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The 20-Year Partnership at the Heart of ‘RRR’

Director S.S. Rajamouli and composer M.M. Keeravani discuss their process and their surprising western influences.

RRR, (aka RISE ROAR REVOLT), from left: Ram Charan, N.T. Rama Rao Jr., 2022.

“RRR”

Raftar Creations / courtesy Everett Collection

In November 2021, “RRR” became a viral sensation before anyone had seen its trailer. All it took was a mere 10 seconds of footage from the delirious dance number “Naatu Naatu,” the full version of which surpassed expectations when the 3-hour Tollywood action epic arrived in March. This was thanks to the synergy between composer M.M. Keeravani’s rip-roaring tune and director S.S. Rajamouli’s unfettered panache, a creative synthesis they’ve developed over two decades of working together.

The creative freedom that yielded “RRR” wasn’t always a two-way street. When the duo collaborated on Rajamouli’s debut feature, the college comedy “Student No. 1” (starring another frequent collaborator, N.T. Rama Rao Jr., a.k.a. Jr. NTR), Keeravani was given carte blanche, the producer’s trusting his then decade-plus track record in the Telugu film industry. The novice Rajamouli, meanwhile, had no input whatsoever on the sound of his debut musical. That would change after the resounding success of “Student No. 1,” with Rajamouli being granted full oversight on their follow-up, the mythologically-inspired action drama “Simhadri” in 2003. One of his earliest edicts? Asking Keeravani to create a riff on a song he really liked: Rednex’s country-inspired ’90s Eurodance track “Cotton Eye Joe.” Keeravani, who calls the song one of his favorites, was happy to oblige.

The euphoric result was “Chiraku Anuko,” in which Jr. NTR dances to a track so similar to “Cotton Eye Joe” that Rajamouli has no problem calling it a knock-off. “It’s not so much ‘like’ [Cotton Eye Joe]. It’s the same,” he admitted, with a humble laugh, in a recent interview with IndieWire. This copy-paste M.O. might seem bizarre from a distance, but it fell perfectly in line with Indian blockbusters at the time. As Keeravani said: “The internet was not very popular, so many of us kept resorting to taking the texture of popular songs and adapting them in our own way. But after the advent of the internet and exposure to world music, it begs some criticism. Many of us were doing it. It happens sometimes: if you like something, you want to imitate it.”

Keeravani’s compositions would have plenty of Western influence over the years, and he would go on to be a key part of all 12 of Rajamouli’s films. He also happens to be Rajamouli’s cousin — he’s 12 years older — a guiding relationship that helps the director feel at ease during the filmmaking process. “Being my brother, he knows me from my childhood,” Rajamouli said. (In India, cousins are often referred to as brothers and sisters.) “So, there is this kind of personal bonding and musical bonding also. We don’t need to start the conversation from the basics.”

“Working with Rajamouli is like writing notes without a pen and paper,” Keeravani added.

By this point in their creative partnership, music is actually the last thing they discuss when preparing a film— if it comes up at all. This may be surprising to learn, given how musically driven their work tends to be. Take, for instance, “RRR,” whose runtime is filled with expressive, character-centric songs and Greek choruses. “More discussion will be on the flow of the film, whether the characters are consistent, whether the narration is slow or fast,” Rajamouli adds. Apart from talking theme and basic plot, his earliest “RRR” conversations with Keeravani were simply about not repeating themselves creatively, and avoiding the sounds of their previous project, the bombastic two-film sword-and-sandal epic “Baahubali.”

Apart from the aforementioned duology, no two Rajamouli films feel remotely similar, offering Keeravani the chance to zig and zag in different musical directions. However, the composer’s approach is always story-first. “I just go by what kind of character the protagonist is,” said Keeravani. “How is he going to behave in challenging situations? Is he going to compromise? Based on that, I start arranging my musical notes, and Rajamouli is very comfortable with that process. We’re mostly on the same page when the creation part happens.” This approach is something both artists have grown into over the years, leading to a musical hand-off wherein Rajamouli lets Keeravani decide, for the most part, how his movies will sound. Rajamouli trusts his older brother unconditionally. In return, Keeravani offers him tireless dedication. “Work happens everywhere, including on the toilet,” the composer joked.

Indian film director and screenwriter S. S. Rajamouli poses for pictures during the trailer launch of his upcoming Telugu-language period action drama film "RRR" in Mumbai on December 9, 2021. (Photo by SUJIT JAISWAL / AFP) (Photo by SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP via Getty Images)

S.S. Rajamouli

Sujit Jaiswal / AFP / Getty Images

“Simhadri” may have been the source of their delightful Rednex knockoff, but Rajamouli’s sophomore film also catalyzed the evolution of his musical sensibilities. “I realized that I’m quite comfortable and quite good at getting the background music for my scenes,” he said. “Because when I shoot, I have a certain kind of music playing in my head. Not the music, just the ups and downs of the music. When I edit, I’ll be telling my editor, ‘Okay, there’ll be no music here, this is where this music starts, this is where the music dulls down, this is where the music reaches a crescendo.”

Rajamouli traces this sense of rhythm back to what he calls his favorite use of music in a movie, in William Wyler’s 1959 biblical epic “Ben-Hur” (which he placed on his Sight & Sound ballot as one of the greatest films of all time). There are plenty of highlights from Miklós Rózsa’s Academy Award-winning score, but the “RRR” director points to a memorable sequence for an unorthodox reason: “Do you remember that there is no music in the whole chariot race?”

“The chariot race has a huge intro, where the horses come, the chariots come, and they take a huge turn around the stadium, played with pompous, rich trumpets blasting,” he continued. “And then everything stops, and the race begins. The entire race, there’s no music. It’s just the sounds of the horses, the shouts of the people, and as you go closer, the hooves, the breathing of the horses, the breathing of the men. But there is no music. The crowd noise is the music. It’s always there, but it goes up and down.”

Rajamouli’s own rhythmic approach would take a few more movies to solidify, but along the way, he and Keeravani were responsible for a number of unique highlights. Their 2004 rugby film “Sye” continued the trend of western influence by featuring electric guitar riffs galore, which would also bleed into a tongue-in-cheek musical number whose lyrics are splashed across the screen — they’re all copy from nearby signs and advertisements. Their very next film, the Prabhas-led 2005 actioner “Chatrapati.” swings in the opposite direction, with laments and fiery motifs much more reminiscent of Keeravani’s later, more operatic work. However, neither of these films bore the signature visual bravura (at least, in their musical sequences) that would come to define Rajamouli as a director.

It was the duo’s 2006 collaboration, the action-comedy “Vikramarkudu,” that proved to be their smoothest aesthetic handshake. The film’s opening title sequence features a mischievous, percussive motif which returns during the soundtrack’s smash hit, “College Pappala.” What immediately separates this opening (and its eventual reprise) from Rajamouli’s prior films is the way his camera works in tandem with the music. It embodies Keeravani’s sounds by following rows of clapping hands in close-up during the opening, and by weaving, tilting, and shaking to match actor Ravi Teja’s dance moves during the song. If there was a distinct “before” and “after” point for Rajamouli and Keeravani’s dynamic, this was it. Numbers like “Naatu Naatu” fit comfortably in the aforementioned “after” category, given how the camera works to enhance each story beat and dance move, as characters Ram (Ram Charan) and Bheem (Jr. NTR) become moving embodiments of anti-colonial sentiment via the medium of dance battle.

Rajamouli attributes his visual approach to a single tenet: treating action and musical sequences with the same understanding. “They have to convey emotion to the audience,” he affirms. While the visual elements of his dance scenes all work in tandem, the first part of his process is allowing Keeravani to create music that tells an action-driven story, a step that precedes Rajamouli even mentioning his dance numbers to his cinematographer, K.K. Senthil Kumar, and his choreographer, Prem Rakshith. Describing the “RRR” scene that leads into “Naatu Naatu,” Rajamouli said, “Bheem is being humiliated, he’s an innocent guy. He’s a great dancer, but he’s in a completely unfamiliar world. So, when Ram comes and helps him, I want the audience to feel their anger. They can’t fight because of the situation that they’re in, but I’m bringing this song which is supposed to give me the satisfaction of a fight. [Keeravani and I] had a lot of discussion on that.”

The friendship between Ram and Bheem guides much of the story in “RRR,” starting with their first action-packed meeting atop an exploding bridge. This dovetails into a musical montage with the same ease as Rajamouli and Keeravani’s own process; the characters seem to share a deep and intrinsic understanding of one another. The subsequent song, “Dosti,” features vocals by Vedala Hemachandra which speak to characters’ blooming friendship, while also lamenting their inevitable falling out. It isn’t a traditional musical number, but its vocalizations form a leitmotif that repeats throughout the film in numerous arrangements, often at pivotal moments for their friendship.

Rajamouli and Keeravani have often used the human voice as its own instrument, an approach that becomes especially overt in the reincarnation action drama “Magadheera,” which also stars Charan. However, Rajamouli recalls Keeravani introducing this method as far back as “Simhadri,” during a moment of bloody, vengeful action. “When I narrated the scene, [Keeravani] got really excited, and even before I shot the sequence, he suggested religious Tamil music by a folk singer, Vijayalakshmi [Navaneethakrishnan]. That was one of the first times where I played music on the shoot to get inspired during some of the shots. From then on, we continuously started using chanting and human voices to enhance the severity of the emotion.”

For Keeravani, using the human voice wherever possible has a much simpler explanation, centered around why music becomes popular (and memorable) in the first place. “See, when you have the latest chartbuster, the latest super hit, the latest craze, the latest viral thing, it always has a voice in it,” Keeravani explains. “When do you remember any instrumental music, no matter how great it is, how brilliant it is, becoming a viral super hit? I don’t remember anything of that sort happening for the past 30 years. You take a super hit everywhere, it has a human voice. It has lyrics, no matter whether you understand the lyrics or not. It can be any foreign language, but it has to have the human voice in it, or syllables with some nuances. That’s the power of the human voice — so why not utilize the power of the human voice for composing the background score?”

Another key moment in which “RRR” makes effective use of vocals is the scene in which Ram is introduced fighting hundreds (if not thousands) of men at once. The sequence sets the stage for the movie’s audacious action, but it does so in an especially intimate moment. It grounds Ram’s kicks and punches in personal motivations, when the orders of his superior British officer echo repeatedly within his consciousness, and on the movie’s soundtrack: “Arrest that bastard and bring him to me.”

The scene’s propulsive electronic tones and warped vocals — which Keeravani refers to as “DJ music” — dip in and out of the soundscape. The key influence he notes for this composition was Harry Gregson-Williams’s score for “Phone Booth,” the 2003 Colin Farrell thriller directed by Joel Schumacher. Keeravani claims “Phone Booth” had a major impact on his career, and he professes to being a fan of Schumacher in general. In order to prove his admiration during our interview, Keeravani — who lends his mellifluous singing voice to several songs on “RRR” — even broke out into his own rendition of DJ Shadow’s “Six Days,” which appears on the “Phone Booth” soundtrack.

Despite having a blueprint from his biggest Hollywood influence, Keeravani describes composing for Ram’s introductory scene as his biggest challenge on the film. “It seems to be a physically impossible task, because it’s not one or two [people], it’s thousands of people. And we need to have all those thousands of people’s crowd noise and beating sounds, shouts and all. So what kind of music can decently register in the listener’s mind?”

“Nothing is going to register. It contributes to the cacophony, but it’s not going to make a significant mark on the viewer,” he said. “It was the toughest challenge for me, so I kept postponing composing music for the scene. I dealt with other scenes first. But we have to cross the bridge some day or another, so I was deeply thinking, and I wanted to resort to a funny way, rather an unorthodox way, to get the music piece, whatever it is, registered in the listeners’ mind. So, it occurred to me: What if Ram Charan is thinking about his command, and completely concentrating on it?”

The character’s deep concentration on this mission is fitting, given Keeravani’s own method of conceiving music. He cites the legendary Telugu director (and former sound recordist) K. Viswanath as a key influence on both his and Rajamouli’s work. Keeravani composed the score for two of Viswanath’s films, including the 1992 drama “Aapadbandhavudu” (which stars Charan’s father, Chiranjeevi), and he boils down the director’s musical advice to him to one simple suggestion: meditation.

“When I was working with [K. Viswanath], he taught me how to think about creating music for a movie. He wants me to meditate, and get deep into the situation or the character. It’s like a meditation, so we call him kala tapaswi, which means ‘the man who meditates for aesthetics.’ He taught me techniques of composing background music which I share with Rajamouli all the time.” (Keeravani offered to sing and hum some of the music he composed with Viswanath before continuing the interview).

 

RRR, (aka RISE ROAR REVOLT), from left: N.T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, 2022. © Raftar Creations /Courtesy Everett Collection

“RRR”

Raftar Creations / courtesy Everett Collection

This meditative approach also yielded an interesting starting point for Keeravani when composing for “RRR.” Given friendship’s thematic prominence in the film, one might assume its first pieces of written music centered on Ram and Bheem, but according to Rajamouli, this wasn’t a choice the composer made lightly. “He said ‘I need to find the heart of the film,’” Rajamouli recalled. After thinking on it for some time — and after starting with the film’s opening scene, before stopping again — Keeravani returned with a firm decision: he would begin by writing the score for Ram’s childhood flashback, the lengthy post-intermission sequence in which he promises his father (Ajay Devgn) to put weapons in the hands of every freedom fighter against the British. The scene became Rajamouli and Keeravani’s North Star for all other compositions.

This objective, of arming Indian revolutionaries at all cost, also lies at the heart of Ram and Bheem’s eventual falling out, as men on unwavering missions. Their collision course is essentially set in motion by events from Ram’s childhood, decades before he meets Bheem. “There is this element of misunderstanding someone, for how they look or their actions, but not knowing about their intentions,” Keeravani said. “That’s the common thing I had for Ram Charan and NTR. So I tried to compose some music for that misunderstanding.”

Rajamouli distilled the realization of this misunderstanding: “My best friend is my best enemy.” It’s the most apt description possible of why “RRR” and its story have connected with audiences across the world. The film’s infectious sincerity is birthed by music, and the way its soundscape embodies the broad operatic emotions of its leading characters. Keeravani breaks this down even more concisely, in a manner strikingly reminiscent of his own dynamic with Rajamouli: “I tried to compose music for friendship, and what it sounds like to love someone unconditionally.”

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