February 22, 2023

At the beginning of 2022, there was a limited audience around that world who even recognized the existence of Tollywood – the name for the southern Indian film industry. Along came RRR (Rise Roar Revolt), which has put the region on the global map. Telugu is the main language and RRR features two of its biggest stars in Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. The movie itself has the arc of a traditional hero-versusvillain myth grounded in the truth of Indian revolutionaries who heroically battled against the British colonial Raj in the 1920s.

Up that point the British had subjugated the people of the Indian continent for 200 years. Word of mouth from Netflix distribution helped attract
audiences outside of the Indian diaspora to see the film in cinemas where it clocked up $170 million worldwide, including $14.5 million in North America.

RRR might have come out of the blue to Hollywood, but it is the sort of movie that Indian audiences have been treated to for years. It is directed by S.S. Rajamouli, who made the hits Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), both of which are epic action and VFX spectaculars.

“I knew he was a filmmaker with a grand vision, who had put thousands of people on screen for Baahubali and I did wonder quite how he was going to pull off the set pieces in RRR,” says editor Sreekar Prasad. “But what I liked about the story, when he narrated it to me at our first meeting, was the unusual friendship between the characters, that forms, then breaks down, and then reforms. It was maintaining the flow of that story in and among all of the astonishing action that I felt was my main task.”

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Prasad has edited over 600 films and is the recipient of nine National Film Awards yet this is the first time he has worked with Rajamouli. The director wanted Prasad to work with him on shaping the script as far back as 2018 when the project was conceived.

“The script went through many stages and I saw my role as helping the story flow from A to B to C ensuring the timing for each scene was right in previs and that we clearly understood the  character motivations.” For instance, the character of Bheem is in many ways a straightforward action hero, an underdog fighting the forces of the military regime in order to rescue a child from a rural village who has been abducted by a rich imperial family. To do this he must gain access to the fortified palace and, in the process, he flirts with an English woman.

“Is he falling in love with the girl, truly, or is he only pretending to and using her in order to get what he wants?” poses Prasad. “Both interpretations were possible in the initial stages of the script. We continue to play with this ambiguity in the film but eventually we must make sure the audience understands where he really feels.”

Bheem (played by Rama Rao) is the main protagonist in the film’s first half. The second half, however, devotes more of the story – played out as a flashback – to Ram (Charan). The depth of their bromance and their bitter rivalry are at the heart of RRR’s emotional punch. “The reason why the film works is because of the camaraderie between these two characters,” Prasad says. “You are emotionally connected with the characters through the action.”

Both Rao and Charan are major stars in Indian cinema. It is also unusual for the star and hero of an Indian film to be paired with another. Conventionally, a single star steals the limelight, Prasad explains. “It was important to give equal weight to the two protagonists. The first part of the film shows Ram as almost the villain of the piece but we had to be careful not to make him a dislikable or negative character. No matter how much he seems to do everything possible to capture Bheem, we had to show that he is conflicted. We see him taking his anger and frustration.out when boxing. Later we introduce flashbacks of his past so you know there is some background to his story. By the time we reach the second half of the story you know this guy has something weighing heavily on his mind.”

The scene in which the two characters first meet on screen had to be as carefully planned as any. Ram is hot on the trail of Bheem in Delhi but loses the scent on a major railway bridge spanning a river. A disaster involving an exploding train, careening off the bridge and endangering a child is the set-up for the stars to unite in a rescue bid.

“Everything hinged on this scene. We have to show how these two men, whom we have already seen performing heroic acts of individual strength and determination, can unite and create a friendship of their own. The characters do not know each other at this point and they don’t know what each other looks like. At the beginning, we stage the scene so that Ram is on the bridge searching and Bheem is underneath, hidden from sight. It symbolizes a strong connection but one that isn’t clear.

It is intended a premonition for the audience.” All the action was storyboarded, prevised and handed to Prasad to cut based on his judgment of pace and timing before, with Rajamouli’s approval, he handed it back to VFX. That process was cycled two, three or more times before proceeding to the live-action shoot. “In this CG world, a lot rides on our judgment of time,” Prasad says. “It is almost like calculating how long a person should react in a particular shot. We have to go by our gut feeling as well.”

In the case of this scene, Prasad also had to imagine the giant flag that covers Bheem in the final shot, as fire engulfs him. “Out of this scene we emerge into a song which is about their friendship but it also foreshadows a time when they will become enemies. This was the only space in the film to build their love for each other so it had to be believable. At the same time the lyrics are precise in telling their story, so they had to match the visuals.”

The bulk of the film was shot in Hyderabad, Telangana, the epicenter of Tollywood. Scenes were also shot on location throughout India, in Bulgaria and even at President Zelensky of Ukraine’s official palace during 2021 since Ukraine was one of the first countries to open up to filming. Prasad, who lives in Chennai in the East of India and several hundred kilometers from Hyderabad worked remotely during production. He received dailies and would send cuts back to the director.

“Principal photography was planned over many months with scheduled breaks in the shoot,” he says. “These gaps were larger when COVID happened but it enabled me to meet up with S.S. in Hyderabad to finalize edits, and if needed, to change the length or speed things up.”

The opening sequence in which Ram, an officer in the British army, is tasked with fighting a huge crowd of rebellious locals to capture one particular rebel, was by all accounts the hardest sequence to film and edit.

“It is set up as one man against a mob but we couldn’t make it too fantastical or impossible a task. It had to be grounded
in some level of realism,” Prasad explains. “S.S. decided he would have cameras placed inside the action rather than on top of it, apart from a few establishing shots. There’s a difference to the energy of the scene during which we take longer to show Ram struggle his way to finding the guy, than the time it takes for him to wrestle the guy back to base. Basically, the return trip is a lot faster, otherwise the scene becomes uninteresting.

Finding a way to do that took many attempts.” Aside from the emotional and charm quotient of RRR, the film is also designed for cinema with exciting and imaginative VFX-driven set pieces. It cost over $70 million (U.S.) making it the highest budget Indian film to date. The visual bravura, at least in part, explains the film’s breakout success.

“We’ve always made films like this but they have never been exposed outside India,” Prasad says. “With RRR, [the director] felt really able to push the spectacle and make a real impact internationally. There’s a perception in the West that Indian cinema is only Bollywood [the Mumbai–based film industry] but

in South India we make more than 60 percent of all films from India. Perhaps they don’t get exposure because of Bollywood so I’m very happy that our cinema is being appreciated.” He adds, “In India, we always thought that to compete with Western filmmakers we had to have relatively subtle and less overtly dramatic, more realistic films. That was the concept of art filmmaking here for a long time. I think filmmakers here were self-conscious that the use of songs and music to tell story and over-the-top action were looked down upon. But with RRR, people realize how well made our films are and that our style of action and music and emotion can carry an impact that appeals to audiences everywhere.”

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