“RRR” represents a turning point for Indian cinema

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India’s film industry is one of the largest and most varied in the world — in fact not one but many separate ones, including Bollywood, Tollywood and others — but few of the nearly 2,000 films it produces each year make any impact among themselves. the western public.

“We have a long narrative tradition in India. We probably have the oldest and most colorful stories,” said director SS Rajamouli. “Not being able to cross borders has been a disappointment.”

That has emphatically changed with his film “RRR,” a three-hour Telugu-language action epic that has not only become one of India’s biggest hits, but climbed the U.S. box office charts before. to find an even wider audience on Netflix. For nine consecutive weeks, “RRR” has ranked in the top 10 most-viewed foreign-language movies on the streaming service. Dubbed in Hindi and subtitled in 15 different languages, it is the most popular Indian movie on Netflix and is listed in the top 10 most viewed in 62 countries.

For many, “RRR,” based on Hindu mythology and freedom fighters who resisted British colonialism, is their first encounter with Tollywood, the Telugu film industry, or Indian cinema in general. What many have seen is a film packed to the brim with over-the-top action scenes, big dance numbers and an energy that Hollywood blockbusters rarely match. Motorcycles juggle. Tigers are thrown. Suspenders are used as a surprisingly flexible dance accessory.

“It’s never enough for me,” Rajamouli said in a recent interview from Hyderabad. “The only thing that’s too much is my producer coming in and saying, ‘We’re over budget, you have to stop somewhere.’ That’s the only thing that will stop me. If I get the chance, I’ll make it even bigger and wilder, no doubt. I like to watch movies like that and obviously I like to make movies like that.”

“To the brim, no less,” he added.

That go-anywhere style has earned the endorsement of some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster filmmakers. James Gunn and Scott Derrickson, both of whom have directed Marvel movies, have praised “RRR” since it began streaming.

The success of “RRR” came as Netflix grappled with subscriber loss and a falling stock price that put its business model into question. But a less debatable aspect of the platform is its ability to foster global hits in other languages. First theatrical releases, such as South Korea’s best picture Oscar winner “Parasite,” have already broken down what director Bong Joon Ho called “the one-inch barrier” on subtitles. On Netflix, “RRR” follows the success of global series such as the Korean “Squid Game” and the French “Lupin”.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect this kind of reception from the West,” Rajamouli said. “In the country and among the Indian diaspora around the world it is what we expected, but the reception from the West was a complete surprise to me. I always thought that western sensibilities are different from my kind of movies. Mainly, I cater to Eastern or Indian sensibilities.”

But while “RRR” has certain Hollywood aspects that make it not so different from a superhero movie, it is deeply rooted in Indian myth and current reality. “RRR” are the initials for “Rise Roar Revolt” (Rise, Roar and Rebel), but it also refers to Rajamouli and his two lead actors, NT Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan. Both belong to dynasties of actors that were previously more like rivals. This is the first movie in which they appear together, which is a bit like a meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, if they were also the children of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Charan and Rao play real-life Indian revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, respectively, who band together in British-controlled India in the 1920s. Returning to the origins of modern India, “RRR” it inevitably relates to India today, where, as in many other countries in recent years, nationalism has been on the rise. Since he was elected in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emboldened India’s Hindu majority, sometimes at the expense of the Muslim minority.

Rajamouli, 48, has become one of the country’s top directors over the same period. He released his two-part epic “Baahubali” in 2015 and its 2017 sequel is the country’s biggest box office hit. (Both are also available on Netflix.) But the political subtext of those films has been troubling to some.

“In ‘Baahubali,’ although it appears to have no connection to the political present, what stands out is a muscular form of Hinduism that is the worst manifestation of right-wing nationalism,” said Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, a University of Illinois professor who has written several books on Indian cinema. “The jingoistic and nationalistic Hindu machismo. In history, it is projected into the mythological past.”

“Baahubali” was a Telugu triumph that signaled that South India’s Tollywood had perhaps overtaken Bollywood as the country’s leading movie mill. In “RRR” — the most expensive Telugu film ever made, with a budget of $72 million — Rajamouli juggles Telugu traditions and Bollywood song-and-dance aesthetics in what Mehta considers a pan-Indian film. Muslim characters appear, though not in leading roles.

In this sense, “RRR” may not be too different from American blockbusters. This summer’s biggest movie in America, “Top Gun: Maverick,” doesn’t skimp on jingoism either. Rajamouli has listened to the critics, but does not agree with their interpretations.

“I understand that point of view. Sometimes I feel like they’re just blinded,” she said. “Personally, I am an atheist, I do not believe in God, I do not believe in any religion. But I understand the power of spiritualism. For me, spiritualism is an emotion. And I write stories full of emotions.”

Surely, many of the cultural references and connections in “RRR” will go unnoticed by most Western viewers. But the sheer excitement of its making isn’t lost in translation, and that may mean more cultural crossovers for Tollywood and India in the future.

“Indian cinema has had a different life and cycle. If we keep an open mind, we can see this as the arrival of something,” says Mehta. “Only time can tell. We will have to see if this is really a new trend and more movies like this will be made. Indian or Telugu cinema could continue like this, or this could be something unique.”

Meanwhile, Rajamouli works on his next project. He is often asked if he would ever like to make a Hollywood or Marvel movie, but his focus is making Indian movies for India and beyond.

“Because of the success of ‘RRR’ with Western audiences, I try to make a movie for the whole world, not just India,” he said. “But I wouldn’t try to go after Western sensibilities and try to match and change my story based on that. I think it would never work.”

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