How Rajamouli became India's blockbuster director

How Rajamouli became India's blockbuster director

The Telugu filmmaker has made a mark with his ambitious action dramas with fairy tale-like stories, writes Karthik Keramalu. His pan-India magnum opus 'RRR' is out next Friday

'RRR' is a period action drama starring NTR Jr and Ram Charan. Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn play key roles.

SS Rajamouli, one of the biggest names of Indian cinema, has been making movies for more than two decades now. While some of his contemporaries have faded out from the collective memory of the audience, Rajamouli has stuck to his guns and delivered some mighty blockbusters. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that he has single-handedly elevated the status of Telugu cinema in the eyes of the global public, thanks to the ‘Baahubali’ films.

Avant-garde artists may balk at this idea and question the necessity of money-making and its relevance to climbing creative hills. But business survives on returns on investment, with the mantra being ‘the more the merrier’. 

Rajamouli makes his films feel as though they’re top-tier entertainers. He doesn’t let rhetorical moments, where the principal characters dwell on their failures, take up more than a fingernail of the run time. Therefore, he always serves treats to the front row viewers, and to the more serious movie geeks, he offers juicy nuts to crack.

His oeuvre is obviously enviable, as even his directorial debut, ‘Student No.1’ (2001), which is in fact subpar in quality, is a blockbuster. He has, like Tamil’s S Shankar and Bollywood’s Rajkumar Hirani, grown with every film he’s made. Now, he is a master of large-canvas films that have jaw-dropping action set-pieces and quality VFX.  

His next is the pan-Indian magnum opus ‘RRR’, which stars NTR Jr, Ram Charan, Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn. The highly anticipated period action drama will hit the screens next Friday in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi.

Mythology is perhaps Rajamouli’s favorite crutch and he joyously seems to lean on it. His mentor, K Raghavendra Rao, has also taken a few leaves from mythic figures every now and again. But the ‘Chatrapathi’ (2005) director doesn’t pay obeisance to the devotional aspects outrightly. Instead, he centers his stories on invincible heroes. And the villains usually don’t follow any sort of moral code. Their greed to acquire wealth is what ultimately brings them down. In the case of ‘Magadheera’ (2009) and ‘Eega’ (2012), however, the evil men train their nasty eyes on women.

Rajamouli mostly writes his own screenplays and if you dive deep into the psyches of his leading men, there is enough substance to discuss their positives and negatives. For starters, they don’t surrender to the antagonists even when they’re about to die. ‘Vikram Singh Rathore’ (Ravi Teja) from ‘Vikramarkudu’ (2006) and ‘Kala Bhairava’ (Ram Charan) from ‘Magadheera’ are prime examples of heroes who never give up. But in both these films, the protagonists get another chance to take revenge against their foes through a doppelganger and reincarnation, respectively. In the end, naturally, victory rests at the feet of the people who stand by their principles.

For all the ripples that Rajamouli’s movies create at the national and international spheres, there’s one strong criticism that has followed him, like a relentless shadow. The leading women, in his movies, are more often than not dispensable. They won’t have unshakeable stakes in the narratives and, if nothing else, they’ll simply be circumnavigating men in the name of love. He doesn’t write roles for women with as much care. He makes it seem as though their primary purpose is to look pretty and dance till the mic drops.

Devasena (Anushka Shetty) and Avanthika (Tamannaah), in ‘Baahubali’, are trained warriors, but they don’t wield their swords much individually. Their scenes are intertwined with saccharine romantic activities and, needless to say, that robs their ability to appear fierce and take matters into their own hands. Hope Alia and Shriya Saran get the screen time they deserve in ‘RRR’.

(The writer is a Bengaluru-based freelancer)

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