Happy Birthday SS Rajamouli: A Retrospective to Understanding His Work, RRR, Baahubali and Beyond

RRR filmmaker SS Rajamouli turns 49 today. But who is SS Rajamouli, the director who breaks stereotypes and geographic boundaries, film after film? The south Indian states outside of the then unified Andhra Pradesh discovered him with Simhadri. The whole country found him with Baahubali. And the rest of the world learned his name after RRR. Rajamouli’s growth trajectory to global success with stories inherently rooted is something never seen before. A Hollywood film by Rajamouli in his over-the-top trademark style is now a possibility. He was signed to American talent agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which manages Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Zendaya, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Murphy to name a few. With CAA’s support, the best resources Hollywood has to offer have become more accessible to filmmakers.

Rajamouli is already gaining popularity in Japan thanks to Baahubali: The Conclusio. The 2018 fantasy drama became a pop culture phenomenon not only in India but also in Japan. The film ran in cinemas for over 100 days. Benefitting from his growing popularity, Rajamouli is now devoting his efforts and time to helping RRR get a wide release in Japan. RRR will debut at the Japanese box office on October 21st, and the buzz it generates there will inevitably add to the film’s ongoing Oscar campaign.

Despite a significant number of naysayers, RRR is being promoted as a fan favorite among Oscar contenders. The film awards and theatrical campaign are directed by Variance Films’ Dylan Marchetti. He not only calls RRR “the best film from India this year. It’s the best movie in the world this year.” The film’s supporters believe the best campaign strategy is to get as many Academy voters as possible to see this bombastic action-drama on the big screen to a packed auditorium . In this endeavor, they continue to run the #encoRRRe program to bring the film to theaters across the United States. This program was launched in early June to give American audiences “one last chance” to experience the film on the big screen, as by then the film had already been made available for streaming to a global audience on Netflix. After a slow start in the US, the film found an organic fan base in the US that was both amazing and impressive.

RRR movie Ram Charan and Jr NTR in RRR.

Each screening of RRR has contributed to the film’s growing popularity around the world. The film’s recent screening at the Chinese theaters in Los Angeles as part of Beyond Fest caused quite a stir. The film was viewed by over 900 people on the IMAX screen in the presence of Rajamouli. The filmmaker himself was surprised at how the non-Indian audience reacted to the film. Pictures from the screening showed a group of overzealous fans of the film doing the hook step of the song “Natu Natu,” prompting Rajamouli to say, “I imagined I’d come to America, but it looks like it like a place called Ameerpet in Hyderabad, my hometown.”

Rajamouli is fast becoming the world’s most acclaimed Indian filmmaker. It’s hard to remember when was the last time Indian filmmakers achieved such a rich streak with mainstream audiences worldwide. He proved that you don’t always have to make realistic and “pure” cinema in order to assert yourself on the international markets. You can achieve this feat by making films that audiences like without apology.

The impact of Rajamouli’s global success on Indian cinema is undeniable. According to Mani Ratnam himself, it was Rajamouli who gave him the courage to split his dream film, Ponniyin Selvan, into two parts. One of the many challenges that kept Mani Ratnam from doing Ponniyin Selvan for decades was the sheer size of the novel. Splitting a film into several parts, considered risky in the past, has become a formula for huge box office success in India since Baahubali.

What is it about Rajamouli’s storytelling that is redefining the whole landscape of the Indian film industry? It cannot be answered without re-watching Rajamouli’s previous films and digging up the clues within. Indianexpress.com will be doing a retrospective series on Rajamouli’s career to understand what defines him as a storyteller. We hope this exercise will unveil the specific recurring patterns, themes, tropes and cinematic elements that Rajamouli has perfected over the past 20 years to achieve what is today.

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