New Delhi, India – “I only know great emotions,” said 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 third most successful worldwide . But he could also talk about his predominant emotion at the moment: overwhelming joy.
Rajamouli is delighted that foreign audiences, as well as Indians at home and abroad, have also “loved” his film – and that it is not a “patronizing love”.
“You know, sometimes when you have a bigger audience and try a small movie, you say, ‘Those guys did a good job.’ It’s not like… It’s like, ‘Wow, guys… There’s something here that’s really, really captivating.’ I didn’t expect that,” Rajamouli said during a Zoom call to Al Jazeera.
Created on a budget of $72 million, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) was released in 21 countries on March 25. A three-hour, seven-minute action-adventure about India’s struggle against British colonialism set in the 1920s, debuting at number three at the US Box Office and number two at the UK and Australian box offices. In just four weeks, it has already raised $141 million worldwide.
Some critics have seen Rajamouli, 48, as a pioneer of Telugu cinema, which has challenged Bollywood’s traditional dominance in India and beyond.
“Rajamouli has an impeccable track record. Every movie of his has worked… It wouldn’t be wrong to say he’s the greatest [Indian film director] ever,” Komal Nahta, an Indian film trade analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Riding the Rajamouli Gulf
Since his film career started in 2001, Rajamouli has directed 12 films – all of them blockbusters. All of them were originally recorded in Teluga, and some have been dubbed into other Indian languages.
His creative ambitions and the budgets of his films have grown over time. At the same time, audiences for South Indian movies have increased.
India speaks 121 languages and makes films in about 24 of them, including Hindi-speaking Bollywood films. The film industry, valued at approximately $2.3 billion, is also the world’s largest film producer.
In 2020-2021, Bollywood box office collections totaled $200 million while Telugu films fetched $215 million.
Yet Bollywood is not only synonymous with Indian cinema, but receives a disproportionate amount of attention and financial support, while the rest are clubbed under the derisive label of ‘regional cinema’.
Rajamouli has challenged that trend; especially starting with his 2012 film Eega (The Fly), a fantasy film in which the hero is killed, reincarnated as a fly, and embarks on a mission to avenge his murder, then more successfully Baahubali (One With Strong Arms), a two-part action-fantasy swashbuckler released in 2015 and 2017.
Eega received critical acclaim and was a hit on satellite TV with Hindi-speaking, Bollywood-loving audiences in India, while the two-part Baahubali, earned on a budget of $59 million, collected $314 million at the world box office.
The second installment of the Baahubali franchise, Baahubali: The Conclusion, released in 2017, remains India’s second highest grossing film at the global box office. It is also India’s highest-grossing, most-watched film ever. It expanded the Telugu film box office in India by five times while the US Telugu film market grew from about $1-2 million to $20 million.
It catapulted Rajamouli into India’s most expensive director, with a roughly $13 million commission to direct a film.
Films by other directors in Telugu and Kannada, another language in South India, have taken the Rajamouli wave; their ambitions and budgets have grown, as have their profits and markets.
Pushpa: The Rise, the first of a two-part Telugu action drama about the rise of a worker in the red sandalwood and sandalwood smuggling syndicate, released on December 17, 2021, was India’s second biggest hit in 2020-2021.
KGF: Chapter 2, the second of a two-part film about a hit man and the gold mafia, released worldwide on April 14, is the first Kannada film to gross $5 million in the US in five days. Created on a budget of $13 million, the worldwide box office collections stand at $125 million in 15 days.
Meanwhile, a lot of big Bollywood movies have flopped lately.
Bollywood’s 83, a film about the Indian cricket team’s historic victory at the 1983 World Cup, was made for $35 million but barely managed to get $25 million back. Bell Bottom, a plane hijacking drama unleashed based on a true event, released last August, lost a whopping $15 million despite starring Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actors.
“I don’t want to make it a ‘me versus Bollywood’ thing,” Rajamouli said when asked about the differences between his films and 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 a special skill at storytelling, certainly not,” he said.
Shobu Yarlagadda, part of the duo that produced the Baahubali franchise, told Al Jazeera that Bollywood doesn’t rank highly at the box office because it has become more urban and “moved away from the heroism, raw emotions and other elements that make up commercial cinema”.
†[Telugu cinema] still does that very well.”
RRR tells a fictional epic about two real-life Indian revolutionaries who fought against the British Raj. The two main characters of the film are played by two of the best actors of Telugu cinema: Ram Charan and Jr NTR. But the film also features a huge cast of British, Irish and American actors, and to further expand the market for his films, Rajamouli first cast two major Bollywood stars – Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn.
The stories Rajamouli loves to tell are inspired by his screenwriter father – who has written nine of his 12 films – and the hugely popular Indian comics, Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Illustrated Story), which he grew up reading.
Created in the late 1960s and 1970s, these comic books told moralistic, mythological and inspiring stories about Indian gods, gurus, kings and queens. Mainly drawn from the two Hindu epics – Mahabharata and Ramayana – men fought honorable battles, while pious, lustful women in small blouses were humiliated. Evil was often portrayed as a beard, mercenary and Mughal.
But for Rajamouli, this was a world where: “If the hero walks, the ground would split and the sky would burst into flames”. That ‘great set of things’, he says, appealed to his imagination. “And when I started telling stories, I didn’t want to make them different.”
RRR features several extended fight scenes and a 4.5-minute peppy song and dance sequence shot in front of the Mariinskyi Palace, the official residence of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, with about three quarters of the film being visual effects.
Bhatt, one of the best actresses of Bollywood, is the female lead in the film. 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 been criticized that patriotism in his films often borders on jingoism, and that his films are masculine and even sexist.
Rajamouli rejects both claims, saying that his focus when writing and directing a film is on telling a story and conveying emotions, not gender.
“In RRR I wasn’t talking about patriotism. I was talking about friendship. And if someone [says] it’s an over-the-top patriotic movie, it just makes me laugh.”