February 2, 2023

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Global success of ‘RRR’ signals breakthrough for Tollywood

[This image released by Netflix shows Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. in a scene from “RRR.” (Netflix via AP]

India’s film industry is one of the most vast and varied in the world — it’s really not one but many separate industries.

These include Bollywood, Tollywood and others — yet few of the country’s roughly 2,000 annually produced movies ever make much of a dent with Western audiences.

“We have a long tradition of storytelling in India. We have probably the oldest and most colorful stories,” says director S.S. Rajamouli. “Not being able to travel across borders has been a disappointment.”

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That has changed emphatically with Rajamouli’s “RRR,” a three-hour Telugu-language action epic that has not only become one of India’s biggest hits ever but climbed U.S. box-office charts before finding an even wider audience on Netflix. For nine straight weeks, “RRR” has ranked among the top 10 non-English language films on the streaming service. Dubbed in Hindi and subtitled in 15 different languages, “RRR” is the most popular film from India ever on Netflix, charting among the top 10 films in 62 different countries.

For many, “RRR,” based on Hindu mythology and the freedom fighters that fought British colonialism, is their first encounter with Tollywood, the Telugu movie industry, or Indian films, at all. What many have seen is a movie filled to the brim with over-the-top action sequences and sprawling dance numbers, and an energy that today’s Hollywood blockbusters seldom match. Motorbikes are juggled. Tigers are thrown. Suspenders prove a surprisingly pliable dancing prop.

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“There is never enough for me,” Rajamouli said in a recent interview from Hyderabad in India. “The only thing too much is my producer coming in and saying, ‘We’re crossing our budget. You need to stop somewhere.’ That is the only thing that will stop me. If given a chance, I will go even bigger and wilder, no doubt about it.

“To the brink, and nothing less.”

That go-for-broke style has earned the endorsements of some of Hollywood’s blockbuster filmmakers. James Gunn and Scott Derrickson, who have each helmed Marvel movies, have heaped their praise on “RRR” since it began streaming.

The “RRR” success has come while Netflix is reeling from subscriber loss and a stock decline, a downturn that has thrown its movie model into debate. But one less disputable aspect of Netflix’s platform is its ability to foster non-English global hits. “RRR” comes in the wake of global series hits like the Korean “Squid Game” and France’s “Lupin.” Theatrical-first movies like the South Korean best-picture-winning “Parasite” have already toppled what director Bong Joon Ho has called “the one-inch barrier” of subtitles.

“Frankly, I didn’t expect this kind of reception from the West,” says Rajamouli. “In the country and across the Indian diaspora all over the world is what we expected. But the reception from the West was a complete surprise for me. I always thought that Western sensibilities are different from my kind of films. I mostly cater to Eastern or Indian sensibilities.”

But while “RRR” has certain effects-heavy Hollywood characteristics that make it not so dissimilar from a superhero movie, it’s deeply engrained in Indian myth and present-day circumstance. “RRR” stands for “Rise Roar Revolt” but it also refers to Rajamouli and his two stars, N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan. They’re each from movie-star dynasties that have previously been more like rivals. This is Charan and Rao’s first film together, which is a little like a meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, if they were also the sons of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

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