A movie with the action sensibilities of James Cameron and the ambitious scope of George Miller has to be considered a definitive Oscar contender, right? Not without the proper backing by a studio or, in this case, a country that will submit your film for the Academy’s best international feature award.
Enter “RRR,” a film directed by S. S. Rajamouli, who wrote the script with V. Vijayendra Prasad. The three-hour action epic follows two patriotic but philosophically opposed men (Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), who team up to rescue a girl from British colonial officials in 1920s Delhi.
When the 94th Oscar nominations were announced back in January 2022, India’s official submission “Pebbles” was not among the films recognized for international feature. It marked exactly 20 years since India’s last nom in the category.
In fact, only three Indian films in total —”Mother India” (1957), “Salaam Bombay!” (1988) and “Lagaan” (2001) — have been nominated for the award. The last of which lost to “No Man’s Land” from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The skyrocketing success of “RRR” has been the undercover Cinderella story of the year. A global smash with huge box office receipts, the film found a pathway to the American cultural zeitgeist with consumers discovering it on Netflix. It was distributed theatrically by Variance Films in the U.S., and a current trend by the Academy to embrace non-English language features in the last few years offers an alternative pathway to awards recognition if India decides to look elsewhere. But why would they?
With ₹240 crore (US $30 million) worldwide on its first day, “RRR” broke the record for the biggest opening day collectively earned by an Indian film. In recent memory, an Indian production has not made such an impact nor a cultural crossover. It could be a slam-dunk nominee, even with Cannes sensations like “Decision to Leave” already in the mix or an anticipated contender like “Bardo,” a likely Mexico entry.
But like many international feature submission processes, politics play a vital role in what will be ultimately offered for AMPAS members.
Spoken in the Telugu language, most of India’s 50 submissions over the decades have been in Hindi. A Hindi-language version made for the Bollywood market was released on Netflix in May, lighting up on the service and landing in its top 10 most-watched titles.
Worth noting, we’ve been down this road with India before, by having an easy and accessible film in front of them and choosing to the road less traveled. One glaring example is the failure to submit a seeming “slam dunk” contender, “The Lunchbox” (2013).
Some are expecting India to choose a safer bet for its submission such as “The Kashmir Files,” a Hindi-language drama film written and directed by Vivek Agnihotri. No official word has been made on what direction the Film Federation of India is leaning.
What’s interesting is how could the committee ignore a film like “RRR,” made on a budget of ₹550 crore (US $72 million) and standing as the most expensive Indian film ever made? India’s film market is massive, with Bollywood generating countless productions every year. The lobbying to be the official film is loud and robust.
Could “RRR” be a bigger contender than simply an international feature run? Films like “City of God” (2003) broke through their respective year in places like best director, and if enough Academy members are compelled to give the three-hour flick a chance, it can manage additional love in artisan categories.
“Parasite” (2019) found more than enough love to become the first non-English Oscar winner for best picture, while “Drive My Car,” a tiny three-hour drama from an even tinier distributor (Janus Films) found its way into major categories with little to no campaign. But this is the exception, not the norm.
India and the film’s producers will need to provide financial capital for its campaign, in order to at least have a shot at making the shortlist of 15 international features, which is announced in December.
Even if India doesn’t select it, it can still be submitted in all other general categories, including best picture and director.
As Komaram Bheem, Rao’s turn as a Gond tribal leader from Telangana has lit social media and Indian media ablaze. Affectionately nicknamed NTR Jr by his fans, the 39-year-old actor and television personality is one of the highest-paid actors in Telugu cinema.
With someone like Tom Cruise already likely to play the action star angle for an acting nom for “Top Gun: Maverick,” Rao will need additional qualities to highlight on the circuit.
Can “RRR” break through with the Academy? Let’s get through these fall festivities and hope they make a sound decision.
The film is produced by D. V. V. Danayya of DVV Entertainment.