Back when RRR released in March 2022, nobody would have thought of the waves it would create in the West. It's the most unlikely thing to happen. RRR is over-the-top, long and breathless mishmash of a story made to appeal to Indian sensibilities. Stuff the West has mocked Indians for. But a post-pandemic, fun-less world was ready for just that: authentic Indian masala. The reviews were hyper and the theatres full in the land that matters for Academy success. Critics said this is what Hollywood used to be and this is what Hollywood go back to. Unabashedly fun and unlimited thrill.
Then India sent Chhello Show (The Last Show) to the Oscars.
So, why not RRR?
Here at home many loved it, some dismissed it as mere hypermasculine masala and some noted how the film’s fictionalised depiction of real-life freedom fighters Alluri Sitaram Raju and Komaram Bheem made it a work of revisionist history. But at that time, nobody in their wildest dreams might have thought that RRR would be such a big deal in the West.
But then why was RRR not submitted as India’s official submission at the Oscars? At the Oscars, RRR currently seems to be a strong frontrunner in the Best Original Song category thanks to the popularity and acclaim that Naatu Naatu has been constantly generating. The song also finds itself in the list of 15 shortlisted nominees that the Academy released last December.
But when it comes to the vastly diverse and severely limiting Best International Feature category, India submitted the Gujarati film Chhello Show as its official submission. The Pan Nalin film is India's own Cinema Paradiso, and done really well. But for the Academy, it can very well be Been There Done That kind of moment.
As is the norm, a particular decision making body from each country submits one film to the category with the Academy jury taking matters further.
In India, the body in this case is the Film Federation of India, an apex body of Indian film producers, distributors, exhibitors and studio owners based in Mumbai. Technically, it is not a government organisation but more than often, it is believed that the government’s sway over the organisation can be quite a lot. So, even though Chhello Show currently sits in the Oscars shortlist of 15 films to be considered for Best International Feature, Indian audiences were initially not very happy with the FFI’s decision claiming that RRR would have had better winning chances.
Awards buzz on a global scale: In other news, not only has RRR appeared in endless lists of best films of 2022 in American publications but it has also emerged as a major contender at critics circles and award ceremonies in the English-speaking world. It is currently contesting at the upcoming Golden Globes on January 10 for Best Non-English Language Film and Best Original Song (Naatu Naatu).
The New York-based National Board of Review curates a list of the best films that are held with much reverence and in its 2022 edition, RRR too made the cut being the only second non-English film to achieve this. The accolades are endless. Despite its bare-chested muscular heroes, one of RRR’s global wins include a Best Non-English Language Film nod by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists!
A "gay love story"? Talking about manliness, it is significantly hilarious how a large chunk of Western audiences also mistook RRR as a “gay love story” for the unintentionally homoerotic camaraderie that Charan and NTR’s characters share! Media attention towards this perception of the movie increased further when Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty also joined in sharing similar views.
Okay, I was going to watch RRR for the insane looking action set-pieces but now I hear it’s also unintentionally homoerotic and heartwarmingly gay?— Joe Glass🏳️🌈Himbo on Kickstarter! (@JosephGlass) June 3, 2022
The viewers back home joined in on the jokes while some of the more repulsive ones saw it as Hollywood pushing its “gay agenda”. Regardless of how people perceived RRR, one thing was clear. Rajamouli’s feature film was carving a space for itself into international pop culture, creating one discourse after the other.
Battling a “Marvel fatigue”: In terms of its narrative of two men fighting against the British colonisers, RRR’s story and screenplay might definitely not be the most nuanced. But much like the rest of Rajamouli’s filmography, it was a big-screen spectacle complete with the most ridiculously brilliant action sequences (which one can hardly describe in words) and some cutting-edge VFX. Not only were the visual effects top-notch for Indian standards but even Western audiences un-ironically sung its praises.
Screen Junkies which often parodies mainstream films by creating their fake trailers (as a part of their YouTube series Honest Trailers) made one such Honest Trailer for RRR too which ends with the narrator saying, “Can we import this movie’s stunt coordinator to fix superhero flicks over here.”
Jokes aside, it seems like RRR came at the right time when the aforementioned superhero flicks began tiring global audiences. A Fandom survey from November showed that at least 36% of US and UK viewers are tired of Marvel's current “quantity over quality approach”. Just last year alone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe dropped three films, three shows, two specials, and one series of animated shorts. Meanwhile, Marvel’s rival DC has had its own struggles regarding its current future.
RRR is live action anime done right; and is better than all the others in that list.— Ben Tufnell (@ExposePoll) January 3, 2023
So, in the face of the same old superhero narratives, RRR’s action might have come as a breath of fresh air for audiences desperately seeking a theatrical experience. Even the ones in the West who just saw the film as an over-the-top comedy noted how RRR felt like a live-action anime of sorts!
Overcoming the poverty porn stereotype for Indian cinema: It is common knowledge how Oscars and all other American and European awards represent a largely First World gaze towards global cinema. So, yes, constantly seeking validation from the Western world might not be the healthiest desire for Indian filmmakers but RRR’s recognition makes it quite a game-changer given how it upturns the poverty porn subgenre that Indian cinema is usually associated among the Western critics.
From Satyajit Ray’s classics like Pather Panchali to Mira Nair’s Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay, the most acclaimed Indian films overseas tend t0 be the ones that highlight the country’s poverty, oppression, and other inequalities in an arthouse fashion. Such depictions also work in favour of Westerners making films in India, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire being a major case in point.
Gujarati flavour? The FFI jury found Chhello Show to carry more cinematic merit or be more Oscar bait-y, but the film is more Cannes and Sundance baity. The Academy's history has been mainstream, not arty. After all, when FFI announced its pick in September, the national political parties were avidly preparing for the then-upcoming Gujarat assembly elections of 2022. It only seemed convenient that RRR was ignored over a relatively lesser-known arthouse-like film from Gujarat.
OMG! What a night this going to be! Gratitude to Film Federation of India and thank you FFI jury members. Thank you for believing in Chhello Show. Now I can breathe again and believe in cinema that entertains, inspires and enlightens! @LastFilmShow1 #ChhelloShow #Oscars— Nalin Pan (@PanNalin) September 20, 2022
Some were quick to note another coincidence when veteran Hindi actress Asha Parekh was awarded the government’s esteemed Dadasaheb Phalke Award in the same month. The recipient of the Indian government’s highest award for cinematic contributions, Parekh is of Gujarati origin.
Asha Parekh to be honored with Dadasaheb Phalke Award, 2020 for her exemplary lifetime contribution to Indian Cinema— PIB India (@PIB_India) September 27, 2022
Ms Parekh was conferred Padma Shri in 1992. She also served as the head of CBFC from 1998-2001
The 68th #NationalFilmAwards will be held on 30th September 2022 pic.twitter.com/nUuB07oCEf
But then again, these are just theories at this point. And regardless of RRR skipping out on Best International Feature, its current impact is unexpectedly influential. And as for the Oscar season, a reel song is what can make India happy!
Breaking out of poverty porn: RRR is obviously not the most accurate representation of India but its impact on pop culture is worth noting given how Rajamouli has never been remotely close to the word “arthouse”. Massy entertainers, especially from India, make for good meme fodder abroad but hardly an awards contender. For better or for worse, RRR might open up the avenue for more big-budget spectacles from developing countries like India to find such roaring recognition in the West.