India turned its back on ‘RRR.’ Will Oscar voters embrace it?

A tiger and a man spring through the air toward each other in a scene from "RRR."
Animal mayhem is just one of the wild action scenes in S.S. Rajamouli’s “RRR,” which its makers are pushing for a best picture Oscar nomination.
(D.V.V. Entertainment)

S.S. Rajamouli and I are up in the projection booth at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. It’s the Friday night before Thanksgiving and Rajamouli’s beloved action epic “RRR” is playing to a raucous, sold-out house. We’d been looking for a quiet place to talk, but if you’ve seen the movie, you know that “quiet” and “RRR” are contradictory in every possible sense.

The movie’s almost over and we can hear the audience roaring their approval during a climactic battle sequence. Rajamouli has seen “RRR” with an audience dozens of times, but he never tires of hearing them respond to what he’s put on screen.

“There’s another big cheer coming,” he tells me, smiling. “Coming ... wait for it ...” He holds up his hand, like a symphony conductor. When it arrives, Rajamouli bursts out laughing.


There’s one moment to come though that will take Rajamouli by surprise. We make our way down to the lobby where he sees his son, S.S. Karthikeya, a line producer on “RRR.” He gives him a warm embrace. The end credits are rolling, the final celebration sequence is unfolding, people are dancing in the aisles — and one exuberant fan is up on the stage — and when the song finishes and Rajamouli makes his way toward the front, the audience begins to chant, “SSR, SSR, SSR!”

“I was supposed to introduce you,” says Beyond Fest co-founder Christian Parkes, who would lead a Q&A with Rajamouli, “but you need no introduction. There are filmmakers. There are auteurs. And then there’s SSR.”

Filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli stands with hand on hip for a portrait.
Indian blockbuster filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli, here at the Tuck Room in Westwood, is center stage after the success of his crossover action epic “RRR.”
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The next night, I run into Rajamouli and Karthikeya at the bar at the Governors Awards, the annual honorary Oscars ceremony. “SSR!” I say, laughing. “Is that a thing at screenings now?” Karthikeya doubles over, and Rajamouli shakes his head. “First time,” he answers, smiling. “First time.” (“RRR” is his 12th feature.)

But perhaps not the last as Rajamouli and the awards team for “RRR” (short for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”) try to turn a longshot dream into a reality and land the movie a best picture Oscar nomination.

Set in 1920s British colonial India, “RRR” spins an imaginative take on the real-life stories of two Indian revolutionaries, Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, who, in the film, become best friends until their secret loyalties and entanglements get in the way. The movie features so many wild action sequences over the course of its three-hour running time that it’s impossible to keep count, and it sports a spectacular dance-off, set to the song “Naatu Naatu,” that might just be the most enjoyable 4½ minutes in film this year.


“RRR” was released in March and became one of India’s highest-grossing movies of all time, taking in $140 million worldwide, including $14.5 million in the United States. A version dubbed into Hindi arrived on Netflix in May. (The movie’s original language is Telugu.) Enthusiasm for it grew over the summer, with filmmakers like James Gunn and Scott Derrickson discovering it and sharing their love on social media.

When India bypassed “RRR” as its official selection for the international feature film Oscar in September, its team shifted strategy, deciding to go for broke and chase a best picture nomination. There’s also a justified push to get the music branch to nominate “Naatu Naatu” for original song, recognition that would have precedent as songs not in the English language have been recognized — and won — in the past. (The Hindi song “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” won the Oscar in 2009.)

What needs to happen next for “RRR” is for at least one of the three major film critics groups — Los Angeles, New York and the National Society of Film Critics — to give the movie its best picture prize. Last year, another Oscar longshot, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Japanese drama “Drive My Car,” won the top prize from all three organizations, catapulting it into Oscar voters’ minds — and, subsequently, hearts, as they later nominated it for best picture.

S.S. Rajamouli’s period action epic has been a labor of love, box office sensation and global success story. Next up? Academy Award contender.

Nov. 18, 2022

“Those critics groups wins were huge,” Dylan Marchetti, president of specialty distributor Variance Films, told me over dinner a few weeks ago. Marchetti handled the North American theatrical release for “Drive My Car” and “RRR,” and he sees similarities in the way audiences have responded to the films. “Both movies are so good that once people see them, they sell themselves. You just need to get them in the door.”

Maybe if Adam McKay followed through on his idea for a Rose Bowl screening of “RRR” (“How amazing would that be?” he tweeted), that might help.

Rajamouli has been doing his part, flying in from India for a sold-out late-September showing at the TCL Chinese Theatre and then returning to Los Angeles recently to make the rounds at a series of screenings for academy and guild voters. Theaters have been packed. No one leaves at intermission. And even if they’re not dancing like the patrons at the Aero, voters have been cheering.


It’s impossible not to love this movie.

“The way the film is structured, it makes you feel free to express yourself,” Rajamouli says. “You want to laugh, you can laugh. You want to cry, you can cry. You want to cheer, you can cheer. It doesn’t tell you to hold your feelings to yourself. Express them!”

Rajamouli is a gracious man and a self-described introvert. At the Governors Awards, he moved around the edges of the room — but people made sure to find him. (Filmmaker J.J. Abrams sought him out, asking about “RRR’s” insane 320-day shooting schedule.) So when I ask Rajamouli how he’d express his feelings if Oscar attention came calling, his quiet, firm answer does not surprise me.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about the Oscars,” Rajamouli says. “Because if we get a nomination or an award, it wouldn’t be just for me or just for this film. I have been working with almost the same team for so many years. And they really work hard. They put in more than what they’re paid for. So a nomination or award would be recognition for the years of work of so many people. And that would make me very happy.”