RRR’s global success signals breakthrough for Tollywood

India’s film industry is one of the largest and most varied in the world – it’s really not one, but many distinct industries, including Bollywood, Tollywood and others – but few of the approximately 2,000 films produced each year in the country make a big difference to Western audiences. .

“We have a long tradition of storytelling in India. We probably have the oldest and most colorful stories,” says director SS Rajamouli. “Not being able to cross borders was a disappointment.”

That changed drastically with Rajamouli’s RRR, a three-hour Telugu-language action epic that not only became one of India’s biggest hits of all time, but climbed the US box office charts before to find an even larger audience on Netflix. For nine consecutive weeks, RRR has ranked among the top 10 non-English language films on the streaming service. Dubbed in Hindi and subtitled in 15 different languages, RRR is the most popular Indian film ever released on Netflix, appearing in the top 10 films in 62 different countries.

For many, RRR, based on Hindu mythology and freedom fighters who fought against British colonialism, is their first encounter with Tollywood, the Telugu film industry or Indian films. What many saw was a film filled to the brim with over-the-top action sequences and sprawling dance numbers, and an energy that today’s Hollywood blockbusters rarely match. Motorcycles juggle. Tigers are thrown. Suspenders are a surprisingly flexible dance accessory.

“There is never enough for me,” Rajamouli said in a recent interview in Hyderabad, India. “The only thing too much is my producer coming in and saying, ‘We’re over budget. You have to stop somewhere. That’s the only thing that’s going to stop me. If I’m given a chance, I I’ll go even bigger and wilder, there’s no doubt about it.

“On the brink, and nothing less.”

This go-for-broke style has won endorsements from some of Hollywood’s successful filmmakers. James Gunn and Scott Derrickson, who have each directed Marvel movies, have praised RRR since it first aired.

RRR’s success came as Netflix reels from losing subscribers and a drop in inventory, a downturn that has thrown debate over its movie model. But a less debatable aspect of Netflix’s platform is its ability to foster non-English global hits. RRR comes in the wake of global hit series like Korean Squid Game and French Lupin. Early theatrical films like Best South Korean Film winner Parasite have already broken down what director Bong Joon Ho called “the one-inch barrier” of subtitles.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect this kind of reception from the West,” Rajamouli said. “In the country and across the Indian diaspora all over the world, this is what we have been waiting for. But the reception from the West came as a total surprise to me. I’ve always thought Western sensibilities are different from my genre of films. I mainly cater to Eastern or Indian sensitivities.

But while RRR has certain effects-heavy Hollywood characteristics that make it not so different from a superhero movie, it is deeply rooted in Indian myth and current circumstances. RRR stands for Rise Roar Revolt but it also refers to Rajamouli and his two stars, NT Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan. They each hail from movie star dynasties that previously looked more like rivals. It’s Charan and Rao’s first film together, which sounds a bit like an Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting, if they were also the sons of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

They play real Indian revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju (Charan) and Komaram Bheem (Rao) who team up in British-controlled India in the 1920s. Returning to the origins of present-day India, RRR inevitably refers to India today, where, as in many other countries in recent years, nationalism is on the rise. Since his election in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emboldened India’s Hindu majority, sometimes to the detriment of its Muslim minority.

Rajamouli, 48, has become one of the country’s greatest directors during the same period. He launched his two-part epic Baahubali in 2015. Its 2017 sequel ranks as the country’s highest-grossing box office hit. (Both also stream on Netflix.) But the political subtext of these movies has been unsettling to some.

“In Baahubali, even though he seems to have no connection with the political present, what he puts forward is a muscular form of Hinduism, which is the worst manifestation of right-wing nationalism,” explains Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, professor at the University of Illinois. who has written several books on Indian cinema. “Jingoist and Hindu nationalist machismo. In the story, it is projected into the mythological past.

Baahubali was a Telugu triumph that signaled that Tollywood in South India may have overtaken Bollywood as the country’s premier film factory. In RRR, the most expensive Telugu film ever made with a budget of $72 million, Rajamouli juggles both Telugu traditions and the aesthetics of Bollywood song and dance in what Mehta considers a film. Pan-Indian. Muslim characters appear, but not in lead roles.

RRR in this way may not be all that different from American blockbusters. This summer’s best movie in the United States, Top Gun: Maverick, doesn’t skimp on brawny jingoism, either. Rajamouli has heard the critics but disagrees with their interpretations.

“I understand this point of view. Sometimes I feel like they are just blind,” he says. “Personally, I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. I don’t believe in any religion. But I understand the power of spiritualism. For me, spiritualism is an emotion. And I write stories filled with emotions.

Certainly, many cultural references and connections in RRR will fly over the heads of most Western viewers. But the sheer verve of its cinema isn’t lost in translation – and that may mean more cultural crossovers for Tollywood and India to come.

“Indian cinema has had a different life and cycle. If we keep an open mind, we can see this as something coming,” says Mehta. “Only time can tell. We will have to see if this is really a new trend and if there will be more films like this. Indian or Telugu cinema could continue, or it could be a single thing.

Rajamouli, meanwhile, is preparing his highly anticipated next film. He is now often asked if he would ever want to do a Hollywood movie or a Marvel movie. RRR, however, alludes more to Western audiences coming to see Indian films than the other way around. And Rajamouli is focused on making Indian films for India and beyond.

“Because of RRR’s success with Western audiences, I’m trying to make a film for the whole world, not just India,” says Rajamouli. “But I wouldn’t try to localize Western sensibilities and try to match and change my story based on that. I think that would never work.