S.S. Rajamouli’s movie “RRR” became the first Indian film ever to 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 late-night 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 was already one of the highest-grossing Indian filmmakers of all time, but he had never seen one of his movies explode worldwide like “RRR.” According to Netflix, the three-hour-long film has accumulated 73 million streaming hours — a considerable amount even given “RRR’s” runtime of more than three hours.
“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 historic real-life Indian revolutionaries who are reimagined as contemporaries and friends who team up to fight the brutal British colonialist regime. The two men — Alluri Sitarama Raju, played by Ram Charan, and Komaram Bheem, played by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. — overcome different backgrounds, motivations, and approaches and form one of the greatest movie action duos of all time. The movie is packed with stunning action and strong emotion — and, of course, there is incredible dancing.
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 wishes to do exactly that because “anyone who wants to tell their stories to the world finds that [Hollywood] is the place to go from.” “RRR” cost about $72 million to make — which is easily less than half of what it costs to make many contemporary Hollywood action blockbusters.
Despite the lauded action sequences in many of his movies, Rajamouli told students that the key to his success 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 while a typical Hollywood movie has at least 100. Rajamouli pointed out that the “Baahubali” script also had roughly 140 pages of action description.
The writer and director sat onstage alongside his longtime producer, Shobu Yarlagadda, as they reflected on what made them so successful as a team. Rajamouli got more laughs when he said he appreciates that Yarlagadda doesn’t involve himself too much in the creative side of the filmmaking but added that the producer does many other indispensable things — such as his role in marketing “RRR” internationally. Yarlagadda very frankly told students that long ago he had his “back against the wall” as the former owner of two failed businesses, and that he had zero experience in the film business. Yet that was when he decided to do what he felt called to do — produce films.
“It’s been 20-plus years and we stuck to it and it’s been a great journey for us,” he said.
Rajamouli teamed with composer M.M Keeravani to create the Oscar-winning song “Naatu Naatu.” The song had to serve as the soundtrack for a fight scene between the film’s two main characters and British colonialists — except, there couldn’t actually be a fight because it wouldn’t have made sense in the larger story. The solution was a breathless dance sequence to the song, which won a Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award in addition to the 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 totally amazing for viewers who don’t have much knowledge of India’s past and present, the context that knowledge provides adds a great deal of depth and complexity.
Critics of “RRR,” which takes place in the early part of the 20th century, believe that the movie reinforces today’s Hindu nationalism in India. Rajamouli, however, says it does no such thing.
“I don’t have any messages in my films, I just try to make an emotional connection with the audience,” he said. “[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.”
During the Q&A, a student pushed Rajamouli to comment further, asking the filmmaker if, regardless of his intentions, he thinks the violent movie could lead to violent nationalism. Rajamouli acknowledged the potential danger inherent in different interpretations of the film, but added that “if you are sincere and honest in your way of storytelling, I think you can negate that.”
Rajamouli stressed that part of doing so was holding true to one’s vision and values. Had he hired Hindi actors for the main roles the film in theory would have been more marketable in India, even if a Hindi actor didn’t necessarily make sense in the role.
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.”