10 March 2023
Letter from Hollywood: How RRR Redefined Global Pop
The night before the Golden Globe awards in Los Angeles, there were torrential rains and flooded roadways across Hollywood’s famed boulevards. But nothing could hold back the crowds from braving frigid temperatures and the deluge outside the Chinese Theater to greet the stars of RRR. Assembling together in the United States for the first time since the film was released nine months earlier, lead actors NT Rama Rao and Ram Charan joined director SS Rajamouli for a glowing introduction by JJ Abrams of Star Trek and Star Wars fame. In an iconic theatre known for hosting Hollywood’s splashiest premieres and red-carpet extravaganzas, Telugu cinema was centrestage and a frenzied celebration of dancing, hollering and fandom, followed.
This year marks the first full Oscar season after Covid, but it wasn’t Steven Spielberg or Sam Mendes with adult dramas that reframed the zeitgeist, but rather a Telugu action extravaganza about two Indian freedom fighters. James Cameron, James Gunn, and Seth Rogen, among others, have raved about RRR and its hypnotic originality, elevating the film from streaming fandom to Oscar nominee. After years of tracking pontification about globalisation’s possibilities as a film journalist, I feel that the first desi superhit to go global is this vernacular myth of Indian freedom with raging tigers, dancing warriors and dead white imperialists. RRR’s success in shattering Hollywood’s stubborn borders while retaining its distinctly and proudly local identity feels like a hugely important reframing of global pop culture.
DALL E - High definition render of SS Rajamouli riding Tipu Sultan's tiger with an Indian flag in the style of RK Lakshman with Hollywood sign in the background
First, a confession and disclosure. I am neither a Telugu cinema expert nor a Rajamouli aficionado, but last March I was living in Dubai when I saw news about the unusual unveiling of a new Indian film on the grounds of Expo 2020 (the World’s Fair.) The meet-and-greet with cast and crew began at the Indian Pavilion and then moved on to the sprawling Jubilee Stage of the Expo grounds as legions of gathered superfans screamed in euphoria. A few days later, the film was playing in the cutting-edge, industry-defining IMAX screen at the Mall of the Emirates. I anticipated entertainment, but was not prepared for what Rajamouli had created in scale, imagination, and unhinged electricity. The Indian war against the Raj had never been depicted with such style, swagger and sheer fun. Problematic nationalism and machismo aside, RRR was designed for maximal audiovisual pleasure and at every turn, it delivered.
I stored this memory as a desi highlight of living in Dubai ー albeit with a tinge of cinephile guilt for having that much fun in a film so unserious and politically dubious. RRR left UAE’s largest screen as Top Gun arrived and I was soon on my way back home to the United States. On my layover in July to Los Angeles in Boulder, Colorado, I stopped into an ice cream shop and was unexpectedly reunited with RRR in full HD. The teenage ice cream attendant in this all-white suburban neighbourhood said he streamed the film on a permanent loop in the shop. My ice cream was served to the pulsing MM Keeravani soundtrack. RRR had travelled with me, preceding my arrival and becoming a cross-cultural juggernaut in the process.
Social media, word-of-mouth and critical accolades turned RRR into a blockbuster in the US over the summer of 2022. It quickly became the highest streamed (non-English) film on Netflix. Breathless praise appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Indiewire, and other outlets usually more pretentious about such broadly populist entertainment. In June, a small distribution company called Variance based in New York decided to re-release the film as a theatrical experience for those who had only seen the adventure on home screens. Soon, one-off screenings from Brooklyn to Los Angeles became sold-out extravaganzas. The vulnerable state of the American cinema business has led to a lot of hand-wringing about the future of theatrical distribution as many films have failed to break audiences out of streaming habits. However, in the case of RRR, fans turned up for their umpteenth viewing in big-screen format. On social media, non-Telugu speakers memorised the lyrics of the film’s central dance sequence and in videos across the internet, viewers cheered and hollered as if they were in a Hyderabad single-screen theatre. The sheer pleasure principle of Rajamouli’s imagination was clearly without borders.
When Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008, there was a palpable optimism about the future of Hollywood as a more global, multi-lingual showcase for filmmaking talent. Even though some Indian critics rejected Danny Boyle’s film as pastiche and Western ‘poverty porn,’ AR Rahman’s Oscar-winning score and Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto’s performances redefined who deserved acclaim and fame on Hollywood’s biggest screens. I had just begun my career that year as a film journalist at NPR and interviewed several filmmakers about the many cultural collisions, fusions, and collaborations that had produced such a distinctly accessible piece of international pop. But Slumdog’s success as a Hinglish global epic turned out to be a one-off and what followed in the years after were #OscarsSoWhite and the many structural revelations of Hollywood’s risk-aversion, myopic worldview and systemic racism. Even as Indian superstars like Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone or Priyanka Chopra took their brand of global glamour to Los Angeles, the cultivation of filmmakers, filmmaking and a true diversity in storytelling did not follow. As local film cultures thrived from Seoul to Mumbai, the idea of crossing over in Hollywood ceased to be an international filmmaker ambition. At the same time, American cinema itself began its shift towards big-screen ‘Marvelisation.’ More literary and character-driven storytelling that once earned Oscars, shifted to the golden age of television with streaming services like Netflix becoming production houses. When it came to big-screen filmmaking, spectacle was in and serious was out. Director Martin Scorsese and film critic AO Scott of the New York Times wrote publicly about the end of cinema with the ascent of 3D, spandex multiverses. At the same time, younger and more omnivorous audiences surfing the many new possibilities of streaming, began widening their palates. Subtitled series such as Squid Games thrived, international productions became available across once geo-locked boundaries, and social media buzz allowed foreign faces to bypass traditional forms of publicity.
Global domination may not have been the intention, but Rajamouli’s epic has become the perfect encapsulation of Marvel-era aesthetics with the streaming era’s new international tastes. It is helpful that the chapter breaks, backstory and narrative momentum of an imperial takedown make this a clear and seamless experience. Additionally, RRR gives us a tactile and earthen feeling to its forests, villages, and emotional family drama, offering the novelty of a new language for spectacle, not least its undeniable South Asian sexiness, nowhere to be found in a conventional comic book adaptation.
That’s not to say the film isn’t problematic. From its first frames, there is an explicit merging of entertainment and nationalism. RRR’s revisionist portrayal of Indian history is bathed in saffron and mythological references. Indian critics immediately located the film within the current strain of majoritarian blockbuster entertainment. As Uday Bhatia wrote in Mint soon after the film’s Indian release in March 2022, ‘…RRR subtly recasts the Indian freedom struggle as a primarily Hindu movement. Lord Ram literally appears at the end to defeat the British. There’s a lot of ‘vande mataram’ glimpsed and shouted. The song sequence that accompanies the closing credits pays tribute to freedom fighters across the centuries—as far as I noticed, no Muslims or Christians, one Sikh, the rest Hindu. RRR is delirious fun and not a virulent majoritarian film…but it’s telling that the pan-religious overtures that used to be such a big part of Indian commercial cinema are now seen as unnecessary. When you buy a ticket to a Rajamouli film, you’re paying for the bonkers action fantasia. The benign Hindu rashtra fittings come free.’
As RRR began its crossover journey to the US, a largely white film criticism community missed this context. In rave after rave, almost all focused exclusively on the exhilarating action sequences, music, and bromance at its centre. Indian-American critics including Bedatri Choudhury spoke out about the erasures and religious propaganda lurking beneath the film’s surface. Several Indian-American critics have also questioned whether RRR’s CGI-fueled, cartoon-like earnestness plays into familiar caricatures of hapless Indians. In a longform conversation with The New Yorker, Rajamouli largely evaded the subject, denying any political agenda, emphasising his atheism and singular commitment to entertainment.
Back at the freezing Chinese Theater screening of RRR ahead of the Oscar nominations, the venue had become a kind of pilgrimage site for North American superfans. The opportunity to see the director and actors in person, had turned seeming adults into screaming, frenzied children. One woman announced it was her 33rd time. Some had dressed up as the lead characters, in vintage ensembles. Others jumped and screamed when sadistic colonisers were killed, and others leapt to the front of the auditorium to show they’d memorised its Naatu Naatu choreography. I’ve never experienced anything remotely similar in an American film, and much less in an Oscar-season screening with director and cast on site. As traditional cinema struggles in the age of digital, at-home atomisation, this kind of communal, collective euphoria was a true rupture and rapture to behold. For South Asian audiences, it is a completely familiar sight to holler and whistle, but the kind of emotional connection RRR has found with its American fanbase is an illustration of its incredible crossover success.
It is worth noting that international audiences for a previous generation of Oscar-bound cinema from South Asia ー the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mira Nair, or Deepa Mehta ー are opting not to watch those kinds of dramas in theatres. This past year, films like Todd Field’s TÁR or Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans were both box office failures even as they garnered rave reviews and Best Picture nominations. If spectacle has become the new norm for successful theatre-bound films, it is a challenging time ahead for quieter, realist cinema that challenges and confronts the very real problems of any complex society like India. Just as cinema halls shutter, streaming has of course also opened the doors to a new generation of art cinema from the world, and new voices from South Asia. This includes Shaunak Sen of All That Breathes and Saim Sadiq of Joyland who are emerging in the midst of this international flowering. The renewed focus on diversity, inclusion, and access has helped create a new cadre of stars.
But RRR’s impact will be hard to beat. Resourced with massive box office success, the film’s award-season has included multiple appearances by the lead actors on major American talk shows and international red carpets. There is relative insanity in the fever dream that flows from Rajamouli’s imagination across the three hours of RRR, but it also feels more tangible in its cultural impact. As for historical and political intentions, viewer discretion and healthy suspicion is strongly advised.
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Film Quarterly and on NPR.