S. S. Rajamouli was born in 1973, in the South Indian state of Karnataka, to a family from a dominant caste. He learned how to make movies from various odd jobs and apprenticeships, including a years-long stint working for his father, the successful screenwriter Koduri Viswa Vijayendra Prasad. In the past two decades, Rajamouli has earned a reputation among Indian moviegoers for a series of formally ambitious blockbusters, including the spectacular “Baahubali: The Beginning,” from 2015, which inspired a new wave of Indian historic epics. But he has found a new level of global success with his latest film, the joyously over-the-top action-fantasy “RRR”—short for “Rise Roar Revolt”—which is among the highest-grossing Indian movies of all time.
“RRR” was first released last March but caught on with American viewers over the summer, after an unusual U.S.-wide theatrical rerelease organized by the distributor Variance Films and the film consultant Josh Hurtado. The movie hasn’t left U.S. theatres since. A Hindi-dubbed version on Netflix has furthered its word-of-mouth reputation. For many American viewers, “RRR” has provided an introduction not only to Indian cinema but to the Telugu-language film industry sometimes referred to as Tollywood, which operates separately from its more famous Hindi-language counterpart, Bollywood. In January, Rajamouli won Best Director at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. His film is nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Original Song, for the international viral hit “Naatu Naatu.”
Set in pre-independence Delhi during the nineteen-twenties, “RRR” follows two characters loosely based on the real-life Telugu revolutionary leaders Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao, Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), as they team up to challenge a host of ruthless British officials. Bheem and Raju exhibit superhuman abilities in the realms of fighting, taming tigers, and conducting spontaneous dance-offs. For many American viewers, their story will come across as an exuberant anti-colonialist tall tale. But some Indian critics have identified a strain of Hindu nationalism in the film’s mythologized telling of Bheem and Raju’s historic freedom fight. They point to the fact that Raju, who belongs to a privileged caste, is ultimately elevated in the narrative above Bheem, a leader of the Gond tribe, who declares himself a humble student of Raju’s teachings. They point to how this story line replicates hierarchical relationships from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which Rajamouli has cited as sources of inspiration, and especially to the film’s patriotic final number, “Etthara Jenda” (“Raise the Flag”), which celebrates certain historic figures favored by the Hindutva movement while leaving out founding fathers such as Mahatma Gandhi. In Vox, the critic Ritesh Babu called the movie a “casteist Hindu wash of history and the independence struggle.”
There are other reasons to wonder about the movie’s political intentions. Rajamouli’s father, who co-wrote “RRR,” has been at work on a film commissioned by the R.S.S., the Hindu-nationalist extremist group, which he has called a “great organization.” Rajamouli told me that his father’s script is “very emotional and extremely good.” But, during several recent interviews over Zoom, Rajamouli denied that “RRR” had any deliberate ideological implications and was persistently evasive on the subject of the country’s politics and his own. “Entertainment is what I provide,” he said. Rajamouli is forty-nine years old, with a swoop of salt-and-pepper curls and a thick beard in a matching shade. (You can spot him in a cameo during “RRR” ’s patriotic finale.) In our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, he also discussed atheism, what makes a good action sequence, and some of his creative influences, including Mel Gibson and Ayn Rand.
When did you know that “RRR” was a crossover hit?
We started seeing a positive response on social media first, which continued with tweets from celebrities praising the film. Then the movie was released on Netflix, where it topped the charts. Then it opened in Japan and started doing well there. So we only gradually saw that the response was greater than what we envisioned. There was a screening in L.A., at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX, where ninety per cent of the audience were Americans. They reacted in the same way as the audience back in India when the film was initially released: jumping, clapping, standing up, and dancing in the aisles. When that happened, we thought, O.K., whatever we’ve been hearing on social media, we’re now directly seeing with our own eyes. We did it.
I spoke to the film programmer and consultant Josh Hurtado for the Times last year about the film’s rerelease in American theatres. He said that the things that won audiences over were the same things that had originally deterred them from watching Indian films, specifically “long run times, song and dance numbers, and ridiculous action.” Does that response surprise you?
Not really. I also don’t disagree with Westerners’ complaints about the songs in Indian films. There are many times where the songs can hamper the film’s narration. But, after working with songs for so long, some Indian filmmakers came to understand the power of song and dance, if it makes the story go forward, rather than stopping the story. Very few Indian filmmakers have figured out how to do that, but when that happens even Westerners will enjoy it.
As for action set pieces, we, as human beings, like to see fantastic things happen. But, if action is not substantiated properly, then it becomes ridiculous. If it is substantiated, and if I make the audience feel that the characters in the film need to do something extraordinary, audiences will applaud.
Is audience feedback something that you actively seek out?
I do that a lot, yeah. Because, essentially, a film works if the director or the filmmaker is thinking along the same lines as the audience. If not, then the film won’t be successful. For me, it is very important to understand how my audience members feel about my films. At the same time, I don’t think many people can really express how they like or dislike the movie. The moment you put them in a position to judge your film, they lose that perception. The best way for me to judge my own films is to go to the theatre, sit with the audience, and feel how they’re responding. I visit theatres showing my films sometimes ten, thirty, forty, or even a hundred times to get a sense of how the audience receives my films.
Have you been surprised by audience responses to particular scenes or moments from “RRR”?
One example: during the climax, when Raju gives a speech about a bullet, he repeats the same words that Scott said earlier in the movie, and tells Bheem to give the bullet back to Scott—meaning, to shoot him down. The response to this scene, across America, was much stronger than what it was in India.
What do you make of that difference?
Probably because Indian audiences expect big action scenes after having seen my previous films. They’ve seen those movies and are now looking forward to big action set pieces. American audiences are looking with fresh eyes.
You’ve previously said that you don’t like the term “Tollywood” and prefer that your movies be described as South Indian or Telugu-language movies. Is that because of the association with Bollywood or even Hollywood films?
There is no sense in it. See, there is a reason why Hollywood is called Hollywood, right? Because there’s a place called Hollywood, where most of the films are made. There is no reason why a Hindi film is called Bollywood, or a Telugu film is called Tollywood. These terms make the films they’re describing sound like cheap imitations.