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 third most successful in the world. But he could also be talking 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 kind of love”.
“You know, sometimes when you’re a larger audience and a small movie tries to make some attempt, you’ll say, ‘Those guys made a good effort.’ It’s not like that… It’s like, ‘Wow, guys… There’s something here that’s really fascinating.’ I didn’t expect that,” Rajamouli tells Al Jazeera via Zoom call.
Budgeted at $72 million, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) launched 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 number three at the US box office and number two at the UK box office. UK and Australia. In four weeks it has already raised 141 million dollars worldwide.
Some critics have seen Rajamouli, 48, as a pioneer of Telugu cinema, which has challenged the traditional dominance of Bollywood in India and abroad.
“Rajamouli has an impeccable record. Every film of his has worked… It would not be wrong to say that it is the greatest [Indian film director] never,” Komal Nahta, an Indian film trade analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Riding the wave of Rajamouli
Since his film career began in 2001, Rajamouli has directed 12 films, all of which were box-office hits. All were originally shot in Teluga, with some dubbed into other Indian languages.
His creative ambitions and film budgets have grown over time. At the same time, he has increased the audience for South Indian movies.
India speaks 121 languages and makes movies in about 24 of them, including Hindi-speaking Bollywood movies. Its film industry, valued at some 2.3 billion dollars, is also the largest producer of films in the world.
In 2020-2021, Bollywood box office grosses were $200 million while Telugu films grossed $215 million.
However, Bollywood is not just synonymous with Indian cinema, it receives a disproportionate amount of attention and financial support, while the rest are clobbered under the derisive label of ‘regional cinema’.
Rajamouli has bucked that trend; particularly 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 quest to avenge his murder, and then, even more successfully, Baahubali (One With Strong Arms). ), a two-part fantasy action swordsman that was released in 2015 and 2017.
Eega received critical acclaim and was a hit on satellite television with Hindi-speaking audiences and Bollywood lovers in India, while the two-part Baahubali, made on a budget of $59 million, grossed $314 million at the global box office. .
The second part of the Baahubali franchise, Baahubali: The Conclusion, released in 2017, remains India’s second most successful film at the global box office. It is also India’s highest grossing and most viewed film. It expanded the box office takings of Telugu films in India fivefold, while the US market for Telugu films grew from around $1-2 million to $20 million.
He catapulted Rajamouli to become the most expensive director in India, with an estimated $13 million to direct a film.
Films by other directors in Telugu and Kannada, another South Indian language, have ridden the Rajamouli wave; his ambitions and budgets have grown, as have his profits and markets.
Pushpa: The Rise, the first of a two-part Telugu action drama about a worker’s rise in the sandalwood/red sander smuggling syndicate, released on 17 December 2021, was India’s second biggest hit in 2020-2021.
KGF: Chapter 2, the second part of a two-part film about a murderer and the gold mafia, released worldwide on April 14, is the first Kannada film to gross $5 million in the US. in five days. Made with a budget of 13 million dollars, its box office collections worldwide in 15 days amount to 125 million dollars.
Meanwhile, many great Bollywood movies have flopped recently.
Bollywood 83, a film about the Indian cricket team’s historic victory in the 1983 World Cup, was made for $35 million, but barely managed to recover $25 million. Bell Bottom, a plane hijacking drama based on a true story, released in August last year, lost a staggering $15 million, despite starring Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actors.
“I don’t want to make it into some kind of me versus Bollywood thing,” Rajamouli said when asked about the divergent fortunes of his films compared to recent Bollywood productions. He attributed his success to his work and “keep going” ethic and to think big, grow, learn from mistakes and build on successes.
“It’s not because I have a knack for storytelling, definitely not,” he said.
Shobu Yarlagadda, part of the duo that produced the Baahubali franchise, told Al Jazeera that Bollywood is not doing well at the box office because it has become more urban and “moved away from the heroism, raw emotions and other elements that make up commercials. “. cinema”.
“[Telugu cinema] he still does very well.”
RRR tells a fictional epic of two real-life Indian revolutionaries who fought against the British Raj. The two main characters in the film are played by two of the best actors in Telugu cinema: Ram Charan and Jr NTR. But the film also features a great cast of British, Irish and American actors, and to further expand the market for his films, Rajamouli 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 has written nine of his 12 films, and the hugely popular Indian comics, Amar Chitra Katha (Illustrated Immortal Story), which he grew up reading.
Created in the late 1960s and 1970s, these comics tell moralistic, mythological, and inspirational stories about gods, gurus, kings, and queens of India. Mainly drawn from the two Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, men fought honorable battles while pious and voluptuous women in skimpy tops suffered humiliations. Evil was often depicted as bearded, mercenary, and Mughal.
But for Rajamouli, this was a world where “when the hero walks, the ground splits open and the sky bursts into flames.” That “grand scheme of things,” he says, fired his imagination. “And when I set out to tell stories, I didn’t want them to be any different.”
RRR features several elaborate battle scenes and a 4.5-minute-long animated song and dance sequence filmed in front of the Mariinskyi Palace, the official residence of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with approximately three-quarters of the film made up of effects. visuals.
Bhatt, one of the best Bollywood actresses, is the female lead of 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 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 while writing and directing a film, his goal is to tell a story and convey its emotions, not the genre.
“In RRR I did not talk about patriotism. I talked about friendship. and if someone [says] It’s an over the top patriotic movie, I can only smile.”