What does creating a piece of art that earns close to $136 million in less than three weeks feel like? SS Rajamouli, the director of the recently released Indian magnum opus RRR, is best-positioned to answer that question, given that his latest movie comfortably crossed the mark.
It is not the first time a film of his has achieved such eyebrow-raising numbers. His last two films, Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, made a combined box office haul of an estimated $326m, making them two of the most expensive and highest-grossing Indian films of all time.
“When I saw it in the theatres in the initial days, people were screaming, whistling, crying, going crazy," Rajamouli tells The National. "The kind of emotions playing on their faces … I think we’ve created a piece of art that will remain in the people’s mind for a very long time."
Originally made in Telugu and dubbed in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada, RRR is a period-action-drama set in pre-independence India of the 1920s, starring Telugu superstars NTR Jr and Ram Charan in the lead roles of real-life Indian revolutionaries Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, respectively.
Ray Stevenson, from the Thor film franchise, as British Governor Scott Buxton, and Alison Doody, of A View To Kill fame, as his wife Catherine, play the villains.
RRR revolves around Bheem’s mission to rescue Malli, a talented young child, after she was forcefully taken away from her family and community by Scott and Catherine. In pursuit of his duty as the protector of the tribe, Bheem encounters Ram, a rebel working undercover within the army to get access to British weapons to arm his fellow mutineers.
While there exists no historical record of the two freedom fighters ever having crossed paths, Rajamouli’s fictionalised universe has them play best friends, then adversaries, and brothers-in-arms once again. Often defying, or, as Rajamouli insists with thinly veiled irritation at that assertion, “stretching, not defying” the laws of physics in the process.
Rajamouli and his audience are in perfect sync. His viewers know exactly what to expect when they walk into the theatre: carefully orchestrated thrills, larger-than-life emotions, actions and reactions, and unwitting gasps.
If you are the kind of moviegoer who rolls their eyes and tuts in disbelief instead of whistling and clapping until the throat is raw and the palms go red when CGI tigers (yes, more than one) repeatedly fall into comatose heaps having been drop-kicked and punched by the heroes, RRR is not for you. Truth be told, Rajamouli’s entire brand of self-admittedly “rollercoaster entertainer” might not be for you.
“I generally like larger-than-life, pushing-the-boundaries sort of canvases,” he says. “I don’t think too much into the future — at the end of the day, it is the story that has to charge and excite me. But at present I’m in that space, and I don’t see that changing in the next couple of films.”
Rajamouli unfailingly delivers, with great precision, on his fans’ preternatural need to dissociate from reality. “I believe entertainment to be a very serious business. It takes a lot for the audience to spend their hard-earned money and effort to come watch our films. They don’t come to my movies for a history lesson, they come for thrill and emotional thrust. That’s what I try to deliver.”
It is only natural that Rajamouli spends a painstaking amount of time choreographing his action sequences. RRR’s interval action sequence took six months of preparation and 65 nights of shooting to pull off. The climax episode alone was shot over 30 nights. And these are just two of the many, many action sequences in the film.
“I’m very loyal to my action sequences. I just won’t put them in for the sake of it,” he says. “I believe that human endurance and physical capabilities are unimaginable when they are emotionally charged.
“There are things that real people have achieved that we can’t imagine, but they happen once in a lifetime … The only thing is they happen quite a number of times in my films.”
In a world of extended comic book universes that spread over decades with criss-crossing storylines and mega Hollywood franchise budgets, RRR’s success — in all its dubbed avatars — is almost plucky. Rajamouli’s very particular use of dialogue deserves at least some of the credit.
“I try to tell my story through visuals. The entire dubbing script of RRR was hardly 15 to 20 pages. The protagonist, Ram, does not even utter a word for the first 20 minutes of the film.
“I try to put in as little dialogue as possible, but the dialogues we do put in … My writers take excruciating care, writing version after version so that nuance does not get lost in translation.”
Rajamouli’s films present an interesting paradox: it’s evident that he thinks of and plans for everything. Every look between characters, every expression hammered across his actors’ faces is by design. And he does it bigger, grander and with more conviction with each passing film. Yet, it’s equally obvious that Rajamouli’s decisions are not motivated by any tried-and-tested formula for success. In the end, it boils down to simply this: “This is just how I do things. I make what I enjoy making.”