You know Srikar Poruri for his work designing the site and creating all its beautiful art. His first piece dives into the summer of Rajamouli.
If you have unfortunately been exposed to Film Twitter recently, you may have seen men with muscles like cantaloupes, some tiger-on-human action or impeccable dance sequences plastered all over your timeline. These images are from RRR, the latest S.S. Rajamouli film, an established legend of Tollywood (the Telugu-language film industry of South India; Bollywood refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai). RRR has broken out of the regional industry and out of India, receiving international buzz and earning a place on most mid-year lists for best pictures of the year. The movie originally had its theatrical run in March and April, but thanks to Variance Films and heaps of praise from various American critics and directors, on June 1st it returned to the big screen across the country. While praise has been nearly unanimous in the West, Indian critics and my family had more lukewarm feelings about the movie, so I had to investigate for myself where the disconnect was.
To catch the “#EncoRRRe,” I venture out to the multiplex at the Grove, financed by none other than billionaire land-demon and potential mayor of Los Angeles, Rick Caruso. All of my friends whom I invited had an excuse, and I spend the uber-ride in the car-dependent hellscape wondering why I was going to a movie alone for the first time ever. The show is in the back corner of the multiplex, on a tiny screen. Trailers for the latest recycled-IP content and the Nicole Kidman AMC ad play. Nicole blabs about what makes movies good and receives zealous cheers in response to “we make movies better.” A rabid spokesperson for BeyondFest (a not-for-profit org dedicated to showing genre films across LA) emerges. He says, “you’re going to have the best time you’ve ever had in a movie theater,” and declares that “we’ve never seen anything like it.”
I’ve seen something like RRR before. Unlike many of the people discovering RRR who are annoying their friends about it, I’ve had a different relationship with Rajamouli throughout my life. Born into a Telugu-speaking family (not all of us speak Hindu), one of my earliest memories is rewinding and laughing at this song from Chatrapathi, since my little sister’s nickname is “Yaya.” The haunting theme of Chatrapathi and the image of lead star Prabhas’s rippling muscles will float around in my dopamine-starved brain forever. I remember as an 8-year-old attending the opening weekend in Hyderabad for the 7 million dollar blockbuster Magadheera. Magadheera is Rajamouli’s first collaboration with Ram Charan, who plays the dashing class traitor Alluri Sitama Raju in RRR. At the time Magadheera was the biggest budget Telugu movie ever, and the demand for tickets was so high that two college students were electrocuted in a rush to buy them. My aunt somehow managed to secure us seats in the front row, and we craned our necks up at the sea of screen for three hours to watch a love story across lifetimes. Lazy Saturday afternoons were defined by GeminiTV reruns of Yamadonga, one of Rajamouli’s earlier collaborations with NTR Jr (the other lead of RRR).
I didn’t know movies to be anything else, and most Hollywood productions I was watching were similar in spectacle, like Harry Potter or any animated Pixar movie. Inspired by this style, my cousins, neighbors and I would make action-packed home movies full of dumb jokes and music.
Yet around that awkward time between middle school and high school, when I decided I wasn’t going to do what my dad did for work and refused to practice Telugu in any capacity, I also decided Tollywood was lesser than Hollywood. The emotional and action sequences were so over the top, and the physical comedy I found memorable as a child no longer landed. The visual effects were lower quality than what I saw in American movies and took me out of the experience. Musical interludes with Soviet Bloc girls decorating the background felt awkward, underscoring what often felt like rote and misogynistic storylines centered around a hero winning a heroine by defeating men in the way. The long drives to the only theaters that played these movies made weekends feel wasted. I’d shove my earbuds in and bump I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside to drown out the Tollywood tunes blaring out the car system. Telugu movies were corny and uncool. Breaking Bad and The Sopranos were peak cinema.
I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Many Indian kids I knew felt similarly, and what I saw online reinforced this. A popular subreddit called r/BollywoodRealism (often conflating the different Bollywood, Tollywood and the Tamil “Kollywood” industries within India) aggregates clips of those over-the-top, generally South Indian action sequences for the sake of comedy. Even within India, the Hindi-language Bollywood has historically been seen as superior to the regional Indian industries. This attitude is only heightened across historic racist cultural boundaries between the East and West. Rajamouli himself off-handedly mentions in an interview how he enjoyed working with a Bulgarian stunt choreographer on RRR because “he didn’t show a superiority complex [despite] being from the West.” In this light, it’s fascinating to see Westerners “discovering” and praising Rajamouli’s latest work.
A few years later, when the pandemic hit, I went full film-bro mode, neglecting Zoom University and using free trials of the Criterion Channel to catch up on the film education I felt I was missing my whole life. During the day I was skipping “class” to watch Kurosawa and Edward Yang, and at night I fell back in love with Tollywood and Bollywood. Every night during the hard lockdown my family would laugh through these movies, something that maintained our sanity throughout that miserable era. Last summer, I was shocked to overhear a conversation where a prepubescent film-bro was excitedly explaining Rajamouli’s Baahubali franchise to his friends at a park.
Based on my lifelong perspective being in between Tollywood and Hollywood, I’ve come up with a few reasons why the Western world is picking up RRR:
Even as attention spans shorten in the digital age, the 187 minute run time is similar to two major well-received releases of last year, The Batman and Spiderman: No Way Home. Streaming audiences are increasingly becoming accustomed to throwing something on as noise, breaking up short-form digital chaos. On top of this, Indian movies generally have a built-in intermission as well for stretches and samosas, although many American theaters will play through the break (ours did not, but I’ll get back to that later.)
Rajamouli has been building up to this for years.
Rajamouli has been strategically expanding his audience over the last decade. With his 2012 release Eega, he simultaneously shot the film in two languages (Telugu and Tamil) and added a Malayalam dub, to release it in three different regional markets. With 2015’s epic Baahubali, he also added a Hindi dub to attract North Indian audiences (there’s also a Spanish, Portuguese, and atrocious English dub on Netflix). Baahubali 2 became the highest grossing domestic release in India and even bubbled over to some non-Indian international audiences. RRR is Rajamouli’s strongest attempt at crossing over yet, with a simple backronym title being marketable across any language, superstar South Indian and North Indian talent (even for a cameo), and a story about colonization. South Indian directors combining these ingredients is a growing trend contentiously referred to as the “Pan-India Movement,” with franchise films such as the Telugu Pushpa, and the Kannada KGF achieving record gross across the country. One explanation for this relatively recent phenomenon is South Indian stories maintaining a more authentically Indian perspective in their storytelling, telling stories of villages in a country that is still mostly rural. Bollywood movies have had a tendency to concern the lives of westernized, cosmopolitan Indian or wealthy NRIs (non-Resident Indians).
The movie has massive production value.
RRR was made on the biggest budget of any Indian movie ever, 10 times the budget of Magadheera just over a decade ago. This is closer to the budget of Morbius or two and a half episodes of Stranger Things than either of the aforementioned American blockbusters. Having to make do with these lower sums over decades has given Rajamouli a particular deftness when storytelling. What may have come across as amateurish to myself before was risk-taking and pushing storytelling boundaries within his limited budget. Over time he was able to build an understanding of how to work with VFX artists, unlike Marvel artists who are famously overworked and underpaid, and he’s able to get better results for it. His movies look a lot better than ones where the VFX artists are treated poorly by Beverly Hills executives. Rajamouli also mentions in an interview that he took particular care with the international release of RRR. Normally, final CGI renders are arriving until the very last minute and international prints have to be sent early for distribution. In the past, Rajamouli would make compromises on his international prints so they could be sent out on time, but he made no compromises with RRR, pushing the already delayed release back a few extra months.
It’s got a fresh, Telugu style.
Most importantly, the style of RRR is fresh for variety-starved American audiences. Throughout Rajamouli’s work and popular Telugu cinema in general, the audience is aware they are being told a story. This anti-realist style does not aim to immerse the viewer in a version of reality but instead woos the viewer to escape into the illusion. Many popular Indian movies are called “Masala films” or what Rajamouli refers to as the “Thali plate,” where there are scenes representative of every genre and appealing to every demographic, similar in variety to an Indian spice mix. Influenced by ancient song and dance based storytelling traditions, Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and 70s Hong Kong action cinema, there is something in a masala film for everyone. Action scenes from RRR operate under the Jackie Chan school of resourcefulness but on lucid dream logic. Rajamouli is known for his pre-interval scenes and he doesn’t disappoint, with a sensational night fight scene that took nearly 70 nights to complete (he’s not known for being particularly efficient either). A master at balancing the immediate action with the broader emotional stakes of a particular scene, vivid physicality heightens the impossible stakes which in turn demand unimaginable physicality that Rajamouli is able to capture. Colonizers get their limbs gnawed on while our hero uses demigod strength to sling iron chains and toss marble statues at the enemy. This maximalist style fits in broadly with cultural trends at the moment, as eclectic Hyperpop/Digicore and Harajuku street fashion are popular with Gen Z.
In contrast to traditional Western high culture ideals of restraint and subtlety, Masala movies will attempt to make the viewer feel a shade of every emotion while you’re in the theater. There is a greater level of suspension of disbelief and escapism than in American movies. This isn’t to say the West is devoid of antirealist styles—Wes Anderson has built his brand off the same method of immersing the viewer in one of his carefully constructed, artificial worlds. But Indian movies have a looser feel, throwing moderation out in order to generate the maximum amount of emotion possible. As seen with the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Western audiences are looking for refreshing stories, and with a story rooted in Indian revolutionaries and Hindu mythology, RRR is fresh for the Western world.
It’s generated strongly positive critical reactions in the West.
RRR has not received the same overwhelmingly positive reaction in India as it’s received in America. While American critics have sufficiently highlighted the “insanity” and spectacle of the film, they rarely go any further. The New York Times Review blandly outlines a handful of scenes from the film in a few short paragraphs, revealing a lack of knowledge on how to even engage with a movie like this.
A few Indian critics note the strange savior complex that the high caste Ram has over the tribal Bheem at the end of the film, and their power dynamic throughout the movie. This misrepresents the inspiration at the heart of Bheem’s character, who was a literate revolutionary in real life. Other critics note the Hindu nationalism present in the movie, excluding the significant Muslim population within India and Indian revolutionary history. This comes at a time where India has a Hindu-nationalist leadership actively increasing tensions. Personally, the disproportionately smaller representation of Muslims as a caring, protective, revolutionary family in RRR is much better than many Bollywood or Tollywood movies, where Muslims are often reduced to cheap stock villian characters or worse, explicitly villainized. Another reason for Indian response to be a bit more measured than the western response is the style of the film simply not being new. While it might feel like the train for some people, masala filmmaking has been around since the 70s, and is rooted in ancient storytelling techniques. At this point it’s basically the superhero movie of India, with many Indians looking down on the form as cheap mass entertainment. Some of my family members found the popular bromance irritating, as they saw through Rajamouli’s play to ensure each actor received equal amounts of screen time so that fanbases for either actor were not upset.
Glancing around the theater, I notice that the “#EncoRRRe” crowd is mostly unmelanated, the first time I’ve ever experienced this while watching an Indian movie. The first half of RRR breezes by. I’m enjoying myself in the theater, the crowd is more engaged than a usual moviegoing experience, cheering in response to the heroic rescue scene where our two heroes meet. But I can’t help but feel like the audience isn’t fully connecting with the movie. There are some awkward giggles in response to scenes that aren’t meant to be funny, and a relatively paltry response to scenes that are meant to be met with confetti. The lack of cultural understanding is palpable.
During our intermission, I overhear some dudes seated near me discussing how literal the lyrics were in the songs, overlooking the fact that the poetry was lost in translation.
I ask them how they knew about the movie, and they say their friend Venk brought them. Venk, a Telugu-American actor with a movie of his own on the way, returns from the bathroom. We talk about how proud we are to have had this culture growing up, how great it is to see people actively engaging with a different culture on their own accord, but how the audience isn’t reacting how it’s supposed to. How internalized racism perpetrated by white people led to feelings of superiority about western movies growing up. Venk’s friend (whom I’ll refer to as Jake) interrupts us here and disagrees.
“I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that we’re ALL like that.”
Venk gently explains to Jake that he has never been forced to culturally assimilate. Jake will never understand the complicated feelings behind watching a crowd full of white people discovering your culture’s cinema while also laughing at the wrong times. Jake has never been the “other” and neglected elements of his family’s culture for the culture he was socialized in. Jake doesn’t feel the invisible timer of his friends’ patience when sharing something different with them. After years of looking down on the culture, I isolated myself from my family by neglecting what we shared. Jake has never experienced how this neglect manifests in other ways, like slowly growing distant from your relatives, whether through a loss of language or any shared culture to discuss.
“I WISH YOU TOLD US THE INTERMISSION WAS GONNA BE 30 MINUTES, I COULD’VE GONE TO THE BATHROOM!” a disgruntled patron yells from the back. I didn’t realize that it had been that long, I had been too wrapped up in the conversation I was having with Venk and his friends.
“Oh…… sorry. Do you guys need 5 more minutes?” the employee replies.
Another 15 minutes go by. Finally, the same AMC employee emerges to tell us they’ve lost the second half of the movie. As in they misplaced half of a movie. The crowd releases a collective groan.
It’s no secret that the American film industry is in somewhat of a crisis now. The (clearly understaffed) theater at the Grove has been managed by AMC ever since the original management closed due to bankruptcy over the pandemic. Also in LA, the legendary Arclight Hollywood, Cinerama Dome, and the Landmark on Pico. have all been shut down. However, the success of RRR is a glimmer of hope. Even though the Grove showing was a failure, the #EncoRRRe has continued for weeks, still playing shows in New York and LA. The exchange of ideas will only strengthen the filmmaking here, and open minds up to possibilities within the medium. Western capital could create even bigger productions in India as well as strengthen the independent scene there. However, it’s also on American audiences to investigate deeper, learn more about the culture of India, and watch more movies from all over the world. Hopping on the RRR trend doesn’t help anyone unless viewers think about what elements of it were fresh for them. American production companies won’t evolve or take risks if RRR becomes a one-off cult hit. The often casteist, nepotistic Telugu film industry won’t evolve unless moviegoers decide to watch independent Telugu films.
In order to provide some guidance, here are some recommendations, from low budget independent picks to classics.
(Can watch with subtitles on Einthusan/Youtube/Netflix)
Closest to RRR
Something more romantic and comedic
Something with more comedy
Something more indie
- ℅ Kancharapalem (2018)