RRR star Ram Charan believes that S.S. Rajamouli’s action juggernaut is a watershed moment for Indian cinema. The country’s film industry is currently delineated by language and region, such as Bollywood (Hindi cinema) or Tollywood (Telugu cinema), in RRR’s case. But Charan is hopeful that RRR’s (short for “Rise Roar Revolt”) global success will blur the lines of India’s film industry moving forward.
“During the promotion of RRR, the imaginary lines were blurred. We were not just promoting RRR, but we were also promoting the sense of having one film industry called the Indian Film Industry. And I can tell you that it is actually happening in India right now,” Charan tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In the 1920-set action epic, Charan plays Alluri Sitarama Raju, a revolutionary leader who uses his position as a mole within the Indian Imperial Police to ultimately arm his former village against the British Raj. And while RRR’s exhilarating action set pieces and infectious song-and-dance numbers, such as the Oscar-nominated “Naatu Naatu,” have won over audiences around the world, Charan believes the film’s resonance can be chalked up to one simple element.
“Cinema itself has a unique way of transcending countries and languages. So RRR just shows that cinema has only one language, and that is emotion,” Charan says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Charan also discusses the most challenging days of the three-year shoot and his hopes of crossing over into an American blockbuster franchise, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Mission: Impossible.
So when did you first start to recognize that RRR was catching on in the States?
I saw a couple of videos that were posted by the RRR team. They had private screenings for a select group of media professionals. Of course, we’ve seen this kind of reaction in India, which was expected, but it’s beautiful to have this kind of appreciation coming from the West. We all look up to your films, and seeing all of this is just special.
I’ve never seen Americans dance at a movie screening before. It must’ve been quite a shock to see your moves being mimicked across the world.
You are so right. Cinema isn’t one language and one culture. Cinema itself has a unique way of transcending countries and languages. The response from Japan was equally amazing. So RRR just shows that cinema has only one language, and that is emotion.
Your introduction is unbelievable as Raju is a one-man wrecking crew. What were the highlights from filming that sequence?
The highlight was the amount of rehearsals the whole team did for 30 to 40 days prior to filming. We had 5,000 to 10,000 people on a given day to shoot, and none of them were hurt. Not a single scratch. That shows you the kind of intense rehearsals that went into it. Kudos to our stuntmen, our [fight director] Mr. Solomon and the thousands of people.
So you shot the movie for 320 days over three years, but how much prep was there prior to those 320 days of filming?
In the beginning, we just had workshops, but the rehearsals are why it took three years to shoot. We had to rehearse every episode on the go, and we couldn’t rehearse everything. So not everything was planned initially. We were planning as we were shooting, and that’s why we took so long to shoot over three years. Of course, COVID cost us eight months, but that period aside, it’s still a long time.
It sounds like Raju’s introduction went off without a hitch, but did you eventually suffer some injuries?
I know it sounds [crazy], but I did not suffer a single scratch during the making of the film. I did tear a ligament during rehearsals, which took me off the shoot for three-and-a-half months. So it was a gruesome three months of recovery, but I’m fine now. Right after I recovered, I shot the “Naatu Naatu” sequence.
Did you know NTR (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) prior to RRR?
Absolutely. We’ve known each for 15 years as costars and as friends from the same community and industry. We actually became close just two or three years before RRR, but that’s when we became really thick friends. I think Mr. Rajamouli saw the camaraderie and the friendship between us and wanted to show that in the film. I heard that he cast us after seeing the friendship and the bond we had in real life.
I believe the two of you both come from rival acting families as well. Did Rajamouli want that real-life rivalry to inform the on-screen rivalry as well?
Now that I’m thinking about it, yeah. Probably. Why not? I don’t think there’s any reason not to think that, but Mr. Rajamouli also wanted to share our very real bond off-screen during the scenes where we’re not rivals. I always had some apprehension that there would be competition about who’s going to do better and everything, but the professional rivalry never came into the picture between us. We were so comfortable, and our well-written stories and characters made us feel comfortable in our own spaces. So it wasn’t about one-upping each other; it was about the story and Mr. Rajamouli’s vision. And if not for Rajamouli, I don’t think we would’ve been as comfortable doing this film. He really knows how to balance every aspect, not only from a filmmaking perspective, but also the expectations of fans. So, the so-called rivalry was never an issue.
What was your most emotional day on set?
“Naatu Naatu” was the last of the sequences we shot, and we had put three years of our lives into this film. So the last day of “Naatu Naatu” was the happiest day. We were relieved that the film was over and we could move on, but at the same time, it struck us suddenly that we weren’t going to see each other for a long time. We started filming in 2018, and none of us expected that we’d still be together in 2023.
Was there a sequence that was more physically challenging than Raju’s introduction?
I personally feel that it was when Raju learned the truth and he fought Bheem (NTR) as archrivals. It was when the tigers and animals came out. We shot 65 nights over two seasons, because by the time we started, Covid hit. So after 30 days, we had to pause that episode and somehow maintain ourselves physically. Mr. Rajamouli would call us every week during the pandemic to check if we were the right shape, the right weight and the right physique. So preparing for that episode was the most taxing.
And in terms of acting, that episode was very intense. There was so much emotion behind the action. It had multiple layers, and the whole film was designed around it. During the scripting stage, that episode was written first, and everything around it was added later. But what I like most about every episode is that Mr. Rajamouli always attaches a huge cushion of emotion. It gets you interested and invested in the action, otherwise, it’s just two guys hitting each other.
Your character had to hurt his own people in order to help them in the end. That must’ve been a difficult place to live, psychologically.
Yeah, when I read the script, there was definitely a very gray side to him, but it’s also pitch black at times. So I did have questions about how we were going to strike a balance between him being the antagonist and not the protagonist for a while, and how he’s been suppressing most of his feelings towards his own people that he loves. So he’s not only one of the best characters I’ve ever played; he’s also one of the best characters I’ve ever seen as well.
Indian cinema has many different industries or subdivisions that are designated by language and region, such as Bollywood and Tollywood. Is it true that you wish it was all just known as Indian cinema?
You’re 100 percent right. During the promotion of RRR, the imaginary lines were blurred. We were not just promoting RRR, but we were also promoting the sense of having one film industry called the Indian Film Industry. And I can tell you that it is actually happening in India right now. There’s so much culture and talent in Indian cinema, and this next great era began with RRR during its promotion.
So why do you think India opted to select another film to compete for a Best International Feature Film nomination at the 95th Academy Awards? Were you shocked by that decision? [Writer’s Note: This interview took place before the Oscar nominations were announced.]
No, I was not surprised that another film was chosen, but we were a little disappointed that we were not selected. I really don’t understand the process of selection. Prior to this, I had no knowledge of how it’s done, so I don’t know if I can really comment on it. Whoever did the selection, I’m sure they’ve been in the process for many years, and I’m sure [Last Film Show] is a great film. I haven’t gotten the chance to see it yet, but nevertheless, I hope this is a great beginning for us. We are so happy with the reception from the West, the East and India, and all these nominations and awards are definitely great. They’re feathers in our cap, and I hope we have even better things to look forward to in the future.
Well, I’m confident that RRR will create more crossover between American and Indian cinema.
I would love to see that.
In that event, what American filmmaker would you jump at the chance to work with?
Quentin Tarantino. He’s my favorite. I love him. He’s quirky. He’s out of the box, and I just love him. I’ve been watching his movies since I was a kid.
Are you a Christopher Nolan guy?
Of course! He’s huge in our film community.
Is there an American franchise that most appeals to you as an actor?
Of course, Marvel is the biggest franchise in the world, and I’m a big fan of Tony Stark. The youngsters follow these Marvel stories so closely, and it’s a huge franchise in India. The Mission: Impossible franchise is another big one for me.
There are moments in RRR where you remind me of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, so you’ve got my vote for the next Wolverine.
Wow, thank you so much! That means a lot.
When I first finished RRR, I said to myself, “Man, these guys must think American blockbusters are dull by comparison.” Are they still exciting for you?
They are! When I watched Top Gun: Maverick, I had tears, which is rare for me at home. In theaters, you sometimes have a mob reaction. When others are feeling it, you feel the same. But sitting at home and watching Maverick, it was so beautiful how they brought back the old and the new. It was a beautiful amalgamation in the scripting itself, and during the last jet episode with Tom Cruise and Miles Teller, I had tears in my eyes. The spectacle was not just watching all the jets; it was the emotion behind it all. My wife looked at me and said, “Do you realize you’re crying?” (Laughs.) So it was emotional stuff. And that movie shows that you guys still have it and are rocking it. Absolutely.
So Rajamouli has been talking about a potential sequel to RRR. Are you hopeful that it’ll happen?
I think he’s been talking about it to the media more than us. (Laughs.) He hasn’t brought it up to us yet, but I would really look forward to an RRR sequel. Why not? It’s got great characters, and I think Mr. Rajamouli will crack it again.