How 'RRR' and 'Baahubali' Raised the Bar for the Indian Blockbuster

Filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli has achieved the Hollywood blockbuster effect — using large budgets for even larger box office payoffs — by turning Indian folklore and the freedom struggle into must-see epics.

Still from RRR

Meher Manda


April 13, 2022

That filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli absolutely loves the heroes that drive his ambitious, high-adrenaline, Telugu-language blockbusters is evident in the first 20 minutes of his latest mega-hit RRR. Audiences meet the movie’s leading men in nail-biting episodes that exalt their superhuman ability. One, an Indian police officer in the British army, fights his way through a violent, aggressive crowd, his arms shrugging off bodies lunging at him, as he swims through a mass of protestors, nabs a miscreant, and drags him all the way back — fighting off bodies a second time, of course. The other, a forest dweller, outruns a tiger before capturing it with sheer, brute strength. This man, utterly fearless, squares off his opponent by staring right into the tiger’s eyes and outroaring it. Without wasting any screen time and by delivering immediate pay-offs, Rajamouli establishes his heroes as demigods, mythical figures of strength and nobility.

Of course, we expect this scale and ambition from a Rajamouli film. The Telugu director is behind some of the biggest blockbusters out of India: mythic action diptych Baahubali (2015), where the castaway son of a slain king returns for revenge much like in Hamlet; the wickedly imaginative Eega (2012), where a dead man returns, reincarnated as a fly, to protect the woman he loves; and now the anti-colonial action flick RRR, where two men lead an armed struggle against the British. His directorial brand is to spin larger-than-life narratives. And the payoffs for such brave risk-taking have been equally immense. The first Baahubali movie, Baahubali: The Beginning, made on a budget of $23 million (₹170 crore) raked in close to $86 million (Rs. ₹650 crore) at the global box office, while its follow-up, Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), made on a budget of $33 million (₹250 crore), became the first Indian film to make more than $132 million (₹1,000 crores) at the global box office. RRR — the second most expensive film to be made in India, after Tamil cinema’s 2.0 — was made on a budget of $75 million (₹570 crore) and has already crossed $131 million in box office sales (Rs. 1,000 crore) in just a few weeks after its release. 

What’s impressive about Rajamouli’s work is that he makes Telugu films for a Telugu audience — his father K.V. Vijayendra Prasad, a thespian of masala cinema, pens scripts steeped in folkloric imagination. Yet, Rajamouli’s movies have found resounding popularity not just in primarily Telugu-speaking Indian states such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, but also across the country and global markets. Rajamouli’s Baahubali series reignited the ambition to make pan-Indian movies that don’t restrict themselves to linguistic belts and can emerge as national, even international, successes. With Baahubali and RRR, Rajamouli has become synonymous with not only scale but also commercial success. And he’s managed to pull off the Hollywood blockbuster effect — the trend of investing large sums in tentpole movies to get even larger payoffs at the box office — that has long evaded even Bollywood, India’s most prolific movie industry.

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