ARMAAN JHANGIANI writes – On March 13th, Loyola Marymount University had the honor of hosting a conversation with S. S. Rajamouli and his Executive Producer/partner Shobu Yarlagadda of Arka Media Works for the Film and Television College. More specifically, the dialogue focused on the Telugu film “RRR,” which just happened to cop an Oscar for best original song the day before at the Academy Awards.
“RRR” revolves heavily around the British Raj and its rule over India, while the movie’s main characters, Rama and Bheema – based on real-life freedom fighters – have plans to take down the Empire.
About 200 LMU students from all backgrounds were excited to see the blockbuster director speak at the packed Mayer Theater on campus. I was fortunate to be among them, seated in the front row. Here are some question-and-answers I learned from:
Though Rajamouli has had remarkable success with “RRR,” this was not his first taste of stardom. His films “Baahubali 1 and 2” (2015 and 2017, respectively) and “Eega” (2012) along with other films under his production company Arka Media Works, have been well-received among Indian fans.
S. S. Rajamouli and Shobu Yarlagadda were accompanied on stage by SFTV faculty panelist and Professor Anupama Prabhala, who first asked about his motivations as a film maker: Was this what he wanted to do since early childhood? Yes, he responded, adding that his mother was incredibly supportive and “never insisted on [me] reading my class books or doing my homework.” She understood that he didn’t want to take one of the traditional career routes most accessible in India, such as being a doctor or engineer. She knew that he wasn’t fit for those paths. “She would instruct [me] on two things: Why are you sitting lazily? Go outside and play. And the second, to pick up a storybook and read.” His mother, he explained, was uneducated but wanted her kid to be very articulate and literate, primarily in English, explaining the motivations behind the storybooks. He credits this for his international success, as well as his ability to speak and read English, which would distinguish him from people in India who learn only Indian dialects such as Hindi and Telegu.
Next, Anupama questioned him on his methods for filming action scenes, as he is known for notable set pieces on a grand scale. Rajamouli jokingly stated that he loves action, and as proof, his film “Bahubali” had just 27 pages of dialogue but 140 of action plans. He mentioned what he considers to be the underrepresentation of emotion sometimes caused by words, noting that the physicality of our actions often carries more weight. For this reason, he suggests that he is “a very bad dialogue writer, but I love action. If I can convey to the audience something without dialogue, I try to do that. So sometimes a simple line would do, but I would be taking a two-minute scene to convey something to the viewers. It is not always a good thing but that is how I am.”
Additionally, he said that “in India we have different languages spoken in the country, there are different states which speak different languages. So, in Bahubali we were trying to take our film out of the Telugu into other languages as well, as we are planning to dub (substitute actors’ voices and dialogue in different languages, to be accessible to viewers from different countries). When [the characters are talking] sometimes the lip-sync goes off-kilter and it can disorient viewers. So, the less dialogue, better for me.”
Additionally, Rajamouli talked about Visual Effects (VFX software). In a sense, he follows the Indian cinematic tradition of large and grand action sequences, which would be impossible to produce without the assistance of VFX. As for his first impression related to the use of VFX, he noted that “[Visual effects is] a combination of both art and commerce. From the beginning … they taught me to use as little VFX as possible, as you can easily get lost in the number of shots. If you can get [all practical shots] during the shoot, that’s great. Only in the case where it cannot be done or is too expensive to be done live, we go with VFX.” Rajamouli acknowledged, though, the potential loss of viewers’ attention with excess VFX.
Moderator Anupama then went to the topic of managerial difficulties regarding these grand shots and their effects, with Shobu answering: “While breaking down the scene, there is a main objective as the producer and that is to keep the cost down, [especially] if using all the top studios…it ends up becoming very expensive, which we can’t afford. We end up assigning the more complex works to the top-end studios, [while giving] the remaining smaller shots to smaller Telegu studios we can offer work to.”
It was nice to hear that although their studio has entered the big leagues lately, they haven’t forgotten their past and continue to draw in smaller studios and production groups with them. So, they stimulate their hometown economies, which aren’t often the most profitable.
On a more artistic note, does SSR write the scenes to music/or does he choose to position and place characters as well as action to the score’s tempo? He responded: “Most of the time I write the scene first, and when I start visualizing and shooting it, I do it with certain kinds of beats in my mind. [So] it will flow slow here then suddenly pick up, and I have a certain kind of peak in mind, shooting and editing it in such a way until I pass it off [to the editing team], that this is how I am envisioning it.” He emphasized that whether his team agrees or disagrees on his choices, these creative conversations enhance his films.
With over 20 years in the industry, Rajamouli’s latest film success and Oscar win are only the latest achievements. After the event, students remained highly enthusiastic. Student Sam Maradani said that she has seen his films since she was a kid, noting that her family comes from the Telegu states where Rajamouli got his start. Events like this certainly enhance the spirit of internationalism for LMU students.