With two Golden Globe nominations, a place in the New Yorker’s best movies of 2022, and rah-rah reviews from American critics, the Indian film RRR, which stands for Rise Roar Revolt, has made a big splash in the United States. If anything, critics in India, more used to such spectacle, have been more restrained in their praise for the film, even as they acknowledge the growing power and profile of movies from Southern India (RRR is originally made in Telugu) that have long been overshadowed by fare from the more globally recognized Bollywood. So what’s made RRR rise and roar beyond India, and in the US in particular?
For one, foreign critics and audiences have had little familiarity with films beyond the Hindi fare dished out by Bollywood. Even among those, the ones that trickle abroad are in the category of art house movies and song-and-dance entertainers. There is also what is dubbed “poverty porn” — the likes of Slumdog Millionaire and City of Joy — movies set in India and made by western directors. But to a large extent, until recently, Indian films from outside Bollywood seldom made it beyond India.
That Bollywood dominance has now been challenged — and broken. In 2021, the Telugu language movie industry (dubbed Tollywood) churned out more movies (238) than that came out in Hindi (236). In fact, the four main South Indian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, together accounted for a staggering 838 movies, far outstripping Bollywood’s output. In contrast, Hollywood made only around 400 movies in 2021, a decline from the pre-Covid output of 600-700 movies.
While much of the Indian productions can be dismissed as trash, a few filmmakers mounted extravagant productions, none more than SS Rajamouli, who is now the toast of the American film circuit for his RRR, which, at $ 75 million, is the most expensive movie ever made in India. American critics are raving about it, saying it is “the Indian Action Blockbuster That Should Make Hollywood Jealous” (David Sims in The Atlantic) and “if any movie ever deserved to be seen on a giant screen with a crowd, it’s this one.” (David Fear in Rolling Stone). On NPR’s Fresh Air, John Powers made the case for bringing the film back to movie theaters after a short first run (it is also released on Netflix), arguing that it deserves to be seen on the big screen.
Indeed, RRR arrived in the US just as the country was coming out of the Covid funk that also affected Hollywood, already struggling to draw audiences to movie theaters. In that sense, RRR (and a few other movies like KGF and Kantara) are picking up the Hollywood slack, with the exotic element adding spice. It is in some ways, the”crouching tiger” moment for the world’s most prolific movie industry, after Japan, China, and Korea have had their turn.
Two other factors have contributed in no small measure to its success — the ease of distribution that has come with digitization, and a burgeoning Indian-origin population, particularly from South India, with the Telugu-and Tamil-speaking demographic in the US growing rapidly after the early dominance of Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati speakers.
The Indian diaspora has come a long way from the time its people were virtually conscripted into western entertainment and sports a century ago. In the late 1920s, Mir Sultan Khan, an equerry in the estate of “Colonel Nawab Sir” Umar Hayat Khan of Sargodha (now in Pakistan) was brought to England to play chess. He went on to win three British championships (the chess equivalent of Wimbledon) and become one of the strongest players of that era, defeating among others then World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca. In the mid-1930s, Sabu Dastagir, 13-year old son of a mahaut (elephant rider) in Mysore was discovered by documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty and brought to Britain for the eponymous role in the film Elephant Boy. He then crossed the pond to star as Mowgli in the first Jungle Book movie by Zolton Korba before getting lead roles in a series of Hollywood exotica like Thief of Baghdad, Arabian Nights, and Cobra Woman.
Today’s crossovers involve less arduous journeys. Some of them balance Indian and American commitments. Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, between delivering a string of hits in India, starred as Alex Parrish in the ABC thriller series Quantico, the first to headline an American network drama series. The tone for this was set by the likes of Kal Penn, Purva Bedi, Mindy Kaling, Aasif Mandvi who made the first breakthroughs in the American entertainment industry beyond the exotica brought here by Sabu – so exotic that the legendary singer-songwriter John Prine even composed a song on him titled Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.
Today, Indian movies are not outliers and Indian actors are not alone. Together they have paved the way for Never Have I Ever, the mainstream Indian-American rom-com that is a hit in both countries and among the diaspora across the world. Likewise Indian movies like RRR are on track to get mainstream release and viewing across the world, just like Hollywood blockbusters. We could have never ever imagined this at the turn of the century.
Chidanand Rajghatta is the Times of India’s US-based Foreign Editor, long-time Washington D.C. scribe and sutradhar. In earlier roles, Rajghatta has worked with India’s leading news brands, including The Indian Express, The Telegraph of Kolkata, India Today, and The Sunday Times of India. He received his Master’s Degree in mass communication from Bangalore University, Bangalore. He is the author of The Horse That Flew: How India’s Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings, Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason and Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman.