Blockbuster Indian Director Rajamouli wants to make movies that go global





Across the world, Indian film is synonymous with Bollywood. But last year, box office earnings from what has become known as Tollywood, movies shot in Telugu — the fourth-most spoken dialect in the country of 1.4 billion people — hit $212 million, eclipsing its Hindi-language cousin by $197 million.


A power shift is under way in India’s $24 billion media and entertainment sector, with filmmakers in the country’s south churning out a string of action-packed crowd pleasers. Recent hits include the “K.G.F.” and “Pushpa” action franchises, filmed in the Telugu and Kannada dialects, then dubbed for wider audiences.


Amazon.com Inc, The Walt Disney Co. and Netflix Inc. have taken notice and half of India’s original content produced for streaming services this year will be shot in local languages other than Hindi, up from 20% in the first half of 2019, according to Constantinos Papavassilopoulos, a London-based analyst at research company Omdia.


At the vanguard of this shift is director SS Rajamouli, whose bombastic, over-the-top Telugu-language productions have been likened to Indian versions of Hollywood’s Marvel franchise. Rajamouli’s latest feature, “RRR,” has transcended even Bollywood’s success. Shot on a budget of $72 million, an unprecedented amount in India, the tale of two Indian freedom fighters battling British colonialists in the 1920s collected $150 million worldwide, roughly on par with Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile.”


Featuring over-the-top battle sequences, “RRR” is vintage Rajamouli, who was already known for his wildly popular two-part “Baahubali” fantasy franchise. We sat down with Rajamouli in Hyderabad. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Did the success of “RRR” come as a surprise?


For the most part of my career I have been pushing boundaries in the sense of budgets. Every project has a certain kind of market, which we roughly valuate. But I was always making films which are beyond that market value, the budgets always go beyond that market value. So obviously, the film has to be a success, otherwise everyone is going to be in big trouble. We are not definitely not surprised by the success. It’s almost like we need it. We expect it and we work for it.


Why has Bollywood been eclipsed by the southern Indian industry?


They stopped catering to the masses. But there were a lot of people who wanted that massive action film, hardcore raw emotions kind-of thing. So what happened is south films started dubbing once social media and YouTube came in and people started watching those films. The Hindi didn’t think much about it. Surprisingly, we also didn’t think much about it. Unknowingly, we were building a big fan base for action films for a long period of time. And when “Baahubali” landed (in 2015), everything exploded.


What were your early influences?


From the English film side, I would say “Spiderman,” “Superman” as a very young child. Mel Gibson is my favorite director. “Ben Hur,” I don’t know how many times I watched the film, even today I watched clips of the film again and again. The large scale entertainment, larger-than-life action sequences or emotions, I really connect to them. My influences in Telugu film is mainly two films, one is “Mayabazar” (1957). As a child I was completely mesmerized by that film. I still watch it. And a little bit later, as I was going into my adolescence, another film called “Missamma,” again from the same time — those two films have a tremendous amount of influence.


Would you be a director if your father hadn’t been a filmmaker and writer?


I was a good-for-nothing boy doing nothing in the house, so he used to constantly scold me, like, ‘what do you want to do?’ Actually I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to study, I quit college. He didn’t like me sitting idle at home. He was constantly after me to do something. To escape from him, I said I want to become a director, not that I wanted to become a director, I just said so because he was constantly bugging me. He said, ‘OK, then you work as an assistant editor.’ He put me in different places.


Have you had any bad experiences or flops?


Luckily as a director I didn’t face any flops, but before I became a director, we produced a film where my Dad was the director in 1996, or something. For my father to direct and produce the film he had to stop his work as a story writer. Whatever he has earned until now he put into that film and during the course of the filming — because he can’t work as a storyteller — there is no more income, there is only expenditure. We put everything into it and the film bombed, horrendously bombed. There was no second day for the film it bombed so badly, and suddenly there was no money. That was very bad phase in our life.


Can India make productions with global appeal like South Korea?


That’s not happened yet, but the doors are open. People across the world have gotten accustomed to cultures and stories across the globe, so they are more open minded. Finding your kind of audiences in the rest of the world has definitely become much easier than what it was, say, 10 years before.


Would you change the way you make your films to try reach that wider audience?


No filmmaker should do that. You shouldn’t change your sensibilities to cater to different kinds of audiences. If you start changing yourself, then you will be lost.


What ambitions do you have left?


I want to make them bigger, bigger and better. And of course, I want to tell Indian stories to the rest of the world. “The Mahabharata” (the epic Hindu poem) has been my long, long, long dream project, but it will take a long time for me to step into that ocean. Before I step into “Mahabharata” I want to make maybe three or four films.





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