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A tiger and an Indian man with a crew cut, suspenders, a dress shirt holding a torch leap into the air at each other while soldiers cower behind them in RRR Image: DVV Entertainment

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RRR director S.S. Rajamouli: To save movie theaters, we have to deliver

There’s no reason the Avengers couldn’t fight and dance, says a man who knows what he’s talking about

Of all the blockbuster movies released in 2022, few have swept up audiences quite like director S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR. Since its release in March, the rhapsodic Telugu-language action drama, which fictionalizes the triumphs of Indian revolutionaries Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem in superheroic fashion, has become the fourth-highest-grossing Indian film of all time and a breakthrough hit around the world. The epic has toured the United States, Europe, and Asia, mesmerizing audiences with its unique blend of fight sequences, dance numbers, unflinching drama, and movie star performances. There’s nothing quite like RRR, evidenced by sold-out screenings, roaring audiences, and questions from the industry on how to siphon the movie’s energy. It’s no surprise that earlier this year, Rajamouli was signed by an American agency with an eye toward a Hollywood project.

RRR justifies the big-screen experience at a time when the big-screen experience’s future has never been less clear. So we wondered, what do the movies and movie theaters look like in the next 10 years? How do they survive?

To celebrate Polygon’s 10th anniversary, we’re rolling out a special issue: The Next 10, a consideration of what games and entertainment will become over the next decade from some of our favorite artists and writers. Here, Rajamouli reflects on the success of RRR, the importance of theatrical exhibition, and what it really takes to blow the roof off an auditorium.

A movie theater is like a temple. The other day, I went to the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and I almost had tears. It was such a great feeling. I never imagined being there with RRR, but also, it was exactly what I always imagined.

For me, the theater comes first. But what does the future hold for movie theaters? I would like to think they will thrive and prosper, even though at present time, it doesn’t seem so. When you watch a film in a theater, it’s not just about the film itself, and it’s not even about the great-quality picture or the surround sound. It is about a communal experience — you’re experiencing a particular emotion with a lot of other people. There is a kind of synergy that exists in a theater that doesn’t happen in your home or on the go on a personal device. The experience can’t be replicated, and while OTTs can offer competition, they will strive because there is no other option.

The fear of the movie theater going away exists everywhere. Post-pandemic, we have seen a decrease in people coming to the theaters, not just in the U.S., not just in India, but across the world. But we are also seeing increasing numbers as the fear of the pandemic slowly subsides. Still, there are kids who are growing up watching entertainment on their personal devices, and bringing them to the theater is a challenge — but the global industry has to accept that it is a challenge. We have to actually think about how to get them to the theaters. We need to think in terms of filmmakers. We need exhibitors to think about how to make the environment more enticing for them to come and watch the movie. We need to do those exercises. Just hoping won’t help.

A burly Indian man flings a motorcycle through a fiery forest with one hand in RRR Image: DVV Entertainment

These days, American and Indian movie theaters are almost 99% similar. But one major difference, at least for my films, is that we have an intermission. We break the film into two parts. And every film, whether it’s small or big, has an intermission in the middle that allows people to go out, rest awhile, then come back to finish the rest. That doesn’t happen in the U.S. and many places across the world, yet there are many advantages of having an intermission: Yes, people can go out and stretch their legs, go to a washroom, buy a soda or popcorn, but what also happens is that when you go out with your friends or family, you talk about what happened in the first half of the film. I know that if there are things that you missed, your friends will be talking about it, and you will have a discussion about what happened in the film up until that point. That puts the audience in a much more engaged frame of mind to come back and watch the second half.

Movies don’t have to be long to be worthy of the theater. My shortest film, Maryada Ramanna, which was about two hours and 10 minutes, had an intermission. The story, the characters, the setup demand the right. As moviemakers, we always try to make it shorter. If everything I had on paper was put on film, then RRR would have been a three-hour-and-45-minute movie instead of just three hours.

There is a fear of the movie theater becoming obsolete, but to be frank, I never worried about whether people would come to RRR or not. That fear was not there. We’ve had movie stars for 35, 40 years going back and in the Telugu industry, we have made many movie stars since then. We as a team knew that people would come because of the setting and the two stars, Ram Charan and Jr. NTR, coming together. Movie stars still bring audiences to the theaters.

Let me talk about myself: If you just give me one shot of Tom Cruise in some kind of action sequence, I’m going to go and watch the film, whatever it is. Whether it’s the Mission: Impossible series or the Top Gun series. That’s star power and big-scale action. Those two reasons are enough. Tom Cruise action is enough. And I’m pretty sure that is the case for many, many people across the world. We need movie stars.

But RRR also offers slightly different action than what we’re given today. Hollywood action itself has become slicker over the years. Every skill has been greatly developed. But what’s lacking is the emotional involvement for the audience when the action is happening. If you take Braveheart or Gladiator or even Black Panther, the big action set-pieces have lots and lots of drama driving up until those points. And even through that action, we see drama happening. That feels missing in present-day Hollywood films. The technique has evolved to a mind-bogglingly superb level, but one of the reasons why I like Top Gun: Maverick is that I feel emotionally for the character. Tom Cruise brings me to the theater, but in the film, Maverick makes me feel for him.

A few things like this were running through my mind as we developed RRR. One example is that we were talking and planning for a crucial action scene, in which our hero Bheem bursts out of a truck with an army of caged animals, from the very beginning. That scene is the moment when the two friends realize that they’ve been pit against each other and are going to fight. We have built up to that moment from the start — within two or three scenes we know these two heroes are traveling in opposite directions. Then we built a friendship between them, while they never know who they actually are. The audience is anticipating this ticking time bomb exploding. So when it does, when the heroes realize that we are pitted against each other, it has the potential to be a very great action piece with the right cinematic grammar.

Bheem, a bearded indian man, strains himself as he holds the two ropes of a net holding a tiger, who is roaring in his face hoping to bite it off in RRR Image: DVV Entertainment

I always believe the action enhances the drama and the drama enhances the action — each helps one another. So everything is set up for me up until this point — now I just need to get into a position where I create an explosive moment visually.

I thought about it like this: Bheem has come to Delhi, not his natural place, and he’s going to go against a very strong enemy. He needs help, so where would he get help that would create explosive moments? Since he’s a tribal person who lives in the jungle and keeps animals, he should know how to catch them. He can bring animals and create havoc. That’s how we can have an action sequence, but we need to visualize it. So the first interaction of animals needs to start with a bang. We don’t want the first tiger to come up sneakily, then we show number two, number three. This is a movie, and the dam must burst open. I need that kind of moment.

Musical sequences aren’t that different. We have had a tradition of song and dance in Indian cinema for a long time, and people are more receptive to it. But in the case of RRR, even I had a hurdle: I’m talking about two freedom fighters. Even though this fictional account is about those two freedom fighters, we were still talking about a lucid Rama Raju and Komaram Bheem. For them to do a dance number is not easy — they can’t just dance together. It needs to be set up. There should be a kind of requirement for the guys to do that. So, in my mind, I thought I needed an action piece there. And because they can’t reveal their identities, the action piece can be fun. So even though it’s a dance number, it’s also a competition they are having with the Britishers, so it doesn’t feel odd. And there is a lead to it. It is a party scene, Bheem’s coming there to befriend the girl so that he can get on with his job, he gets humiliated, his friend helps him, and so for the audience it isn’t odd at all.

Could this work in Hollywood movies? Do people think the Avengers couldn’t dance? I would love to see the Avengers dance.

Bheem and Ram dance down a red carpet in front of an English palace

But this thinking can come through everywhere. I’m pretty sure if we have a fantastic comedy film, and you have a laugh every five minutes, even if it has a very small budget for them and no stars in it, people are going to come to the theaters and watch the film. And we need those films; if people come to the theaters just for a few types of films and not the rest, then the industry is not going to survive.

For all my thoughts, there are things I want to learn from Hollywood. The reason why any director across the world would want to do Hollywood movies is because of the kind of reach the story has. Hollywood movies are the biggest movies that reach the widest audiences, and any storyteller would want that. I have been doing movies for the past 20 years in a certain way. I have learned, maybe, in a certain way. So I’m exploring to see how I can learn the methodologies or technologies or technical skills of the Hollywood process, to see if I can make my films better and make myself a better filmmaker. We all need to be open in that way.

But one thing that will always be true is this. If I’m thinking about a scene, the first thing that comes up is a question: What makes me excited? And as the images start coming out, as the images start forming in my head, simultaneously I envision that scene playing out in a theater, full of people. I will always imagine how a particular scene, a particular sequence, a song, a fight, anything will entertain the audience. That’s our job.