How the Indian Action Spectacular ‘RRR’ Became a Smash in America

The Telugu-language Indian action spectacular “RRR,” or “Rise, Roar, Revolt,” was already a worldwide box office winner when it was released in March, grossing $65 million during its opening weekend. But it took an unusual second release for the epic period from the director SS Rajamouli to become a word-of-mouth smash across the United States. Now in its 10th week, it’s the rare Indian hit to catch on with American viewers outside the Indian diaspora, thanks to the unusual decision to relaunch the film weeks after it had already played across the country on 1,200 screens.

Set in Delhi during the early 1920s, “RRR” follows two patriotic but philosophically opposed men (Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr.) as they first clash with each other, then team up to rescue a kidnapped girl (Twinkle Sharma) from a pair of sadistic British colonial officials (Alison Doody and Ray Stevenson).

A Hindi-language version made for the Bollywood market has been available to Netflix subscribers since May and was among the service’s Top 10 most watched titles in America for nine consecutive weeks. But even with simultaneous streaming, the movie has now grossed $14 million at the American box office and played in 175 additional theaters across 34 states. By contrast, the Telugu-language crime drama “Pushpa: The Rise — Part 1,” the highest-earning Indian movie of last year, made only $1.32 million during its American release.

The president of the distributor Variance Films, Dylan Marchetti, estimates that most of the “RRR” ticket buyers had never before seen a production from Tollywood, the film industry that caters to audiences in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where Telugu is the main language.

The story of how “RRR” broke through in the US involves a rare relaunch — sold to moviegoers as an “encoRRRe” — by Variance in conjunction with an independent consultant, Josh Hurtado, and Sarigama Cinemas, the movie’s original distributor.

Marchetti, who had previously booked contemporary Indian films at the now-closed ImaginAsian theater in Manhattan, saw the film’s potential crossover appeal after repeatedly watching it with enthusiastic audiences in March. Hurtado, the main consultant at the independently run Potentate Films, also felt the movie had universal appeal. He had previously helped international film festivals program the South Indian hitmaker Rajamouli’s surreal 2012 action fantasy “Eega” (Telugu for “The Fly”). Together, the two contacted Sarigama Cinemas to collaborate on a one-night-only theatrical revival of “RRR.”

They hoped that the event would create what Marchetti called “new evangelists” who could widen the movie’s reach from a few hundred fans to tens of thousands across the country, with some help from social media and the hashtag #encoRRRe. The ticket sales for those June 1 screenings were so impressive that Marchetti and Hurtado soon expanded their encoRRRe plans.

The response was never given. Most new Indian movies are not marketed to American viewers beyond those who speak the film’s language, and most such films are already screened at national chains like AMC and Cinemark. Many American programmers and exhibitors also still face significant financial pressure created by the pandemic. “Independent theaters are hurting right now,” Marchetti said, “some very badly.”

After some negotiations with Sarigama Cinemas, Hurtado and Marchetti spent a hectic month planning the rerelease. Some American programmers and exhibitors were sold on “RRR” just because of Hurtado and Marchetti’s pitch. Beth Barrett, for instance, screened the movie on June 1 at the Seattle International Film Festival Cinema Uptown.

“SIFF is known for always being up to try something new,” Barrett said. “And our audience is always up for an event screening, so we booked the screening based on Dylan’s enthusiasm and the trailer he sent over, plus his decades of amazingly eclectic audience-friendly taste.”

Gregory Laemmle, the president of the West Coast theater chain that bears his name, attended the Seattle screening after booking “RRR” at three of the Laemmle Theaters’ California locations. (“RRR” has since gone on to play at five Laemmle theaters.) Laemmle was already a believer, sight unseen, thanks partly to Marchetti’s recommendation and partly to enthusiastic social media responses from the initial release. Ticket sales at Laemmle theaters were high enough to warrant a weeklong engagement, which began June 3. “But after seeing the movie, I knew that I would need to clear space for that run to play” longer, Laemmle said.

Cristina Cacioppo programmed “RRR” at the Nitehawk Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where it drew enthusiastic moviegoers in the 20-to-30 age range, mostly from outside the Indian diaspora. “There was an overall wave of joy throughout,” Cacioppo said by email, adding later. “You could feel the room smiling, the jaws dropping.”

Jake Isgar at the Alamo Drafthouse chain said there were at least 10 rounds of spontaneous applause from a packed screening in San Francisco. “This movie is great on whatever-sized screen you watch, but it’s next-level in a full theater with a rabid audience,” he added.

Hurtado said that many encoRRRe attendees praise the film for the same reasons that had previously dissuaded them from watching new Indian movies: “long run times, song and dance numbers, and ridiculous action” he said. “People come out saying they wish that this three-hour movie were longer.”

Marchetti has also found that “RRR” has become a “gateway drug” for new Indian movie fans. Some film programmers, like Isgar, have been so inspired by the audience response that they’ve booked a few future screenings of new Indian movies, like the Hindi-language superhero fantasy “Brahmastra Part One: Shiva” as well as repertory titles like Rajamouli’s “Yea.”

Indian moviegoers already know about Rajamouli’s knack for maximalist action and imaginative set pieces, many of which are built around dynamic special effects and choreography. The musical number “Naatu Naatu” (Telugu for “Native Native”) from “RRR” has also become a viral hit thanks to Charan and Rama Rao’s playful syncopated dance moves and infectious singing. (Chandrabose wrote the lyrics while MM Keeravani composed the music.) Instagram playback singers Ankita and Antara Nandy’s loving re-enactment of the musical number has been viewed more than 130,000 times.

In a recent Zoom interview, Rajamouli recalled seeing Indian audiences cheer the “Naatu Naatu” scene on opening night but said he wasn’t sure how the scene would be received outside the country. “Indian filmmaking has some exclusive styles,” Rajamouli said. “Song and dance, for example. It can be very tacky, if used just for the sake of it. But can be very dramatic and compelling” if used strategically. Still, Rajamouli knew that “Naatu Naatu” would be a hit as soon as he cast Charan and Rama Rao, who both had worked with Rajamouli on earlier hits.

In hindsight, Rajamouli’s breakthrough with Western audiences seems almost inevitable after the recent global success of his two-part “Baahubali” historical epics from 2015 and 2017, the latter of which ultimately grossed an unprecedented $20 million in the United States. Rajamouli hopes to adapt a movie version of the Sanskrit epic poem “The Mahabharata” — with Telugu dialogue, because “I think in Telugu” — but not any time soon. “I have a long way to go before I feel I can take on such a project,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marchetti and Hurtado continue to arrange “RRR” screenings in the United States, including at theaters in West Virginia and Hawaii. Marchetti compared the American release of new Indian movies to a continuing celebration, with companies like Variance and Potentate Films helping pass out invitations. “The party may have started earlier and without you,” Marchetti said. “But it’s a good party, whether you show up or not, and you can still show up at any time.”