'RRR' for the Oscars: What Explains SS Rajamouli's Phenomenon in the US?

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A boy is left stranded on a coracle engulfed by fire on all sides of the river, as a result of the aftermath of a derailed train that might explode any minute now. Amidst a sea of terrified onlookers emerge two men who speak through their eyes. One of them is on a horse, the other on a bike. 

A rope tied to their waist, they draw out a plan: from the bridge, the men launch themselves in the air, like firing cannons, and oscillate like a pendulum. The plan is a success – one of them rescues the kid, throwing him mid-air to the other, while the latter throws back a wetted flag as a means to protect the former from the engulfing fire. The man who emerges from the flames is Komaram Bheem (Jr NTR), and the man who charted out this design is Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan).

Worlds of Ang Lee and Rajamouli

As they swing back, they catch hold of each other's arms in the air. They signal a union of two forces; a brethren baptised in fire and water. And the man who thought through this jaw-dropping sequence is SS Rajamouli. The now-iconic "train sequence," as it's referred to, is one of the many visually stunning and emotionally pulsating scenes in RRR, the Indian blockbuster that has quickly become a phenomenon, not just in the US but in Japan and China too.

The last time we saw a movie that had humans launching into the air with such pristine stunt choreography, leaving the global audience in a state of awe, was when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) made the record for receiving the most number of Academy Award nominations for a non-English movie. 

A poster of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee.

(Image: Facebook)

There can never be one explanation for RRR's global popularity, except to say that what Ang Lee's movie was for the Indian audience, RRR is for the American audience. As RRR bags a nomination in the upcoming Academy Awards, let's try to delineate the factors that worked in the movie's favour – the latest acknowledgment being its win at the Golden Globe Award for its music director, MM Keeravani, for Best Original Song for 'Naatu Naatu.'

RRR Shines Where Marvel Lags

Rarely does a movie get a second lease of life at the box office, that too riding purely on word-of-mouth. Weeks after its theatrical run in India, RRR was screened in the US only for a night, as part of an agreement between its overseas distributor Sarigama Cinemas and Variance Films, and Potentate Films, as reported by The New York Times.

At the time of the rerun in the US in the middle of the pandemic, two things happened simultaneously: the Hollywood tentpole movies no longer offered a new cinematic experience that the audience hadn't seen before, and two, the superhero movies from Marvel failed to charm the box office. 

A poster from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

(Photo Courtesy: Disney Plus)

Already declared a blockbuster in India, RRR travelled to the US at a time when the big-ticket movies from Hollywood were struggling to draw audiences, who starved for "popcorn entertainers." Remember: RRR was supposed to be only screened for one night in Manhattan until it exploded into other parts of the US. Suddenly, everyone was gushing about RRR on social media. At least a dozen Hollywood writers and directors tweeted about it and there was a growing demand for screenings, despite the movie entering Netflix's top five in the US.

Its explosion is beyond anyone's imagination, and contrary to popular perception, the PR machinery played very little part.

To call RRR a movie might not do it full justice. Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma called it a "circus." Perhaps he is right. Avatar filmmaker James Cameron, whose movies Rajamouli draws inspiration from, said while singing praises about the movie that it's "such a feeling to watch them and your set up...fire, water, story. Reveal after reveal. It’s like all of them are a homely setup."

SS Rajamouli meets the celebrated Hollywood director James Cameron.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Cameron added that RRR is "so powerful" and that he loved how Rajamouli "threw the whole thing; it's a full show." Perhaps he is right too. Never has there been a case where an Indian movie created such precedence before in the history of Oscars: only three Indian movies – Mother India, Salaam Bombay, and Lagaan – have been nominated for the Oscars.

Set in pre-independent India, RRR tells the fictional story of two revolutionary freedom fighters – Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem – banding together to fight British imperialism. In real life, they never forged any such a meeting.

Nationalism seems to be a common trait that RRR shares with the other two Oscar-nominated films – Mother India and Lagaan. What was subtle in the latter is overt in RRR.

A still from Lagaan.

(Photo: Twitter)

Upon its release, though the reviews were glowing, the movie was called out for its 'Hindutva subtext' and 'dominant caste gaze.' An article in The Caravan Magazine called RRR's portrayal of the Gond tribe "dehumanising," while another article in Vox called out the film for reducing India's freedom movement to heroic acts of two Hindu figures by juxtaposing with Hindu mythologies such as Ramayana and Mahabharata in the climax. But does such criticism hold any merit before an international audience?

Capturing Oscar Sensibilities

Every year, the Film Federation of India (FFI) picks one movie to officially represent the country at the Oscars for the Best International Feature Film category, if nominated. This year, the FFI snubbed RRR’s chances of winning the award by sending the Gujarati film Chhello Show. This meant that RRR cannot contest in the Best International Feature Film category, but could contest in other categories such as Best Picture, Best Song, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

There are so many different theories that exist when it comes to the Oscar race. The closest to truth is that the Oscars are a Casino that only people with money can play and have fun.

Jimmy Kimmel in his second turn as host at the Oscars 2018 ceremony.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
In a 2017 report, The New Yorker estimated that studios spend over $15 million on Oscar campaigns to lobby voters.

According to a report by Time, the members of the Academy Awards look for international movies that create a strong buzz in the festival circuit and among the press, much before the Oscar campaigning begins.

For instance, in 2019, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's Parasite made waves at international film festivals; it won Palme d'Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Best Original Screenplay and Best Non-English Film at BAFTA (British Academy Film Awards), and Best Foreign Language Film at Golden Globe Awards. Even before the Oscar race, Parasite had already established a strong buzz around it, ultimately fetching four Academy Awards in 2020.

A still from Parasite.(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In 2020, Malayalam filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery's Jallikattu created a stir when it was picked as the official selection, though a lot of people argued that The Disciple had a fighting chance if it were selected instead, as it had direct involvement of the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, whose Roma won three Oscars in 2019.

Likewise, last year's Tamil indie Koozhangal (Pebbles) had a strong word-of-mouth support from international film critics based on its screenings at film festivals. The movie, in fact, won the Tiger Award, which is the highest, at Rotterdam Film Festival 2021.

Another theory is that the voting members are partial to movies that American audiences would relate to; movies that have a Hollywood-influenced filmmaking style but having their distinct character at the same time. This is where RRR shines brightly. It is the closest India has ever reached in making a movie that is wildly imaginative in its scale and spectacle, and yet, firmly rooted in Indian movie-making sensibilities.

Director Vetrimaaran.

(File Photo: Amlan Paliwal/IANS)

As Tamil filmmaker Vetrimaaran – whose Visaranai was India's official selection to the Oscars in 2016 – once stated in an interview with Film Companion, "The Oscars are all about wine and dine, and about betting on the winning horse." Vetri Maaran was speaking on the sidelines of the lessons he learnt from his Oscar campaign for Visaranai. You never know which horse wins. 

The American audience has, over the years, been conflicted about their perception of the Indian masala cinema – which is defined by overt melodrama, song and dance, and overlong runtimes; these were cited as one of the reasons Lagaan lost out on the Oscars. RRR, on the other hand, includes all these quintessential elements in 10X. 

If anything, RRR made the Americans stand up and applaud, while trying to mimic the hook step of 'Naatu Naatu'.

(Srivatsan S is an independent journalist based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.)

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