Wrestling tigers and hurling motorcycles: how SS Rajamouli’s RRR cast a spell over the world
The Indian director was as surprised as anyone that his astonishingly larger than life, logic-defying action film has found a huge global audience. So is Hollywood on the horizon?
Looking at the box-office numbers when RRR first opened in the US in March, director SS Rajamouli couldn’t believe the film was really breaking through to non-Indian audiences. “We thought, OK, this might be [American] friends who the Indians had dragged along to see the movie,” he says. “But as the numbers started increasing, and appreciation started coming from celebrities, critics, influencers, gamers, from people of repute, I think it gradually dawned on us that this had the capacity to become much bigger than any other Indian film that has gone before.”
Everything about RRR – the story of two freedom fighters in British-ruled 1920s India – is larger than life. Not just because of the box-office numbers (it is currently the third-highest grossing film ever in India; Rajamouli’s 2017 action film Baahubali 2 is the highest), the budget (at $69m, India’s most expensive film ever) or the length of the shoot (320 days over three years, with Covid interruptions), but also the epic tenor of the movie’s action. Men wrestle tigers and hurl motorcycles, entire armies are single-handedly subdued, the dance scenes are supercharged. Stylised, CGI-heavy, logic-defying, yet ingeniously choreographed and meticulously composed, it feels like something fresh and invigorating, especially compared to Hollywood’s samey output.
“I see many films where action is not giving the impact that it is supposed to give,” says Rajamouli. “I see them doing fantastic action sequences, but for me, what is lacking is the emotional drive. Why is that action sequence happening?” Emotion and action go hand in hand for him, he says. In person he is gentle, calm and softly spoken; far from the model of macho masculinity of his films. “I just love the human body,” he says. “It’s a fantastic machine created by nature and it can do so many wonderful things.”
Rajamouli works in a collaborative way, but when it comes to getting what he wants, he can be a bit of a dictator, he admits. “All through the production, I constantly worry about whether I’m getting certain images on to the screen in the right way, in the perfect way, where I’m able to communicate my emotions to the audience the way I’m feeling it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get it right.”
In one astonishing scene, for example, our hero Bheem (NT Rama Rao Jr) ambushes a British party by smashing a truck through the palace gates and leaping out of the back accompanied by a menagerie of angry tigers, stags and other wild beasts. It took 45 nights to film, Rajamouli explains, with 2,000 extras, including children, in period costume, plus fighters, stuntmen, fire, water. The animals were all CGI, but that added extra difficulties since actors had to react to things that were not there. Just one shot from that scene, where Bheem is framed by a broken fountain whose dancing hoses spray water like snakes, took his art department 10 days to work out.
Film-making seems an obvious career path for Rajamouli in retrospect. He grew up devouring movies, western as well as Indian – not least action epics such as Gladiator, Braveheart and Ben-Hur (he has watched the chariot race “hundreds of times”). And he was part of an extended family that entered into the movie industry in Chennai. It wasn’t quite so straightforward, though: “I was a good for nothing boy in the family,” he says. “My father used to constantly ask me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I absolutely had no idea. And because all of the family was into film, I said, ‘I’ll become a director.’ I had no idea what a director does.”
He started as a junior assistant editor. “My first job was just putting labels on the cans. I was not even allowed to touch the film.” But he would listen to the conversations of the film-makers when they took a break outside the editing room. By 2001 he was directing his first movie, Student No 1 – and the scale and success of his work has been increasing ever since.
RRR’s anti-colonial narrative and somewhat cartoonish depiction of the British as sadistic, moustache-twirling villains has raised some objections, but Rajamouli has no axe to grind, he insists: “There is no historical accuracy. At the beginning of the film we have a big disclaimer saying: ‘This is a completely fictional story.’ If you’re saying that the British are portrayed as villains, I would say the villains who are portrayed in the film happen to be British.”
He is similarly balanced when it comes to Britain’s legacy in India. “It is stupid to expect all the officers were gods or benevolent people but at the same time, it is also stupid to think all of them were monsters out to torture and kill people.” He cites the East India Company official CP Brown, who, in the 19th century, created the first Telugu-language dictionary. “He literally saved my language from extinction,” says Rajamouli. “In many libraries, you’ll see statues of CP Brown; we worship him like a god.”
With awards season upon us, Rajamouli is still on the RRR rollercoaster. In the US he has brushed shoulders with his Hollywood heroes, such as JJ Abrams, Peter Weir and Michael J Fox. “I’m quite a shy person. I just stand at the back.” Inevitably the question of working in the US has arisen, and he doesn’t rule it out: “There are many, many things that I can learn from Hollywood, its efficiency, its lean working mechanism. We are trying to figure out a way I can collaborate.”
Whether he likes it or not, Rajamouli is now a global film-maker rather than simply an Indian one, but he’s trying not to over-analyse what made RRR work. “Without changing my thinking process, the film appealed to western audiences,” he says. “So if I try to change something, then I don’t know whether I’ll be appealing to western audiences, and whether I’ll be appealing to my Indian audience as well.” Inevitably, there are plans for an RRR sequel. He recently had a “great idea” about how to continue the story, he says. It almost feels like a responsibility. “It’s a reciprocation of love for the fans and audiences who love this film.”