“I only know big emotions,” says SS Rajamouli, currently India’s most commercially successful film director.
Rajamouli, who makes films in Telugu, a language spoken in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is talking about his latest blockbuster hit, RRR – India’s second most expensive film and its third most successful worldwide. But he could also be talking about his predominant emotion right now: overwhelming joy.
Rajamouli is thrilled that foreign audiences, as well as Indians at home and abroad, have also “loved” his film – and that it’s not a “patronising kind of love”.
“You know, sometimes when you’re a larger audience and some small film tries to make some attempt, you will say, ‘Those guys made a good effort.’ It’s not like that … It is like, ‘Wow, guys … There is something here that’s really, really enthralling.’ I didn’t expect that,” Rajamouli tells Al Jazeera over a Zoom call.
Made on a budget of $72m, RRR (Rise, Roar, Revolt) was released on March 25 across 21 countries. A three-hour-and-seven-minute long action-adventure about India’s struggle against British colonialism set in the 1920s, it debuted at number three at the US Box Office, and number two at the UK and Australian box offices. In four weeks it has already taken $141m worldwide.
Some critics have viewed Rajamouli, 48, as a pioneer in Telugu cinema, who has challenged the traditional dominance of Bollywood in India and overseas.
Riding the Rajamouli wave
Sine his film-making career began in 2001, Rajamouli has directed 12 films – all box office hits. All were originally shot in Teluga, with some dubbed into other Indian languages.
His creative ambitions and the budgets of his films have grown over time. Simultaneously, the audience for south Indian films has increased.
India speaks 121 languages and makes films in about 24 of those, including Hindi-speaking Bollywood films. Its film industry, valued at about $2.3bn, is also the world’s largest producer of films.
In 2020-2021, Bollywood’s box office collections were $200m, while Telugu films collected $215m.
Yet Bollywood is not only the synonym for Indian cinema but receives a disproportionate amount of attention and financial support, while the rest is clubbed under the derisive tag of “regional cinema”.
Rajamouli has challenged that trend; particularly beginning with his 2012 film, Eega (The Fly), a fantasy film in which the hero is killed, reincarnated as a fly, and sets off on a mission to avenge his murder, and then even more successfully Baahubali (One With Strong Arms), a two-part action-fantasy swashbuckler that released in 2015 and 2017.
Eega received critical acclaim and was a hit on satellite TV with Hindi-speaking, Bollywood-loving audiences in India, while the two-part Baahubali, made on a budget of $59m, collected $314m at the world box office.
The second part of the Baahubali franchise, Baahubali: The Conclusion, released in 2017, remains India’s second most successful film at the worldwide box office. It is also India’s highest-grossing, most-watched film ever. It expanded Telugu films’ box office take in India by five times, while the US market for Telugu films grew from about $1-2m to $20m.
It catapulted Rajamouli into becoming India’s most expensive director, commanding about $13m to direct a film.
Films by other directors in Telugu and Kannada, another south India language, have been riding the Rajamouli wave; their ambitions and budgets have grown, as have their profits and markets.