Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on industry players outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking with RRR star Ram Charan. The Indian actor and producer, who has long been an icon in the country’s Telugu industry, talks about collaborating with director S.S. Rajamouli again and how the film’s international reception has finally put Indian cinema on the global content map.
Nothing about the journey of S.S. Rajamouli’s lavish genre-bending global hit RRR has been short and for that, its star Ram Charan is grateful. Shot in 320 days across three years, the Telugu-language film has a three hour and seven-minute runtime as the epic adventure sees Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (N.T.R.) play two legendary Indian freedom fighters of the early 20th Century who join forces against the British Raj.
Since it was released theatrically nearly a year ago, RRR (which stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt), has grossed more than $160M worldwide and enjoyed a $30M worldwide opening on its first day, the latter shattering records for an Indian film. Now, the film is still in the ether as it’s scored India its first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song after winning in that category at the Golden Globe Awards in January.
“This happened to be the film that broke all of the barriers,” Charan tells Deadline via Zoom fresh off his Good Morning America appearance. He says this with almost disbelief as he reflects on the diversity of India’s cinema industry, a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country that consists of several different industries corresponding to different states such as Bollywood (Hindi cinema), Tollywood (Telugu cinema) and Kollywood (Tamil cinema).
“I like the diversity in India and what’s great about our diverseness is that we don’t feel like we are less important than another region because we are so satisfied in our own industry and economics and we have our own fans,” he says.
“When we made RRR, we all thought we had achieved so much, and it couldn’t get bigger than that. But the reception we’ve gotten – even still a year on – is wonderful and keeps it so fresh in our minds. Everything we worked for in every scene and every small reaction has been acknowledged. It’s been such a heartfelt journey that’s been really quite alarming and satisfying as an actor.”
Charan has long been a Telugu icon ever since he first broke onto the scene with his debut film Chirutha in 2007, an action title in which he played a man in pursuit of a gangster who murdered his parents. That film held the record for the highest-grossing Telugu film for a debut actor until 2021’s Uppena.
His father, Chiranjeevi, is one of the most influential actors in Indian cinema, having starred in more than 150 Telugu feature films throughout his career and, while Charan says it was somewhat “inevitable” that he would work in the entertainment business, it’s not something that was readily talked about a lot at home growing up.
“I didn’t know if I would be an actor one day because at home we were not allowed to talk about films,” says Charan. “We were only asked to study and do good at school and college.”
He recalls his father keeping a low-profile about his job, something which allowed Charan to make the decision to become an actor solely based on his own interest.
“Everything stopped at the office with my dad,” he says. “I think he wanted to keep a really normal atmosphere in the house. There were no photographs of him from any kind of movie he did, and he kept it so normal.”
But clearly there is something in the family bloodline when it comes to delivering Telugu box office hits: While his father’s 1992 film Gharana Mogudu became the first south Indian film to earn more than 10 crores at the box office (which at today’s exchange rate is $118M), Charan’s RRR is the second-highest grossing Telugu film of all time with its $160M global tally.
RRR is not Charan’s first rodeo with Rajamouli. The actor first worked with the blockbuster director in 2009’s fantasy actioner Magadheera, which touches on themes of reincarnation. It was a film that would ultimately cement Charan’s position in the Telugu film industry.
“I joined RRR purely from the love and respect I have for S.S. Rajamouli,” says Charan. “I had such a great experience with him the first time and he really is the James Cameron or the Steven Spielberg of India. He is everything we dream of and when he gives you a call, you want to be involved.”
He adds, “When you’re part of a Rajamouli film, it’s epic, it’s event-filling and it’s also many days of shooting. You don’t ask him how many days he will require of you – we never ask him that. He’s probably one of the few independent directors, or the only director, that you would never ask how many days he needs you for.”
The 320 day shoot across three years was epic by anyone’s standard and while production was also marred by Covid – “we had to stop and start a few times” – Charan says reuniting with the director for such bombastic and action-packed film with catchy musical numbers such as “Naatu Naatu” (the Oscar-nominated song from composer M.M. Keeravaani), was an exhilarating and surreal experience.
“He’s such a child at heart,” says Charan of Rajamouli “He’s so receptive and he’s so inviting. He’s grown so much as a director but he’s so approachable. What I really love about him is that he gives you the liberty to ask questions and question him and say if there is something else on your mind, and not too many directors do that. He really makes his actors feel as if they are part of the journey.”
Charan plays Alluri Sitarama Raju, a revolutionary leader and mole within the Indian Imperial police who sits on the opposite side of Komaram Bheem (N.T.R.) and chronicles the duo’s unlikely friendship as they join forces to revolt against the British.
From his character’s first introduction on screen, which sees him gallantly break up a riot single-handedly with fist and fire, to the fast-moving leg-shaking of “Naatu Naatu,” it was clearly a physically demanding role that would require a lot of dedication to execute.
“We did a couple of workshops – very intense workshops just to understand all of the characters in the film,” he recalls. “But Rajamouli always gives you something to learn. He pushes the boundaries for anyone on set – be it an actor or a technician. Even when I feel I have nothing else to offer, he pushes me. During the pandemic, he used to call me and say, ‘Hey Ram, how are you doing?’ I thought it was a casual call but then he would say, ‘Did you hit the gym today?’”
What’s perhaps most encouraging for a film like RRR is what it says about the state of the global film sector, which has been marred by theatrical slumps due to the pandemic and the streaming sector’s day-and-date model: If a non-English language film with an absurdly long run time can grab international audiences in theaters, win a Golden Globe, earn five Critics Choice Awards nominations and an Oscar nomination, the end of cinema is not nigh.
“I believe cinema has no language and the only language is emotion,” says Charan about RRR’s cross-border success. “You have to feel it and it all comes down to story and direction.”
He adds, “There is a great exchange of culture that is happening right now. The boundaries are becoming seamless and blurred and I think it’s important that my nation calls themselves the Indian film industry, rather than sectioning ourselves into different industries. And that is happening right now and I’m happy that I’m in an era in that period where this change is happening. It’s good to be part of the global film industry now.”
Charan can next be seen in Telugu-language political action thriller RC15 (working title) from director S. Shankar but during his time spent in the U.S. on the Oscar-campaign for RRR, he says he feels encouraged by conversations he’s been having with Hollywood execs and feels like the possibility of an Indian-Hollywood project “is not such a far-fetched idea anymore.”
Says Charan, “It’s a privilege to be recognized by Hollywood – not just for our own team but for 85 plus years of Indian cinema. We have never gotten recognition in the U.S. but now we have gotten it and we are so thankful.”