We parse the popularity of the international Telegu smash
One month ago on May 20th saw the release of the three-hour Telugu blockbuster RRR on Netflix. The movie has proven to be one of the more baffling and awkward media stories of the year. As is the case with most Indian films, RRR was not considered a major release outside of the greater Indian market, despite the flick being major enough in that market to warrant a $70 million budget and a team-up between N. T. Rama Rao Jr and Ram Charan. Again, not huge names outside of India, but probably the two most popular and well-known actors in the Telugu-speaking region. Incidentally, the haphazard licensing deal Netflix struck means that the Hindi dub of RRR is the closest thing to the authentic original version you have access to.
So what is RRR? Well, literally, it stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt. The movie is a bombastic, fictionalized version story about Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, real-life Indian revolutionaries in the colonial period against the British Raj. Thematically, it’s easy enough to see how RRR could find such a broad international following. The British Empire was terrible. Nobody liked them. You’d never know that from Hollywood though, which recently decided that James Bond wasn’t British enough, and so came up with the Kingsman franchise. RRR has had its fair share of flak thrown its way for not being super historically accurate, but let’s just say that after a Kingsman prequel movie that depicted Rasputin, Lenin, and Hitler as members of the same secret society no one in the West is in any position to throw stones from this particular glass house.
But never mind the political elements. RRR is popular because it’s wild, bromantic spectacle. With little more than hand gestures, our swarthy heroes rescue children, wrestle tigers with their bare hands, and even team up piggyback to shoot down their imperial nemeses. Yet both our leading men also break into song time and again, whether it’s for a chippy dance number or an inspiring revolutionary elegy. The filmmakers constructed RRR under the line of thought that basically posits that if you’re going to spend seventy million dollars on a movie, it should actually look like the people who made it put a whole lot of effort into the project, and didn’t just slap a couple of lazy pop culture references in for the clickbait article writers to better build hype.
Speaking of which! Back to my premise. RRR came out worldwide via Netflix on May 20th. It charted for the first time on FlixPatrol on May 22nd in seventh place, and hit its peak on the data aggregator on June 3rd in second place before starting to fall down again, disappearing entirely on June 10th. As is always the case with FlixPatrol numbers, since the rankings are based on individual top tens, it overrepresent smaller countries.
The official Netflix numbers have RRR with 45 million hours viewed- or about 15 million times viewed overall on the platform, through June 12th. Most of these views were frontloaded. Netflix’s data shows, just as the FlixPatrol data does, that RRR hype has mostly died out by now, though it still leads foreign language film releases mostly because a lack of competition.
So why is it that everyone is only writing about RRR just now? Well, it depends on what you mean by everyone. I first heard about RRR in a discussion group back when it was actually still organically popular. Contrast this with news headlines saying viewers have finally found it. There’s a very weird phenomenon going on of reversing cause and effect. To hear Salon say it: everybody was all about the new Top Gun movie before RRR just came in out of nowhere.
The juxtaposition of these two movies is actually pretty apt, albeit not for the reasons intended by the headline. Top Gun: Maverick is, for all its success, quite obviously a pro-American military propaganda movie. The big Chinese hit of last year’s box office, The Battle of Lake Changjin, was derided by many English language media writers for its own propagandistic overtones- and it’s difficult to seriously discuss Top Gun: Maverick from a broader cultural perspective without either engaging in or acknowledging the fundamental hypocrisy of the juxtaposition.
RRR is a propaganda film just like these other two, albeit with a completely different presentation and tone. But it’s also a much safer propaganda film because, again, nobody likes the British Empire. While the production values were what made RRR a viral hit among typical streamers, it was only after prolonged success that English language media writers had time to deliberate over the movie and conclude that yes, RRR is culturally significant and even worth talking about. It has good politics, mostly. More importantly, the movie’s so radically different from anything we normally consider a blockbuster that there’s at least novelty value at play. RRR is fun to discuss.
Be that as it may there’s little-to-no indication that influencing class of media culture are actually convincing anyone to watch RRR that hasn’t already. It’s uncanny how RRR’s numbers dip at almost the exact same time these articles started coming in. Even explicit praise and shout-outs from such industry professionals as Christopher Miller, Jackson Lanzing, and C. Robert Cargill doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect.
RRR is an awkward movie in that despite its success, the movie is successful in such a way that Netflix likely won’t be able to capitulate on it in the future. The lesson to be taken from RRR is that Netflix is at its best when it distributes content rather than produces it, relying on viral popularity rather than media hype. The recent announcement of a Squid Game style game show on Netflix rather uh…suggests that Netflix still doesn’t really have any idea what they’re doing as a platform.
Of course, there’s another lesson we can take from RRR. Movies are at their best when they’re sincere and celebratory about being movies, rather than brands. RRR is indisputedly a lot of fun, and works even better on streaming since you can take breaks whenever and still mostly remember what’s going on a day or two later.