Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Can we all just agree? Some movies absolutely need to be seen on a big screen. Take the Indian film, RRR, which opened at the end of March. The movie was made in Tollywood. It's a sibling film industry to Bollywood. The film industry gets its name from Telugu, a language spoken in the region where Tollywood is located. Now Tollywood's been doing big business at the box office in recent years. Since it's release, RRR made more than $130 million globally, making it the third highest grossing Indian film of all time.
Film critic, Siddhant Adlakha gave me a sense of just how epic this film is.
Siddhant Adlakha: RRR is a action, musical, historical epic to put it mildly. It's about two real anticolonial revolutionaries. The two main characters are based on people who actually existed. in real life, those two people never actually met, but in this movie they do meet and they become best friends and they take on the British empire together. There's a lot of action, a lot of dancing, a lot of romance, a lot of homoeroticism, it's a kind of movie that has a bit of everything for everyone.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Adlakha told me about the thrill of watching RRR in the theater for the first time.
Siddhant Adlakha: Oh gosh, it was unlike anything else. Because I made sure to go on opening night when I knew that a lot of Telugu-speaking audiences would be there. It's a movie that's in the Indian language Telugu. The opening night audience was very familiar with the stars, very familiar with the director. From the moment it began basically until the moment it ended, there were cheers and wolf whistles, and applauses pretty much all throughout. It was like being at a three-hour-long party.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now one sequence audiences have been particularly responsive towards is the song Naatu Naatu.
It turns out people have been clamoring for Naatu Naatu since well before the movie was released.
Siddhant Adlakha: Actually back in November, the production released a promotional video. In that video, it was mostly behind the scene stuff, but there's about 10 seconds of an actual clip from the musical sequence and only 10 seconds of dancing where the two main characters dance arm in arm. It went viral all over the world with dozens and dozens, or should I say hundreds of recreations and impersonations and online tutorials about how to do it.
When the movie finally came out, that was one of the most anticipated sequences in the movie. As it turned out, that crazy energetic 10-second sequence ended up being the mildest part of the entire dance because it goes above and beyond from the moment it begins until the climax of the sequence. It's not a dance, it is its own story that transforms into a dance battle. All the way until the end, the energy just keeps rising and rising and rising and the audience was with it the whole way and responding accordingly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I appreciate just the notion of a trailer that is actually the more mild aspect of a scene rather than the most animated aspect.
Siddhant Adlakha: Oh, absolutely. Even when the actual trailer came out in December, there was a lot happening. It's like a three-minute-long trailer and it seems like it's showing you absolutely everything in the movie, but it's not even close. There are things actually happen in the movie that aren't in the trailer that are, for lack of a better word, mind-blowing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are some in my audience who are going to know about Bollywood, some who will know about Tollywood, but some who won't. Give us a sense of the relationship between Tollywood and Bollywood.
Siddhant Adlakha: There are actually two Tollywoods in India. One is the Bengali language film industry, and the other is the Telugu language film industry in the Southern state of Telangana in the south of India. The Bengali language film industry is from the East of India in the state of Bengal. That one is called Tollywood because it's based in a region called Tollygunge, and so the other Tollywood where this is from is called Tollywood because it's in the language Telugu.
There are several other industries that also have the suffix ollywood. It can get confusing at times, especially when two of them have the same name. This Tollywood, the one we're talking about in the language Telugu, the best way for me to describe it is if you know anything about Bollywood, this is Bollywood squared. It's bigger. The action is way more over the top. The emotion can be even more melodramatic. It's just more, more, and more.
The stars are not just celebrated but worshiped in a way. It's huge. It's enormous. This movie was not just sold on the back of its stars and its director, but even the title, which technically in English stands for rise, raw, revolt. Actually, RRR was the working title back in 2018, which stands for Rajamouli, the director, N.T. Rama Rao Jr., one of the stars, and Ram Charan, the other star. They just decided to stick with it. You can sell a movie like this just based on its stars.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you point out to us, when you remind us that it's 2018 when this is initiated and even as you're talking about it, is bigger, bigger, bigger, more and more, obviously there's been a pandemic and the idea of making enormous productions became impossible for some period of time. What has the pandemic meant for Tollywood and for other Indian cinema?
Siddhant Adlakha: Yes, RRR was actually supposed to come out in, I believe June or July of 2020, and that got pushed back, not just because of the theater closures all over or India, but because production itself had to stop for a while and it didn't resume until several months later. When it came to Indian cinema as a whole, certainly a lot of productions were pushed far back, but a lot of big releases for films that had already been completed were delayed by a long time and have only recently started coming out actually.
I think three of the films that I was most looking forward to out of Indian cinema all came out within the same five-week span this spring, even though I've been anticipating them for a couple of years at this point. The films that went straight to streaming because there were several big-budget blockbusters that decided to have a streaming-only release during the pandemic, those ones just came and went without much impact, without much-staying power.
Because I feel like for Indian cinema, especially when you create a big blockbuster like this it's designed as a theatrical experience, not just in terms of individuals gathering to watch a movie in a darkened room, but it's a social experience. For something like RRR, it can be a collective celebration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That point about the, not just individuals gathered in a room with a big enough screen to really capture this, but the construction, the social identity, the knowledge of the language. You've described RRR as anti-colonial, is that primarily about the content of the film or both the content and the experience of watching the film?
Siddhant Adlakha: That's a very interesting point because I think in its design, certainly the content is anticolonial because it's explicitly about Indian revolutionaries fighting the British empire, but in terms of the experience itself if we're speaking just about the experience in Indian cinemas, not necessarily, but when that experience begins to travel to the west, I think, yes, that can probably be said because there is a certain mindset in a lot of western countries that cinema and theater need to be enjoyed in silence and very respectfully. A lot of times I agree with that. It certainly depends on what kind of movie you're watching.
There are many times that I don't like to be disrupted, but this mode of movie watching can be very alien to western viewers because at most what you'll find in a lot of Hollywood blockbusters when they're being watched in the west is people will occasionally applaud at something they recognize, especially if it's an IP driven franchise like, "Oh I recognize this character from the comics or whatever it is."
Then it dies down again and people watch the movie more or less in silence. The sustained reaction, the sustained applause, the sustained cheering, and wolf-whistling, that's not something that is common in the US like I said in a lot of western countries. I suppose once you take a step back and you look at the broader picture of how these things are often seen and contextualized, things that can be termed perhaps uncivilized by the western world at par for the course when it comes to watching movies in India. In a broad sense, yes, the experience can be contextualized that way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the upcoming months, what is most exciting to you about what may be coming out from Tollywood?
Siddhant Adlakha: When RRR played in cinemas here there was a trailer attached to it for a Dollywood film called Adhira which is a magnificent-looking superhero film. Again, it's not a superhero based on any existing comic or property but it's one that not just me but all the friends I went to watch RRR with were incredibly excited about just because of how big and monumental it felt.
There were a lot of upcoming movies from a lot of different South-Indian industries that I think are going to have more eyes on them in the US. There's this one movie in cinemas right now, it's a Kannada language movie called K.G.F: Chapter 2 and it's another one that seems to be doing incredibly well both in India and elsewhere. Because it's one of those films that again is sold on the back of not just its stars but it's epic action spectacle.
I think there's a chance that more viewers here will be open to trying more and more Indian cinema, maybe starting with the big action blockbusters and then hopefully I would say more independent stuff but for the time being, I think the appeal is going be, "Let's try and watch stuff like RRR." There are plenty of those movies on the horizon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If someone doesn't know they're Tollywood, what's the best movie to start with? Is it RRR?
Siddhant Adlakha: RRR is a great entry point because you don't really need to know that much going in. There are certain things that I think are enhanced by knowing the actual history and the religious imagery it uses but RRR is definitely a great entry point and it has been a great entry point for a lot of people I know who are unfamiliar not just with Tollywood but with Indian cinema in general.
Over the last few years, a lot of western audiences have gravitated to the last two films by the same director Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion which have been streaming for quite some time. Those were again huge theatrical releases in 2015 and 2017 with similarly amazing over-the-top spectacle and sincere broad emotions and melodrama. A lot of people seem to have found those films during the pandemic because like I said they were easily available to stream in some languages more than others. I think for most newcomers to Tollywood, I think the works of S. S. Rajamouli, Baahubali films, and RRR are a good place to start.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Siddhant Adlakha is a film critic who has appeared in the New York Times and the New York Magazine. Siddhant, thank you so much for joining us.
Siddhant Adlakha: Thank you for having me.
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