RRR is showing Hollywood why it can no longer afford to ignore Indian cinema.
2022 was a year of reckoning of sorts for Hollywood. Big-budget movies built on established IPs were no longer a sure-fire hit at the box office, and smaller-budget movies by celebrated directors featuring A-list acting talent also struggled to make an impact on general audiences. Some of the best news of the year in terms of cinema came unexpectedly from outside Hollywood, thanks to RRR.
Helmed by auteur blockbuster filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli, the Telugu-language film RRR tells a fictionalized account of a meeting between real-life freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), who team up to save India from the yoke of the British Empire in the 1920s. After a massively successful run in its native country, RRR became a breakout hit in the west as well. Let us take a look at how the movie is changing the way western audiences view Indian cinema.
Hollywood is the unquestioned leader in terms of producing movies seen around the world. But it is far from the only industry to enjoy a sizable following globally. Countries like South Korea, China, and India have long made a habit of producing home-grown content that local audiences flock to, and their local movies are often far more popular than Hollywood movies released in those regions.
Outsiders mainly think of Indian cinema in terms of Bollywood movies made in Mumbai. But the country has many film industries operating in various states, including Tollywood, Kollywood, and Sandalwood. Each of the industries has different languages, different film stars, and a distinct filmmaking style. RRR belongs to Telugu cinema, aka Tollywood, a point that western critics are starting to be made aware of thanks to the success of RRR after decades of lumping together all Indian films under the title of ‘Bollywood.’
For the longest time, western media stereotyped Indian movies as bizarre, three-hour-long song-and-dance musicals with over-the-top acting and cheesy special effects. This made it easy for Hollywood to dismiss Indian movies as something that would only appeal to local Indian audiences instead of threatening the hegemony of the American film industry as the world’s top film content creators.
But the truth is that Indian movies have always found sizable audiences outside of India. Going back several decades to the start of Bollywood with Awaara, which was a huge hit in China despite strained relations between the country. Disco Dancer made Indian actor Mithun Chakraborty a huge star in the USSR in the ‘80s. 3 Idiots was a giant hit in South East Asian countries in the early 2010s, while Dangal broke new ground in China in 2017 with a historic run at the box office.
Despite making a mark in many other countries over the decades, western audiences appeared to be stubbornly indifferent to the appeal of Indian cinema. At least on the surface. But under-the-radar Indian films were doing good business at American, UK, and other western box offices, frequently breaking the top 20 lists thanks in no small part to sizable Indo-western audiences.
It was these same audiences, comprised of fans with familial ties to India and its culture, that gradually helped push Indian movies into prominence in the west. With lavish budgets, innovative filmmaking, and a large, loyal audience, it was only a matter of time before an Indian movie managed to break through to non-desi western audiences. And in 2022, RRR became that international blockbuster.
Western audiences are largely unfamiliar with S.S. Rajamouli, the director of RRR. But Rajamouli is well-known to Indian movie fans as the biggest filmmaker in the country. Rajamouli’s cinema is defined by giant budgets and larger-than-life narratives. But like any true auteur, the filmmaker makes sure never to lose himself in the superficial aspects of the story, instead choosing to put the main focus on the characters and visual imagery of RRR.
Rajamouli had already proven his chops before RRR, most prominently with the two-part Bahubali film series that became among the highest-grossing Indian movies of all time, and also got a lot of attention from Western critics. Thanks to the success of Bahubali, all eyes were on RRR, and many western critics went out of their way to draw attention to the film as the work of a noteworthy new filmmaker.
Thanks to the Rajamouli brand and rave reviews from western and Indian critics, RRR managed to create the kind of organic online buzz Hollywood dreams of. It started with prominent YouTube film critics like Patrick Willems making videos about RRR and encouraging their non-Indian followers to check out the movie.
With enough non-Indian moviegoers deciding to give RRR a chance, the film gained far more attention in the west than other Indian films had gotten before. It helped that the movie is a genuinely thrilling treat, combining old-school drama and suspense with new-age technology to create the kind of heady action-adventure films that James Cameron and Ridley Scott were known for in the past.
All the accolades and attention would have been for naught if western audiences had failed to connect with RRR. After all, the movie makes no bones about its Indian roots, featuring energetic song-and-dance numbers in between exaggerated action scenes and large heaping doses of melodrama. It’s the kind of filmmaking that Hollywood loves to dismiss and disdain as ‘cheesy.’
But thanks to audiences being increasingly exposed to cinema from countries other than America or the west, audiences were able to connect to the cinematic language of RRR. Western viewers found it easy to identify with the protagonists Bheem and Ram, and their quest to defeat the invaders to save their people. The success of RRR is a testament to how well-made movies from any country can break down cultural barriers and unite viewers globally in witnessing an epic heroic cinematic journey regardless of differences in languages and traditions.