Decoding Indian Film ‘RRR’s’ Popularity in the West

The popularity of the Telugu-language film in the U.S. has bewildered people in India

Decoding Indian Film ‘RRR’s’ Popularity in the West
Still from “RRR”. Courtesy of Variance Films.

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It was hard to keep count of the number of times the theater at New York’s Museum of Modern Art erupted with applause or the audience gasped in astonishment during the screening of “RRR,” an Indian film in the Telugu language — spoken in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. One of the 22 official languages of India, Telugu is spoken by over 80 million people.

During an interval, I struck up a conversation with a group of senior American women, who couldn’t stop gushing about the film. “I’ve been seeing such dark, gritty cinema recently, this feels like a breath of fresh air,” said one of them. “I don’t think I’ve enjoyed blood and gore so much in my life,” said another.

That is the irony of the film. It is an epic action drama that feels like a “party” — as described by Oscar-winning actor Jessica Chastain in a tweet. The grand spectacles of larger-than-life characters with superhuman abilities doing over-the-top action sequences and exuberant musical numbers have caught cinemagoers’ attention worldwide. Hence, MoMA, which screened it as a part of its Contenders series, called it the “global superhero film of the year.”

Directed by S. S. Rajamouli, one of the biggest filmmakers in India, the film stars superstars Ram Charan and N. T. Rama Rao Jr. (better known as Jr. NTR). Set in the 1920s, it features a fictional friendship between two real-life freedom fighters, Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, who helped lead India’s fight for independence from the British. Bonded by brotherly love but divided by secret loyalties, the heroes meet in Delhi when a young tribal girl who’s been forcefully taken from her village by British officials needs to be rescued.

In reality, Raju was a revolutionary who waged an armed campaign against the British in the Andhra Pradesh region on behalf of the tribals, and Bheem was a Gond tribal leader who led a rebellion against the feudal Nizams of Hyderabad. They never met in person, but the film creates a fictional tale of friendship.

In the last few weeks, “RRR” has been named one of the best films by dozens of American publications, and it has won several awards, including the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards. Rajamouli has been receiving a star’s welcome at packed screenings in Los Angeles. He was invited as a guest to the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show after winning the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Director. “RRR” has been named one of 2022’s ten best films by the National Board of Review and long-listed by BAFTA. Rajamouli has also been sharing photographs with veteran filmmakers Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

Post screening, a group of friends were trying to recreate the viral dance steps of “Naatu Naatu,” the song for which composer M. M. Keeravani won the Golden Globe last week in a big upset over American pop icons Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Lady Gaga. The win has been celebrated by Indians. Oscar-winning music composer A. R. Rahman calls it a “paradigm shift.” It is the first Indian song to win this honor. The song is also on the shortlist for the Oscars. It won best song at the Critics’ Choice Awards as well, and the film won best foreign language film. Former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh N. Chandrababu Naidu is calling Telugu the “language of Indian soft power.”

When I told my Indian friends that I was going to catch the film at MoMA, each one of them checked whether they had heard me correctly. “It’s wild,” said one of them. “Do they even know it’s a Telugu film?” Indians have been astonished at the frenzy around the film in the U.S.

So I decided to interrupt the dancing group and ask what appealed to them about the film. It turned out most of them had seen it multiple times, including in theaters at Times Square and the West Village in New York City. “It’s like watching six films in one — there is action, emotional drama, bromance, musical, with a sweet little rom-com going on,” said one. “It felt like a Marvel movie,” said another. “Marvel on steroids, perhaps?” agreed the third. “I loved the characters with superhuman abilities; they just wouldn’t die,” chimed in the fourth.

In India, the response to this frenzy in the U.S. has been mixed. “There’s one section which is enthralled with any kind of recognition from the West, so they are celebrating it. There is another section which feels that ‘Naatu Naatu’ is not Keeravani’s best work. It was the same response when A. R. Rahman won the Oscar for ‘Jai Ho,’ because those of us who grew up on his music know that he’s made better music. There is another section which is completely bewildered by the kind of spell it has cast on the American audience in particular. So they don’t see why the film is getting so much love,” Sowmya Rajendran, a leading Indian film critic, told New Lines.

During press and audience interactions in the U.S., Rajamouli has repeatedly pointed out that “RRR” is not a Bollywood but a Telugu film. “The film has a very Telugu sensibility,” says Rajendran. “Rajamouli makes films that will first work for the primary audience. He really knows their pulse, and he goes full throttle on that. It then starts to cross boundaries and reach other people.”

There are a few themes, she said, that are defining characteristics of a Telugu film. “First of all, the hypermasculinity of the heroes: there’s absolutely nothing that they cannot do, which is even the case in an ordinary Telugu film and not just fantasy. He can beat up to 10 people at the same time. Second is the idea of the family and how integral that is to the hero. The heroine, on the other hand, is an idealized woman who always stands by the hero and his moral strength,” explained Rajendran. The film starred popular Bollywood actor Alia Bhatt as Sita, Raju’s fiance.

On social media, several videos are doing the rounds of people dancing in the aisles to the award-winning “Naatu Naatu” during the film’s screenings at the iconic 932-seater IMAX auditorium at L.A.’s Chinese Theater. When the first show was announced earlier in January, it sold out in 98 seconds. Since then, the theater has hosted several more showings of the film. While dancing, hooting, screaming, singing and throwing confetti during film screenings has always been the norm across India, it seems to be a novel experience for American audiences.

Since its re-release in August, the film has become “a word-of-mouth smash” in the United States, according to the New York Times. It is rare for an Indian hit to catch on with American viewers outside the Indian diaspora, it noted, after it had already played across the country on 1,200 screens. Jason Blum, who has produced popular horror franchises such as “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious,” tweeted that he’s going with “RRR” winning best film at the Oscars. Scott Menzel, founder of the Hollywood Critics Association, says that “RRR” was “better” than any major-studio blockbuster released in 2022.

Since its release in Japan in November, the film has earned over 500 million yen (almost $3.8 million) at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing Indian film in the country and breaking the record set by Tamil superstar Rajnikanth’s “Muthu” in 1998.

To understand why the film appeals to American audiences, Hyderabad-based Hemanth Kumar C.R., a Telugu film critic and producer, hosted a discussion on Twitter Spaces a few weeks ago. “One of the first things that people pointed out was that although the film is about revolutionaries, it’s a very vibrant film. The characters are not cynical or bitter with life, which is the case with many in D.C. and Marvel universes,” he told New Lines. “The friendship between the two characters is being celebrated, and the film jumps through the genres really smoothly. There is action, drama, friendship and romance, and it’s all happening at such breakneck speed that it has turned out to be a new experience for a lot of non-Indians.” The pandemic has also had a role to play. People just want to have fun and enjoy watching cinema.

In several interviews, Rajamouli has said that he made the film with the Indian audience in mind. However, when the ticket sales started increasing in the U.S. and appreciation started coming from all quarters — celebrities, critics, influencers, gamers and people of repute in the U.S. — it dawned on the team that the film was becoming much bigger than they had expected. “What I have come to understand … is that people like watching characters doing extraordinary things. In American movies, superheroes do supernatural things, but the perception I got is that audiences really like seeing normal people doing extraordinary things,” he said in a press note.

In several interviews, Rajamouli also noted that, in some films, action does not have the impact it is supposed to have. “I see them doing fantastic action sequences, but for me, what is lacking is the emotional drive. Why is that action sequence happening?” Emotion and action go hand in hand for him, he says.

This has become Rajamouli’s brand of cinema, said Kumar. “It’s how he ties action and emotion together, with grand visuals. This has been his trademark since ‘Magadheera,’” the 2009 film about a warrior who reincarnates after 400 years to win back the love of his life.

It was this film that set Rajamouli on the path to making large-scale fantasy films, added Rajendran. “It really transformed the landscape of Telugu cinema and also had an effect on south Indian cinema at large. Bollywood has been trying to recreate that success. But Telugu cinema has always had a strong leaning towards mythology and fantasy. Rajamouli identified it, milked it and took it to its zenith,” she explained.

The phenomenon of marrying mythology and fantasy in films has been popular in Telugu cinema since the 1940s. Rajendran cites the example of actor-politician N. T. Rama Rao (Jr. N. T. R.’s grandfather), who ended up playing the role of Lord Krishna in 18 films. “Even when he was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he used to dress as a mythological character, because that’s how people knew him; they identified him as a god.”

In Telugu cinema, Kumar explained, the interval bang episode (20 minutes before intermission) is the most critical in a film. “Rajamouli is famous for his interval bang episodes; people especially go to watch those,” he said. In “RRR,” it’s the sequence where Jr. N. T. R. as Bheem ambushes a British party by smashing a truck through the palace gates and leaping out, accompanied by a menagerie of angry tigers, stags and other wild beasts.

“In Telugu or Indian cinema, nobody has made films of this scale, so that makes ‘RRR’ stand apart,” said Kumar. The film, which was three years in the making, from 2018 to 2021, was released in March 2022 after a series of delays due to the pandemic. Indians had been waiting for the film with bated breath since the trio announced the collaboration in 2017. They had done it with the hashtag #rrr, which was so loved by fans and film distributors that the title stuck with the film.

This is also not the first time that Rajamouli’s cinema is being recognized on the international stage. His 2012 film, “Eega,” about a man who reincarnates as a housefly to avenge his death, was screened at film festivals worldwide, including at Cannes, Busan and Shanghai, and received six nominations at the Madrid International Film Festival.

The most expensive film to be made in India, with a budget of $72 million, “RRR” has collected over $175 million worldwide, to become the third highest-grossing Indian film of all time. The second highest is Rajamouli’s “Bahubali 2: The Conclusion,” in 2017, a sequel to the 2015 film. The success of the “Bahubali” franchise across India, cutting across barriers of languages and cultures, started the trend of pan-Indian films in the country. It is now a term used to describe a mainstream commercial film that simultaneously releases in multiple Indian languages, such as Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi, and appeals to all audiences across India.

However, in the politically charged climate of India, at a time when nationalistic films are on the rise, a section of the society has criticized “RRR” for the use of Hindu religious iconography. In the climax of the film, Raju’s character dons the look of Lord Rama — in saffron clothing with bow and arrows — to fight the British. (However, this isn’t the first time that Raju’s character has been mythologized in cinema. The 1974 Telugu film “Alluri Seetharama Raju,” starring superstar Krishna, portrayed him in a similar fashion.)

It has also been pointed out that the song “Etthara Jenda,” which plays during the end credits and honors several Indian freedom fighters, excludes three key figures, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, whose politics do not align with that of the Hindu right wing.

“There’s a difference between the two. From what Bollywood does, it’s very obvious that they’re trying to please a certain section of the audience. But Rajamouli has repeatedly said that he grew up with the epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and tales of Amar Chitra Katha. So I don’t think Rajamouli is playing to the gallery. He genuinely believes in certain things; whether they may be progressive or regressive is a separate discussion,” said Rajendran. (Amar Chitra Katha is a series of Indian comics and graphic novels on religious legends and epics, historical figures, folktales and cultural stories.)

Gond journalist and critic Akash Poyam, writing for the Indian magazine Caravan, described the last scene of the film as “dehumanizing and appropriative.” In the scene, the slogan “Jal, Jangal, Zameen” (Water, Forest, Land) is shown as being inscribed by Raju. However, in real life, this slogan was Komaram Bheem’s contribution, which has been vital to Adivasi (tribal) activism to this day. Moreover, in the film, Bheem is portrayed as a simple tribal person who could not understand the greater vision of Sitarama, an upper caste Hindu man. Hence, the film has been criticized for reinforcing caste hegemony.

However, in the international imagination, where Indian movies are synonymous with Bollywood, the Mumbai-based, Hindi-language film industry, this is a notable moment, because India is home to more than 20 regional-language film industries. “As somebody who watches a lot of Indian films, I don’t think this is the greatest film that our country has produced. However, there is a fair amount of jealousy that a filmmaker from the Telugu film industry has done something that Bollywood could never achieve,” said Rajendran. “Rajamouli is not an intellectual filmmaker. He doesn’t position himself as one either. He’s a very mainstream, commercial filmmaker, and he’s very unapologetic about that.”

A few years ago, when Rajamouli’s cinema cut across barriers of language and culture in India, it created a moment etched in India’s cinematic history and established Rajamouli as one of the biggest filmmakers in the country. Now with “RRR” crossing all international boundaries and becoming a cultural phenomenon, he has once again provided Indian cinema with one of its biggest events.

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