaming hours. For perspective, comparing the streaming hours of “RRR” to that of an American film is arbitrary because Indian films are traditionally much longer.
The director admitted the movie’s marketing team could not take credit for the viral #encoRRRe hashtag that is believed to have skyrocketed the international attention the film received last year.
“People have a chance to watch stories from across the world, so it opened up their perception of what other stories are, what other cultures are, what other people are,” Rajamouli told an audience of about 130 people at Mayer Theater. “The American audience loved the uninhibited heroism.”
“RRR” is about two famous revolutionaries who are reimagined as friends. Starring Ram Charan as Alluri Sitarama Raju and N.T. Rama Rao Jr as Komaram Bheem, the characters fight British colonialism together. The movie is packed to the brim with action and emotion, keeping the audience’s attention for over three hours with stunts, dancing, extreme VFX, and even pyrotechnics.
A video of James Cameron and Rajamouli chatting at the Oscars has gone viral in India. In it, Cameron leans over and says, “If you ever want to make a movie over here, let’s talk.”
Rajamouli told The Lion that he most definitely does want to do that because “anyone who wants to tell their stories to the world finds that [Hollywood] is the place to go from.” He sees making films in the US as an avenue into the world market. “RRR,” which is packed with incredible action sequences, lavish musical numbers, and several imposing CGI animals, cost about $72 million to make, a total that’s less than half the budgets of many Hollywood blockbusters.
Despite his reputation for making incredible action movies, Rajamouli told students that the key to his success in movies is his use of emotion. He admitted to being a “bad dialog writer,” which got a laugh from the audience, and explained that what others may express in dialogue, he often tries to express with action.
“Action enhances emotion and emotion enhances action,” he said. “They both go hand in hand.” The moderator of the talk, Associate Prof. Anupama Prabhala, pointed out that one of Rajamouli’s famed “Baahubali” films had only 27 pages of dialogue when a typical Hollywood movie has at least 100. In comparison, he said that the same script had roughly 140 pages of action.
Rajamouli sat onstage alongside his longtime producer Shobu Yarlagadda. The partners reflected on what made them so successful as a team. Rajamouli appreciates that Yarglagadda doesn’t involve himself too much in the creative side of the filmmaking but rather, he plays to his strengths. For example, Yarlagadda was heavily involved in marketing the movie internationally. Yarlagadda remembered a time when he had his “back against the wall” after owning two failed businesses. That was the moment he turned to film production. He said, “it’s been 20-plus years and we stuck to it and it’s been a great journey for us,” teaching students in the audience a lesson in perseverance.
For the incredible Oscar-winning song in “RRR,” Rajamouli teamed with composer M.M Keeravani to create music that fit the needs of the scene, which had to portray a fight between the film’s two main characters and British colonialists without there actually being a fight, which wouldn’t have made sense in the larger story. The solution was “Naatu Naatu,” an incredible dance number to a song that eventually won a Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice Award, and Oscar.
“There is choreography there — not necessarily fight choreography,” Rajamouli said. “By the end of the choreography, the bad guys are beaten. So if you look at the basis of it, it was a fight sequence.”
Although the film can be enjoyed without much knowledge of India’s past and present, it raised concerns for many viewers.
Critics of “RRR” believe that the movie reinforces Hindu nationalism and they have politicized the messaging of the movie. Rajamouli responded to this point, “I don’t have any messages in my films, I just try to make an emotional connection with the audience.” He expressed that because of our divided society, people have a hard time comprehending that there are “other people who stand in the middle”.
During the Q&A part of the panel, a student asked if he thinks that having the violence of the movie tie in with the nationalist themes may promote violent nationalism. Rajamouli recognized the danger in how his film may be interpreted but he believes that “if you are sincere and honest in your way of storytelling, I think you can negate that.” Further, he says that there was “no nationalistic agenda or religious agenda in [the movie]; it is a personal emotion between those two characters. I think the audience will get it.”
The student’s question does bring up a larger issue that many filmmakers have to face at some point in their career: that their work will be interpreted in a way that wasn’t intended. To deal with this, Rajamouli implores young filmmakers to be honest to their work and follow the emotion.
Another broader issue that many filmmakers must deal with is walking the fine line between bringing their conceptualization to life and the commercial aspect of movie making.
An example he gave was if he were to hire a Hindi actor because it would be more marketable even if that actor doesn’t fit the role. In that case, he wouldn’t be doing justice to the art. “If we lose the core audience in trying to cater to the larger audience then you are looking more at commercial viability than the artistic point of view.”
Rajamouli touched on the historical inaccuracies in “RRR.” Detractors of the movie felt that using real people for a fake story missed an opportunity to illustrate those people’s cultural impact in their struggle for independence. They also took issue with the depiction of the two main characters from different castes with the one from the more privileged caste being portrayed as elevated in the narrative of the movie.
Rajamouli believes that viewers’ inhibitions about the historical accuracy of the movie get in the way of entertainment.
Many people wondered why “RRR” wasn’t nominated for Best International Feature at the Oscars. India did not nominate the movie because it would be like the US nominating a Marvel film for an international award. “RRR” is a mainstream movie in India.
Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel is receiving backlash on Twitter for referring to “RRR” as a “Bollywood” movie rather than “Tollywood.” Amongst people arguing about the correct verbiage that should be used to describe the movie, some believe that both of the terms are derivative. Rajamouli said that “India is a vast country with different film industries. Many people don’t know that and not knowing that is not something you take offense to.” India has film industries just as old as Hollywood’s but it isn’t recognized as its own separate entity.
“The future looks bright for all the filmmakers in India,” Rajamouli said. “As the world is looking for more stories from different cultures, I think we have a treasure trove of stories. India is a treasure trove of stories.”