Hyderabad, India: Indian director S.S. Rajamouli's films are all-singing, all-dancing spectacles -- and he is now a favourite to secure the first ever Oscar for an all-Indian film.
His three-hour extravaganza "RRR" is a fictionalised story of two colonial-era revolutionaries, filled with large-scale, visual effects-laden action sequences and musical numbers. It has smashed box offices in India, wowed audiences from the United States to Japan, and is a front runner for the Best Original Song award at next month's Oscars, having already beaten out Taylor Swift and Rihanna for the same prize at the Golden Globes. "When I'm going to a movie, I would like to see larger-than-life characters, larger-than-life situations, larger-than-life drama," Rajamouli told AFP. "And that's what I like to make," he said at his office in the southern city of Hyderabad.
"Nothing holds the heroes back in delivering their action sequences." A word-of-mouth hit that has seen moviegoers dancing in cinema aisles, Telugu-language "RRR" has become one of the highest-grossing Indian movies ever. It has also introduced the country's lesser-known but prolific southern cinema industry to a worldwide audience. India's Hindi-language Bollywood cinema industry has long been known as the world's most productive, but international film awards beyond the festival circuit have largely remained the preserve of English-language movies. That changed when Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" swept four Oscars in 2020, including Best Film and Best Director, after decades when the plaudits for Korean cinema were confined to the critics. The only previous Indian Oscars won were for English-language films -- the 1982 British-Indian co-production "Gandhi" and 2008's Mumbai-set British drama "Slumdog Millionaire". Now Rajamouli hopes a statuette for the dance number "Naatu Naatu" will pave the way for Indian auteurs to do the same.
Shot in front of Ukraine's turquoise presidential palace -- before the war -- it features high-energy performances from the two leads as they confront their antagonist. "We are breaking ground, but I think we are in very, very initial, initial steps," said the 49-year-old. "If you see (South) Korea, for example, the kind of inroads that they have made... we should aspire to do that, all Indian film-makers." - 'Unprecedented' - Rajamouli was born in the southern state of Karnataka. His father was a scriptwriter who exposed him to the industry. His early influences included prominent Telugu directors but he found himself drawn to epic Hollywood films such as "Ben Hur" and "Braveheart", and is a fan of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. Rajamouli's 2015 historical action-drama "Baahubali" -- then the most expensive film made in India -- made him a household name domestically, leading a wave of southern films to the top of the multilingual country's box office.
The 2017 sequel was well-received, with both movies among the highest-grossing of all time in the nation of 1.4 billion people, cementing Rajamouli's reputation as a blockbuster director. He was "pleasantly surprised" by the buzz around "RRR" in the West, he said, pointing to what he called a "lack of maximalist entertainment". "There's a section of audiences who wanted that, a celebratory kind of engagement with the cinema." Despite appearing on Netflix only two months after it debuted across 1,200 US theatres in March last year, "RRR" has become among North America's highest-grossing Indian films. It was "unprecedented" and "a total outlier", said analyst David A. Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research. Audiences continue to flock to packed screenings for repeat viewings -- a January showing at Hollywood's historic TCL Chinese Theatre sold out in 98 seconds. Rajamouli's films have been compared to Marvel superhero movies and he said it would "be an honour" to be asked to do one -- but he worries that a major studio would want to involve itself in the production process. - Troubling undertones - The accolades for "RRR" have also been accompanied by criticism of perceived troubling undertones in the film, including the promotion of Hindu nationalism and hyper-masculinity.
"RRR" contains Hindu mythology and nationalist fervour at a time when film-makers, mostly in Bollywood, have been repeatedly targeted by Hindu right-wingers on social media. Rights campaigners say that under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bollywood stars are facing increased pressure -- particularly minority Muslim actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan. Rajamouli grew up in a "deeply religious" Hindu family but is now an atheist and believes that "religion essentially is exploitation". He blames criticism of the film on the polarisation of debate in India that does not allow for a middle ground. "Any extreme point of view, I oppose," he said. "I don't have any kind of hidden agenda... I make films for people who are willing to pay their hard-earned money on the film ticket. "I like to get them entertained, make them feel dramatic about the characters, about the situations, have a good time, go back and live their lives."