SS Rajamouli© AFP

HELLO! 100 Most Influential: SS Rajamouli

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Sashidhar Adivi

Why he matters: The rise of Southern talkies over the past few years has been extraordinary, with this visionary spearheading the movement. Felicitated by Hollywood and beyond, he has become the face of a growing trend in Indian cinema that’s not easy to ignore. Cine writer Sashidhar Adivi lays down what makes this magic movie maker the phenomenon he is today.

It’s been seven years since Baahubali: The Beginning scripted a permanent change in Telugu cinema’s fate forever. Before it was taken to the screens, the to-be magnum opus intimidated its creator, SS Rajamouli, so much that he advised his producers to set aside the project altogether in favour of a boxing-based drama. He was even prepared to convince Prabhas, who had been waiting for the dream film to materialise for years, about the need to shelve the project. Rajamouli was confident that Prabhas, being his friend, would understand that the budget of the two-part epic action films was going to be so unrealistically high that it was almost a foolish decision to make it. The producers thought otherwise — and the rest is history.

Once the multi-billion-rupee project was given the go-ahead, Rajamouli was fearless. As he once said, “When I’m working, I’m more confident; when I’m not working, I’m more fearful.” It’s being idle that scares the master craftsman, not going against the tide.

Cut to 2023, and Rajamouli is now the only Indian filmmaker who’s familiar to a lot of Hollywood’s cineasts (including James Cameron and Steven Spielberg). There’s now official talk of a sequel to RRR being made as a mainly Hollywood project a few years down the line. And his upcoming movie, to be led by Mahesh Babu, will probably see a stunning worldwide release, with the involvement of some American players, as well.

The unfathomable rise of Rajamouli and his relevance to world cinema seemed unthinkable even after the theatrical release of RRR last year. It was after aficionados and Hollywood connoisseurs watched it on OTT that the film truly achieved unexpected glory.

What ticks for India’s most maverick director is his undying commitment to drama, which is paramount in his scheme of things. While some filmmakers try to break the image of established actors merely for amusement, Rajamouli believes characters must be made subservient to drama. That explains why he could think of casting Jr NTR and Ram Charan as rivals-turned-comrades, despite their characters being India-lovers in RRR. Hero or anti-hero, white or black, grey or something else, Rajamouli knows how to heighten emotions at all costs. Many even proclaim that he’s a taskmaster who can bring out the best from any actor.

There have, however, been times when his passion for cinema has led to divisions among movie buffs. For instance, last year, when Rajamouli’s ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ list was published by Sight and Sound magazine, polarisation on social media was noteworthy. Many cinephiles mocked the maker of Magadheera (2009) and Simhadri (2003) for choosing titles such as Kung Fu Panda, not realising that he doesn’t care about the gatekeepers of taste.

As some carped at his picks, Rajamouli set his sights on taking Indian cinema to the world. He once told Deadline, “In the future, I hope everything goes right, and I bring my Indian stories, my Indian mythologies onto the level of Marvel or even higher.”

Rajamouli is confident enough to say that Westerners loved RRR because they never got enough of a taste of “full-blown action in masala movies” (as quoted by Indie Wire). There are commercial “masala movie” makers. Then there’s Rajamouli - arguably the best director in today’s Indian cinema! With an enviable track record in an industry that hardly guarantees success, no wonder he’s a phenomenon.

To see who else is on the list, grab the copy of HELLO! India’s August 2023 issue right here!