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Easily the most internationally successful of the Tollywood – Telugu Hollywood – directors, S.S. Rajamouli has directed three of the six highest-grossing films at the Indian box office to date. One of those films is his latest: RRR , an extravagant anti-imperialist epic with twists, turns and drama aplenty. In this interview, conducted in the autumn of 2022, he discusses his influences, the violent political reaction to RRR , and what’s currently exciting him in Indian cinema.
Out of the 480 directors who voted in our decennial Greatest Films of All Time directors’ poll , you’re the only one to vote for Kung Fu Panda (2008). Animation seems like a big influence on your filmmaking.
Two films that had a big influence on me were Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). I never thought of them as animated features – they’re great stories with fantastic characterisations. Ben-Hur (1959) and Braveheart (1995) are big inspirations for me, but the impact The Lion King had on me is the same. No difference.
So nothing about the way animation tells stories – the approach to shot sequencing, for example – has influenced you per se?
Frankly I don’t care. The technicalities or processes behind how filmmakers achieve what they achieve – when we see a great film, we don’t bother [thinking] about it. We are just enamoured and drawn into the world. That’s what makes those films special. Them being animation or live action is incidental – not at all important, as far as I’m concerned.
A lot of RRR ’s more vivid image-making recalls early Russian cinema. Was that an influence?
I haven’t seen any of the Russian films, but I have seen a lot of Hollywood films. That big-screen, big-scale imagery had a big impact on me. I wanted to create those kinds of images, with a lot of emotion attached to major images. It’s not just about creating a grand conceit or image for people to ooh and aah at – there should be an emotion attached to it. As an audience, by the time you come to that image, you are already rooting for it. You want it, you need it, and you’re ready to accept anything that’s being thrown at you. Keeping the audience in that state of mind is as important as getting a great image.
Tell me about your filmmaking education, either formal or self-taught.
I didn’t go to any film school or even complete my regular college degree. I got my sense of drama from comic books. As a kid I was a voracious reader of comic books, storybooks, whatever books I could lay my hands on. Imagery I got from the big Hollywood epics. And the characterisations – making them dramatic and larger than life – came from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which I have been re-reading since childhood. A combination of all these things made the creative juices flow for me.
Also, I worked in the industry – as an editing assistant, an assistant in the recording room, an assistant under my father [the screenwriter of many of Rajamouli’s films, V. Vijayendra Prasad]. Working for so many years with so many people, listening to and observing them, helped me understand what to do and what not to do. It was a gradual process.
Tell me about your working relationship with your father, and how it’s changed over time.
It hasn’t changed much. 80-85 percent of the time, we are in synch – whenever a great idea comes up, we both think it’s great, and likewise for bad ideas. We very rarely disagree. But when we do, he has to succumb – I am the director, he is the writer.
That 15-20 percent you disagree about – what does it tend to concern?
Usually subtle things. In RRR , for example, he was a little worried about how I was portraying Ram in the first half. He had reservations about me not making Ram either a complete hero or a complete villain – I was keeping him in an ambiguous position. I thought: no, what we are doing is right – the audience won’t think he’s a villain, obviously, as it’s Ram Charan playing the character. Even though he’s doing some bad things, they will feel he has some story behind him, and they will be looking forward to seeing why he’s behaving in such a way. My father wasn’t convinced for a long time, but I had the upper hand.
So you thought casting Ram Charan would dispel any possibility in the audience’s mind of that character being a villain?
Even if it hadn’t been Ram Charan, it’s the way equal space is given to both characters. For a western audience unfamiliar with both actors, the amount of screen space given to Ram, the way the character is treated, and certain scenes of him being a different person when alone – there would be an intrigue around this character.
How do you watch movies? What do you look for, what do you notice?
I don’t watch a film as a director. When I sit down to watch a film, whether on Netflix or in a cinema, I go with the intention of enjoying it. If the film is not enjoyable, the director in me comes out and starts thinking, ‘What are the bad elements, what’s wrong with the camera angle or the characterisation?’ If I’m enjoying the movie, nothing else matters. In fact, I hate analysing a movie. Maybe after coming out of the movie, I look back and analyse, but otherwise I don’t like to.
Which films do you love that are most different from your own?
Rajkumar Hirani’s films. Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003) is an amazing movie, I love it. I’ve seen Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) five or six times; I think it’s the film from the last 10-15 years I’ve seen most frequently. I don’t possess the ability to make such films.
One of RRR ’s sequences was shot in Kyiv. What was it like shooting in Ukraine so soon before the war?
I didn’t know I was entering a potential war zone. The people didn’t give us the feeling that they were facing a potential war. They were so warm, so accommodating. I’ve worked with foreign units before; other countries’ units have been very adamant about not understanding our work culture, so there was always some friction. With Ukrainians, within a day or two, they understood that we come from a different country and work in a different manner. They immediately adapted. We had no other choice but to shoot there, but we had a great time. It was one of the most efficient schedules in the entire shoot.
There’s been much talk of gay readings of RRR , particularly in the west. What do you make of these readings? Are they misunderstanding representations of male friendship in India, or do you think there’s room for such readings?
In the hundreds of thousands of Tweets and social media comments about the film, I found barely one or two mentions of the film seeming like a gay love story. In India, people who didn’t like the film started that interpretation.
From what I’ve read, the gay readings internationally have been positive rather than negative.
Whether positive or negative, such readings have been few and far between. I made the film with a certain intention, to create a certain impact on people. The first thing is whether it was a commercial success – did enough people appreciate it to repay the investors, and did it make enough profit? That is the most important thing. There are so many comments on the periphery, which I don’t really read into.
In your film, one of the heroes impersonates a Muslim, taken in by a kind Delhi family. This created a violent backlash long before the film was even released. Did that come as a surprise?
Having made 12 films, my understanding is that if there is no backlash from any quarter, it means people are not paying attention to the film. The minute a film or moment starts getting recognition or traction, there will be people who want to condemn it in some way. In RRR , [one of the heroes] wears a skullcap and appears as a Muslim. One right-wing politician [ MP Bandi Sanjay Kumar] threatened to burn down the theatre and beat me publicly if I didn’t remove the shot. At the same time, there were many left-wing people who accused me of propagating Hindu nationalism.
I don’t like extreme people, for whatever cause they’re fighting. There are those who don’t have the patience to see why a particular character might be wearing a skullcap, and those who find excuses to perceive Hindu nationalism. These are extreme nationalists and pseudo-liberals, and I am happy to be neither.
Would the current environment in India allow for an actual Muslim hero in a big-budget film – in one of your future films, perhaps?
If I feel there is an emotional payback in showing a Muslim as a hero, I wouldn’t hesitate for one second. But I need to have that emotional payback. Whether it’s a Hindu, Sikh, Muslim or Buddhist doesn’t matter to me at all. If there is a payback, I’ll be sure to put it on the screen. Not having an emotional payback is the risk.
Well, you did say earlier that a film’s commercial success is the most important thing. But given the current political climate in India, do you think it would be possible to have a commercial success with a film featuring a Muslim hero?
There are thousands of [political] comments on social media. But if you think that is the mood of the nation, you are gravely mistaken. For someone coming to watch the movie, it’s very clear: they are paying you X amount of money, and what they want is X amount of entertainment. That is the principal agreement between viewer and storyteller. All these peripheral discussions do not affect that relationship at all.
None of the burning issues on social media have any commercial impact. If you fail to give your customer what they paid for, that will impact your commercial success. Only then will they pounce on the film and find [political] reasons for why the film has failed.
What’s excited you recently in Indian cinema?
The emergence of South Indian filmmakers as industry leaders. Films in not just Telugu but Kannada or Tamil are leading the way. I would pay even closer attention to Malayalam cinema – it has achieved a level of excellence that none of the other regional industries have so far, in terms of writing, acting and selecting unique subjects. Malayalam cinema is strides ahead – perhaps not yet in terms of commercial advancements, but very soon they will have the upper hand.
What are you working on now? And is your father involved in writing it?
Of course! We’ve announced an action-adventure film with Mahesh Babu, a huge Telugu star. That will be my next big one. It’s a globe-trotting film. I’m a big fan of the Indiana Jones series and want to do something like that, but on a bigger scale.
► RRR is available to stream on Netflix now.