Indian Hitmaker S.S. Rajamouli Unpacks ‘RRR’ Success, Sets Mahesh Babu Project (EXCLUSIVE)

·6 min read

Indian hitmaker S.S. Rajamouli is basking in the success of his latest epic, period action drama “RRR” (“Rise Roar Revolt”). The film released March 25 worldwide and scored a $65 million opening weekend, debuting in third place in the U.S. and second in the U.K. and Ireland.

Produced on an approximate budget of $73 million by D. V. V. Danayya, “RRR” is a lavish, rambunctious entertainer crammed with eye-popping set pieces and death-defying stunts. Set in the 1920s, the historical fiction story by Vijayendra Prasad and Rajamouli see Indian freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (NTR Jr) meet and become fast friends. Their common enemy are the occupying colonial British. The cast also includes Bollywood A-listers Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt.

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Rajamouli previously directed the “Baahubali” films, released worldwide between 2015 and 2018, which were made on a combined budget of $70 million and collected $370 million globally.

The filmmaker, who is celebrated for his bold vision, cites his influences as Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Amar Chitra Katha, the graphic novel series featuring stories from Indian history, mythology and culture, and growing up in a family of artistic people. “They had this penchant for enhancing everything beautifully and big, so right from my childhood, it is drilled into my mind,” Rajamouli tells Variety.

The creative forces in the family include brothers Koduri Siva Shakti Dutta, who is a poet, musician and painter, and writer-director Vijayendra Prasad, who is Rajamouli’s father and has written several of his films, and Dutta’s son, the famed composer M. M. Keeravani, who sets Rajamouli’s vision to music.

In “RRR,” the two male leads have the kind of strength and prowess normally associated with superheroes. Bringing together two superheroes had been in Rajamouli’s mind from his childhood and, to that, he added elements of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s memoir “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

While delving into the timelines of the freedom fighters, Rajamouli found that they were born around the same time and also left home at similar times with an unexplained absence of three to four years. The filmmaker was “fully excited” by the thought of the real-life persons meeting and the story takes place during that absence time, he says.

The genesis of “RRR” also has its basis in a deeply emotive subject for Rajamouli. In 2014, Rajamouli’s home state Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for political and economic reasons after a decades-long separation movement. Both states speak the same language, Telugu; share the same food and culture; and watch the same movies.

“Everyone knew it was inevitable that the state was going to split but there was an animosity between the brothers — both are Telugu people but Andhra is different and Telangana is different and that animosity made me feel sad,” says Rajamouli. “So that was also running through my mind: If I can tell a story about them being unified rather than fighting. I had this thought that Komaram Bheem is from the Telangana region and Alluri Sitarama Raju is from the Andhra region. So, if I can bring those two heroes together, it’s my way of saying we are one, we are not separate.”

As for the casting, Rajamouli has worked with both the stars before — with NTR Jr in “Student No.1” (2001), “Simhadri” (2003) and “Yamadonga” (2007) and Ram Charan in “Magadheera” (2009) — and they fit his character maps precisely.

“Sitarama Raju is a character who holds a lot of pain inside him and he tries to stay calm, whereas Bheem is very innocent, and nothing can stay in his face, everything comes out,” says Rajamouli. “Even in real life those two are like that. I thought that quality about them fits the character perfectly and also them being superstars and them being friends in their real lives. Everything is a reason for all three of us to come together.”

The film’s elaborate set pieces, which look fluid and effortless on screen, was by dint of detailed planning from Rajamouli and his team, which includes top Indian talents such as VFX head Srinivas Mohan, production designer Sabu Cyril, DoP K.K. Senthil Kumar and editor A. Sreekar Prasad, alongside composer Keeravani.

How the final film would look was the result of a pre-visualization process including traditional storyboarding on paper, animated storyboarding and animation, all executed by concept artists. In addition, all the stunts were practised, performed, filmed, edited and set to music by the stunt team, without the cast, and presented to the heads of departments before the shoot began in order for them to have clarity of thought.

The production and the release date was affected several times due to the pandemic, but Rajamouli says that it wasn’t a disadvantage and gave him more time to fine-tune the film.

One of the film’s talking points is the “Naatu Naatu” dance number, choreographed by Prem Rakshith, where the two leads match frenetic steps in perfect sync. “I needed to establish the camaraderie between them, so when you see them doing a step so alike each other, unknowingly, that gives you [the feeling] that these guys think alike, act alike,” says Rajamouli. “Underneath all the dance and fun, in the next part of the film, they’re going to do even more amazing things together. So these things establish to the audience that they’re like a circus trapeze act: They can work in tandem.”

The sequence was shot in Kyiv, which is now a battleground thanks to the Russian invasion. Rajamouli is in touch with several of the crew he worked with in Ukraine with words of encouragement. “When I go to the theater and when the long shot starts of the location, the shot which is supposed to give me so much joy gives me so much sadness,” says Rajamouli. “All the crew who worked there with us are suffering and we don’t know if some of them are still there or not. That’s a very heart wrenching feeling.”

Meanwhile, “RRR” is finding an audience globally beyond the traditional South Asian one and has grossed $88 million just six days into its release.

“On the face of it, I try to be very calm, but internally I will be dancing,” says Rajamouli about the film’s success. “For any storyteller, what he ultimately wants is for his story to be heard by a large number of people, and he will be very greedy about it … There is no limit to that greed.”

Next up for Rajamouli is a well-earned holiday, followed by an as-yet-untitled film starring another superstar of Telugu cinema, Mahesh Babu, for producer K.L. Narayana. “Because of the pandemic there were so many postponements in between ‘RRR,’ I didn’t have anything else to do, except [to work] on the storyline. Fortunately, a couple of lines look interesting,” says Rajamouli.

“Usually I will take about six to seven months from this point to get the storyline ready, get some of the pre-visualization and pre-production ready for the shoot,” Rajamouli adds. “I think by this year end, we should start rolling.”

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