May December screenwriter Samy Burch joins Mia and Gemma to for a chat, fresh from her New York Film Critics Circle win for Best Screenplay. We also welcome our London crew to give us the lowdown on their attending the British Independent Film Awards, including its big winner All of Us Strangers.
RRR filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli talks to playwright Sunil Patel about pumping up the emotion, harming no animals, and his family’s movie-obsessed mealtimes.
“Fucken @RRRMovie is insane,” tweets Patton Oswalt. “The best movie ever made about fighting colonialism with dance battles and armies of rampaging animals and most of all, friendship,” writes Patrick Willems, who may need to update the title of his breathless video essay—‘The Biggest Blockbuster You’ve Never Heard Of’—now that RRR has landed on Netflix.
With a weighted average of 4.0 based on over 10,000 ratings, and a respectable position in the top 50 of 2022, the film has clearly sparked a fire among Letterboxd members like Aidan, who calls it “one of the most gonzo, balls-smack-down-on-the-table, never-ending mic-drops of an action epic I’ve ever seen,” Tinda, who is impressed with how RRR “does a stellar job of setting up—and actually paying off—huge emotional stakes with wild, silly abandon,” and James, who succinctly states, “100% pure cinema. No notes.”
In the course of its 182-minute runtime, RRR is a period piece, an action movie, a bromance, a musical, a rom-com, and so much more. Writer and director S.S. Rajamouli and his writing partner (and father) V. Vijayendra Prasad took inspiration from real-life freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem and crafted what amounts to historical fanfic, imagining that these two revolutionaries who never met each other did, in fact, meet, become best friends, and team up to defeat the British colonizers.
In doing so, the film doesn’t just bring together two historical figures but also two of Telugu cinema’s biggest superstars—Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (also known as Jr NTR)—who had inexplicably never been in a film together despite both having worked with Rajamouli individually. And, in a happy coincidence, the fictional characters’ namesakes have connections to the two great Sanskrit epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The very title of the film signifies what a monumental event it is for these three to work together, as it originally stood for Rajamouli, Ram Charan, and Rama Rao but now stands for “Rise Roar Revolt” in English, and a whole host of similar words in other languages.
RRR arrives at a time when Hollywood blockbusters have been criticized for their reliance on pre-existing characters and stories over originality and bold visions. As Brenny writes, “English audiences have no idea what they’re missing out on, cheering for the lowest common denominator of Easter eggs and referential IP when they could be cheering for an action movie that has more to offer—like punching a tiger in the face or swinging a motorcycle like a baseball bat… or dancing!”
Many Letterboxd members, it must be noted, go long on the success or otherwise of the fanfic, dabbling-with-history element, but most are united on the extravaganza, with Esther writing: “RRR gets what actual spectacle should look like.” Audiences flocked to the spectacle when it briefly played in American cinemas earlier this year. The US domestic box office—more than $14 million—out-grossed English-language films like X, Blacklight and The Outfit. Americans like Tyler described it as “quite literally the most exhilarating theater experience I’ve ever had,” while Indians expressed their own exhilaration by quite literally dancing in the theater.
Worldwide, RRR’s gross stands at US$140 million and climbing after having become the third-highest-grossing film of all time in India in just 40 days. Rajamouli has game here, having established himself as one of India’s top directors with the two-part epic Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), which were, respectively, the third- and first-highest-grossing films of all time in India as of last year (he has now knocked The Beginning off its perch with his own new film).
It was 2012’s Eega—a goofy romantic comedy that morphs into a revenge-action film—that put Rajamouli on the map, by winning Best Feature Film in Telugu at India’s National Film Awards and screening at several international film festivals, including Toronto After Dark, where it won Most Original Film. Eega’s protagonist is reincarnated as a vengeful fly—an actual fly, created with CGI, not a Brundlefly—and the trailer alone will blow your mind more in two and a half minutes than almost any American film released this year.
But it is the hype for RRR through which much of the world will experience Rajamouli’s particular epic-aesthetic for the first time. The Hindi dub recently dropped on Netflix, with the original Telugu version and other South Indian languages available on Zee5, but the spectacle of RRR shines best on the big screen, loud and proud.
With the film returning to US theaters for limited “encoRRRe” screenings in June, I joined the director over Zoom to discuss the emotions that underpin RRR’s action, the filmmaker who inspired him to make action movies, and what dinner times are like in the Rajamouli household.
The response to RRR in India has been tremendous. What’s it been like to see the videos of the audience dancing to ‘Naatu Naatu’ along with the movie? Did you think it would be that big of a hit?
S.S. Rajamouli: Definitely. We had an idea. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be pumping in so much of money! But what came as a pleasant surprise for me is the appreciation from the Western audience. Even for Baahubali, we had some appreciation from the Western audience, but it was very small. It is like an Indian who is dragging his Western friend to the theater and them saying, “yeah, it is a nice film”. But here, at this time with RRR, I have seen a lot of Westerners who were discussing amongst themselves about RRR, how great a film it was. The tweets were pouring in and in and in, and we thought, ‘Okay, ten is okay’, then one hundred, and one thousand. So many tweets were coming in, and they were posting videos, they were posting reviews.
For Indian films, some people post video reviews; we know that they do it mostly for YouTube hits. This is not that. This is proper views and conversations happening about RRR with lots of love and affection. That came as a pleasant surprise because I was thinking the Westerners’ taste is slightly different. The story they might like, but the way we present the film will be a little bit away from their taste. But just the way we presented the film, so many audience, especially from US and UK liking it, has come as a very big, pleasant surprise for me.
There’s still a perception in the West that any movie from India is a Bollywood movie, but Bollywood’s only one of many film industries in India. Bollywood films are in the Hindi language, but your films are in Telugu because they’re Tollywood. What do you see as the major differences between Tollywood films and Bollywood films, apart from the language?
First of all, I don’t like those words, Bollywood and Tollywood. It’s Hindi film industry, and it’s Telugu film industry—that’s a great way of addressing it.
Not much difference, actually. It’s the same kind of storytelling. All of India likes similar kind of stories: a story which caters to everyone in the family. The kids like it, the older people like it, the youngsters like it. It is like a full thali [plate] where you get all kinds of [food]. That’s how we Indians like it. But over a period of years for different reasons, Hindi film industry was making more films which are more suited to city-based audience, and South [Indian] films continued making films which cater to all sections of audiences for a period of time, for different reasons. Let it be the multiplex, let it be more money coming out of the multiplexes, or multiplex films being more viable. Those kinds of reasons.
For some people, RRR may be their first exposure to Indian cinema, and we live in an age where Indian films are so much more accessible on streaming services like Netflix. For those just discovering Indian cinema, what are your recommendations?
Obviously, I’ll tell all my films first! Watch RRR, watch Baahubali, watch Eega, and if you like those films, you can go for my previous films as well. But of course, Indian film is much more diverse in its storytelling. In just one particular film field, you’ll find a varied kind of films. You start searching from what your tastes are like.
If you like more slice-of-life with the little bit [of] pepper, great acting, great writing, I would suggest go watch Malayalam films from Kerala. They’re fantastic. And if you like more action films, then watch Telugu, Tamil and Kannada films. If you like more subtle love stories, then watch Hindi films. See, every year we produce 1,000 films, so there is a huge catalog of films from India which you’d find. So there would be quite a lot of browsing before you get what you want to watch.
I’m glad you mentioned your idea of different sorts of storytelling and what kind of stories are being driven in different film industries, because what I love about RRR and Baahubali is that the storytelling is steeped in mythology. They’re really driven and inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and I grew up reading these stories in the Amar Chitra Katha comics. When I read that you also grew up reading these comics, I felt a great connection to you because I loved those comics as a kid. That and the Panchatantra. And so watching Baahubali was like watching those comics come alive in a way I’d never seen before. What draws you to those myths of India?
I don’t know. I can’t tell a specific reason. From my childhood, as long as I can remember, we grew up on those stories. Whether it was our elders who were telling the stories, whether I was reading from, like you said, Amar Chitra Katha or other story books or novels or the old epics written in my language or in English. Right from childhood, that was imbibed into my system. So that’s the only kind of storytelling that really, really grips me and makes me dwell in those worlds, live with those characters.
I really, really get engrossed in those things. I can’t tell the reason why because that is how I grew up, that is what I call a story. Everything about me is those epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. So, obviously, when it is so imbibed in my system, when I start telling the story, it’s only natural that inspiration from those epics comes out in my narrations.
And to your point about how Telugu films like to do a full thali and appeal to everybody, these are all stories we grow up with—they touch any age because a kid’s going to have the myths and the adult’s going to have those myths inbred from when they were kids.
Yeah. See, we are a joined family, so we had a family of 25, 30 members. And in my childhood, when I was maybe seven years or eight years, my grandmother, the eldest person in the family, was 74 years old or something. And whenever the topic of Ramayana or something comes up and when someone starts narrating a character or a sequence from these epics, everyone is focused. Everyone is interested, from my grandmother to me. Different parts of that story is appealing to different person. They had everything, they had all kinds of dramas, it had action, it had melodrama, it had comedy, it had everything. Everything was inbred in those epics. So naturally, if you want to tell a story which engrosses everyone, automatically that comes in. It’s an automated process.
It’s like a cheat code.
So those are the myths in India. I was curious to know whether you’re familiar with myths and mythological traditions from around the world, and whether you knew of any favorite films from other countries that draw on the myths of those cultures, and whether you are a fan of any of them.
I’m not so familiar with the myths across the world. Greek mythology, I know a little bit. And I have just a very, very basic knowledge about the myths across the world. But films-wise, yes. Ben-Hur had been my biggest, most favorite film, even till today. The chariot race in Ben-Hur is mind-bogglingly fantastic, and I still dream of doing [that] one day.
You’ve got the chariots in Baahubali, so definitely, I can see the inspiration for chariots.
RRR is no doubt a very positive film. But I felt an underlying anger as well. India has been independent for 75 years, but the wound of colonialism is still raw. Is the film only expressing the pain of past injustice, or does it have relevance for the India of today?
Frankly speaking, I don’t connect both those things. RRR is not a historical film. It is inspired by those two historical characters, but we were from the beginning telling it as it’s got nothing to do with the history. There is no historical accuracy in any form, and the anger is whatever the characters need to be felt at that time we have created the situations.
If you go [from] history, there were situations which were much more gruesome than what we depicted in the film. But at the same time, there were also great Britishers who helped the country a lot. So it would be very fundamentalistic to say we got ruined because of the British, and it’ll also be very wrong to say we were in this position only because British ruled us. There were good things, there were bad things, but obviously, what we wanted was our own freedom—and we had quite a long way to attain it: 90 years from 1857, if you take it to 1947, 90 years to fight against the British government.
I love the unique aesthetic you bring to your films in how you use CGI. Can you talk about your creative choices in integrating the CGI elements with the live action and how they’ve changed from Eega to RRR?
One thing we should always remember is that CGI is a tool. It’s a new tool compared to the cameras and sound system and everything, so we tend to look at it not as a tool, but as if it’s a character, or as if it is additional attraction to the film. But we should always remember it’s a tool, and if your story, if your action, if your scene or song requires that tool to be used, you have to use that tool. Overusing it or underusing it is not a good way of making a film.
Because my films are larger than life, that’s the reason why I tend to use a lot of CGI. That all depends upon my supervisor, my cinematographer, and myself, my concept artist getting together and deciding how much of practical effects or practically can we go forward? And if you’re not able to get the result that we wanted practically, or the cost is becoming more if you do it practically rather than going to CGI, then we go to CGI.
This mentality of mine didn’t change from Eega to RRR, and I don’t think it’s going to change. I’m very clear that if possible, I would like to get captured live [in] camera, whatever it is. If it is not possible, for whatever reason, then I go to CGI, and I choose the best CGI supervisors and best technicians to do the job. And I rely on them to give a good output.
You use a lot of CGI animals, and doing that allows you to have a disclaimer at the beginning that says no animals were harmed in making this film, which is great because it means you don’t actually have to have an actor throwing a leopard at somebody.
Usage of animals over the period of years have become very, very strict. You can’t use any wild animals except for maybe elephants, very sparsely [and] under very strict conditions. And even domestic animals, you can’t harm them. There’s a lot of rules and regulations, which is good. They should be there. You can’t use animals in whichever way you want to. So the usage of CGI animals have increased.
Personally, I love animals a lot. As a kid, I used to take cattle to the fields. We used to have two bulls; I used to sit on a bull and go to the fields. I love dogs. I have four dogs at my place. I love horses; horses always fascinated me. All the animals, I just love them. And I think people have a kind of bondage with the animals, which is almost spiritual in nature. The kind of connect humans have with animals is very deep because you can’t convey through voice and dialogue. There is something else that connects to the animals. And even though some people may say that they don’t like dogs or snakes or whatever, you can still see their eyes being glued to them. You can see the connect.
So yeah. I tend to use a lot of animals. In my future films, I think you will see even more usage of animals. Of course, I’m not going to harm them, most of them will be CGI animals.
Speaking of throwing a leopard at somebody, what action films have inspired these incredibly creative action scenes, which are one of your trademarks?
Like we were saying, Ben-Hur, that’s one example. And Mel Gibson’s films, Braveheart, or [The] Patriot [directed by Roland Emmerich], Apocalypto. Many of his films have a very, very big influence on me. The way he blends the action with the drama, how he slows down, how he switches the dramatic moment before the action explodes, I really, really love it. I get really inspired by his action a lot. That’s one thing that really comes to my mind when I talk about action films. It’s what inspired me to do action films.
Are there any wild ideas that you had for RRR that didn’t make it into the movie for any reason?
We had many, many versions of [the climactic] action sequences. If you search YouTube videos of a snow leopard hunting deer across a cliff, you’ll find a couple of videos where you’ll see a snow leopard running down the face of a cliff at unimaginable speed. I really wanted to use that for Bheem, but I couldn’t integrate it into the story. We had some crazy ideas of a hot-air balloon dragging a Jeep, which flips over. We had written so, so much, but we could do only that much.
That would’ve been amazing. Hot-air balloon versus Jeep. Top that, Fast and the Furious! Have you seen the Fast and the Furious movies?
I feel like that’s the closest we have to your types of movies. Larger-than-life action sequences and they’re similar emotionally too, right? They’re very big hearted and very sincere.
I tend to pump in a little bit more emotion into the characters, and the reason why the character goes into that particular action sequence. For me, the character being emotionally charged up at that moment to go into that action sequence is very, very important. If you take RRR for example, the moment in the interval where Bheem comes out with the animals out of the truck. Until then, there’s a lot of pain in him, and he tries in so many ways to get the girl back. And when nothing is working out and he physically sees how much she’s suffering being in that palace, I need that kind of emotional buildup for the character before he unleashes his power onto the screen. That’s how I tend to think.
You write your films with your father, V. Vijayendra Prasad, who was already an established screenwriter. I’m very curious to know how that collaboration came about, and what is it like working with your dad?
We have been working for 30 years now. I worked under him as an assistant writer. I learned the sense of drama from him. Practically, that is the only relation that we have. We always talk about films. We always discuss films, whether it is my film or the story that he’s writing for someone else, and how more dramatic we can make the scenes, or is it too dramatic? Should we lessen?
The only conversation that happens between us is the stories and films. He lives with us, so even at the dinner table, the conversation is about films. There is nothing else for us to talk about except for films and stories. I’m a director, so maybe sometimes he curses me because I don’t accept all his ideas, but ultimately he has to work for whatever I like.
When you’re making a movie, who is your audience? Are you writing specifically for your own audience or would you like to appeal to a Western audience? And now that you’ve seen the appeal in the West, do you think that’ll change how you think about what you want your movies to do going forward?
I get asked this question a lot. I think about it, and the answer is not “I write only for me” or “I write only for the audience”. It is not as simple as that. When actually we sit to write, it is for me. I try to see whether I’m liking the scene or not. Am I really getting involved in the scene and enjoying the scene so that it comes into my mind again and again? So that is the most important thing. But underneath that, all the comments, all the discussions that happened with all my previous films will be there under me. What did the audience like in RRR? What is the audience that they like in Baahubali or what didn’t they like in Baahubali? Whatever, all those things will be in my mind. That is the basement.
But when I start writing a scene, I won’t be like ‘Okay, I have written this scene’, then I start comparing it with, okay, this is my Telugu audience, will the Indian audience like it, will the Western audience like it? I’m not going to do that kind of exercise. So when I write, it is for myself. But underneath, the knowledge or experience of how my previous films failed will always be there. So always, there is a sense of how the audience are going to like it will be there in my mind, but I write for myself.
Similarly, I interview for myself (sorry, Letterboxd!), and at this point I take off my professional hat and fanboy the man who decided that what cinema needed was a fly lifting weights. When I ask him which of his previous films I would like, Rajamouli recommends 2009’s Magadheera, also starring Ram Charan, which is available on YouTube, uploaded by the production company. (One of the related videos uploaded by the production company is titled ‘Ram Charan 100 Soldier Fight’, so I am excited.)
One good recommendation deserves another, so I tell Rajamouli to go see Everything Everywhere All at Once because it has been garnering comparisons to RRR generally for its maximalist approach to action sequences and emotional content, and specifically for an emotionally powerful third-act action scene with one person riding another person’s shoulders.
As he mentioned earlier, Rajamouli would recommend that exploring Indian cinema begin with his own films, but after that, I figure you might appreciate some guidance in navigating the essentials. Where you go after RRR depends on what you liked about RRR. You like anti-colonialist epics? Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. Bros riding on each other’s shoulders? Sholay. Bros in over-the-top action sequences and extended flashbacks? War. (But also Sholay.) Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn being in the same movie? Gangubai Kathiawadi. Wild animal action? Jallikattu. (But also Sholay. Watch Sholay, is what I’m saying.)
You can find an Indian film to like in a wide variety of genres, be it romance (The Lunchbox), thriller (Kahaani), horror (Tumbbad), horror-comedy (Stree), art-house drama (The Disciple), superhero movie (Minnal Murali), you name it. And if you need some communal motivation, Karthik has created the Indian Summer 2022 Letterboxd challenge, running from June 1 to August 31.
Where does Rajamouli go after RRR? I tell him that while I grew up on the old Mahabharata television series, I think he would make the definitive adaptation, so I hope he gets to make it one day.
“I will,” he says with conviction. “I should. I should. That’s my life’s goal.” I can’t wait for him to achieve it.