The awards campaign for S.S. Rajamouli’s South Indian Tollywood breakout “RRR” continues to cajole voters to catch up with the global juggernaut ($150 million worldwide), which won the Golden Globe for Best Song and is a longshot candidate for Best Picture and Director.
The three-hour movie plays best in a theater, and the film’s distributors instantly sold out a January 9 reprise screening at the Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard, repeating the rousing, cheering, and dancing event for 950, which went viral last fall. (Similar screenings were mounted recently in New York.)
This time, after the Chinese screening, J.J. Abrams introduced the two Indian superstars of the VFX-packed period action adventure for a Q&A and they were met with a lusty roar. Ram Charan plays Raju, the contained overachiever policeman, and his close friend N.T. Rama Rao, Jr. is Bheem, a villager on a mission to save his niece who has been kidnapped by the brutal British. Both are loosely based on historic freedom fighters from the 1920s (but who never met). The equally matched actors deliver superhuman strength and bravura determination to a series of unimaginable stunts that demand Tom Cruise-level risk and preparation. And moviegoers fell in love with them.
I talked to the two old friends more quietly, on Zoom. Clearly, they are comfortable with each other, finish each other’s sentences, agree with what the other is saying, chuckle and laugh. NTR is more outgoing and tends to answer first, but Ram Charan holds his own, occasionally stepping in protectively with a better word or to clarify meaning. They addressed a range of subjects, from the Oscar-shortlisted and Golden Globe-winning song “Naatu Naatu,” to the 72 days allotted to film the “RRR” action sequences. It helped that the two chums trust each other, especially when Rajamouli demanded they make physical contact during intense fight scenes.
Both have worked for Rajamouli before. They know the drill. Like James Cameron or George Miller, the Telugu director is a demanding taskmaster who also makes sure that every stunt is safe before his actors enter the fray. The two men each sustained injuries during “RRR” — but they didn’t happen during filming.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It took place shortly before the Golden Globes, where “RRR” won Best Original Song.
Anne Thompson: Rajamouli has said that the emotions and the characters carry the action, or we wouldn’t be so invested in “RRR.”
Ram Charan: From all the movies he’s done — every movie is unique, [but] this is his best writing. He and his father together have written such a beautiful yet slightly complicated [film]. It’s heartwarming, it’s fulfilling, and when I see his character also [pointing to NTR], I start moving to connecting to his emotion. When I’m seeing myself, when I see him performing, I become an audience. I again see myself as an actor.
N.T. Rama Rao, Jr: It’s really tough for a director to bring about characters which resemble you in personal life as well. You know this is you, you feel so comfortable that it’s you, but yet you have to put in a lot of effort to be you again.
RC: Both our characters are so similar to us. So similar to each other.
NTR: We are that.
You two have known each other a long time. You present differently. Can you describe those differences?
NTR: The saying in physics, like poles repel, unlike poles attract? We are very unlike each other and that’s why we are attracting each other. He’s everything I am not, and I’m everything he is not. [Charan laughs.] We love that about each other. I like the opposite of what I am, and he likes the opposite of what he is.
So one is more outgoing and presenting, the other more closed off?
NTR: I express a little more than Charan, [I’m] a little more composed. I’m a little aggressive.
RC [gently correcting]: He’s an extrovert.
NTR: I would always want to be an introvert, he would always want to be an extrovert. We just complement each other. And that’s why we are very secure with each other, he and I.
RC: If everybody cooks, there’ll be nothing to eat. So there has to be a chef, a guy who’s going to really care. So yeah, we complement each other.
You care about them, right from the beginning. How long did it take to prep and shoot that incredible first sequence, Ram, where you sail over the fence and fight off thousands of people?
RC: That sequence we shot over 30 days and we rehearsed about 15 days. The team, before I started my rehearsals, they rehearsed for two months so that when we actually shoot with 10,000 people, they make sure that they don’t fall on top of each other and on me. And the shoot still goes on. And I’m still okay. And we don’t have the insurance guys calling us.
Was that the most dangerous stunt?
RC: It was the most suffocating stunt I’ve ever done. It was hot, it was mid-summer, it was very dusty. Every time we finished the shot and the director says “cut,” it takes a while for the team to actually see where I am because it’s so dusty. The whole group is covered with so much dust. This guy is given a white flag just to wave at the assistant director to know that, “the actor is here, please pick him up from this spot.” Yeah, it was one of the most difficult, also for the technicians and the DOP [director of photography]. It was shooting with 5,000 to 10,000 people at a given day. It was dangerous, but they were so well rehearsed. You will not believe there was not a single scratch on me after 30 days.
Raftar Creations / courtesy Everett Collection
Was that the most torturous stunt?
RC: No, no. That was just the beginning.
NTR: Nope. It was the  nights of shooting the [pre-]interval episode. We were fighting each other. It’s the key sequence of “RRR” where both of us are holding our hands again. And that’s when Charan has got his blood falling onto the hand.
Why was that the worst? Was it the flashing LED lights representing the speed of the leaping digital wild animals?
NTR: Because we were shooting at night. It was physically very strenuous. We were beating each other up. Rajamouli really wanted us to contact [with] the punches. There were times when both of us accidentally hit each other really hard. We used to apologize [but] we went to an extent where we stopped apologizing to each other. While all this was happening, all of a sudden we have remote battery cars, RC cars just going past us, and Rajamouli would say, “Oh my god, there’s a tiger there!” I was like, “Where the hell? Isn’t that an RC car?” “Oh, there’s a sloth and a bear.” That sequence we would rate it as the most strenuous, the toughest we’ve ever been a part of.
The other stunt that makes audiences go nuts: You’re both swinging around the bridge and underwater.
NTR: That was our first major sequence. We started off with that in December 2018. We just didn’t know, we had no idea what we were getting into. He started off with a sequence where I was on the bike and Charan was sitting behind me. We thought, “Okay, fine, good, great. It’s a great way to begin the third day,” when this pendulum-swinging started. And each time we went up 60 feet. Looking at each other, we were like, “What about 100 feet apart?” Because we had to come swinging, touch each other and go back. And I had this dead expression. It was like, “Charan? Are you gonna save me?” And Charan had the same expression.
RC: “Just don’t bang into my face!” [We were asking ourselves] “Is there any way we can convince Rajamouli that this is too dangerous for actors to be a part of?” Rajamouli is such a great, great, great director that he’s already rehearsed for it. He knows that it’s not dangerous for us anymore. And he’s not settling down for a no.
NTR: He does all his stunts by himself. You can’t question him saying that we’re gonna get hurt.
Raftar Creations / courtesy Everett Collection
So did you get hurt?
NTR: No, no, no, no, not in that sequence. But yes, we were injured. Charan had a very bad ligament tear in his ankle. And he injured his knee. And he has an ACL tear. I broke both my tendons on my wrist.
RC: The worst part is it didn’t happen when we were shooting an action sequence. It was just simple human error.
NTR: Miscalculation from our side. [We had to take] three months off.
RC: We were rehearsing. We were talking to the director about how we want to do it and as I was talking, I went past the edge and I fell off the platform.
NTR: Do you know the platform where Ram is flogging me? Ram was just talking to Rajamouli and just fell down.
RC: There were barbed wires behind me and I smashed my knee and on the platform. Three months off, the shoot was called off.
NTR: I was rehearsing. There was a gun which came up to me. I just took the gun and then I tore my tendons on my right wrist. While that was happening, they overstretched my arm and something went wrong here with my nerve and all this got numb [demonstrates]. We were off another two months. But we were never hurt on the set while performing the stunts.
With the action you had to deliver, you must have been physically and mentally exhausted. How did you sustain yourselves? How did you endure this gauntlet that you’ve described?
NTR: What drove us every day throughout “RRR” was the sheer confidence Rajamouli put on us, the feeling that we are part of a great project, something big. As actors, we see the hard work Rajamouli, delivers, what he puts in to bring about these extraterrestrial sequences that, humanly, it’s impossible to imagine. When he has done that for us, I said, “We have to really deliver that to him, because he’s put his confidence on us. Because we were the faces of Rajamouli.” That woke us up every day. No matter that we were tired mentally, physically. It’s the confidence he put on us. We had to deliver it.
So the Oscar-nominated song “Naatu Naatu” was at the end of the shoot?
NTR: Yeah, we started at the end of after all the tiring killing episodes. We thought it would be easy, but this was a bazooka.
Congrats on the Golden Globe nominations and the Best Song Oscar shortlist. Do you guys imagine yourselves performing the song on the Oscars?
NTR: Well, that’d be great. But, I don’t know how it’s gonna look without suspenders, though. We definitely would be in our tuxedos. Rajamouli could do the arrangement, he’s good at arranging stuff.
RC: Out of the hundreds of [film] promotions we’ve done together, we’ve never done the steps. If it’s the Oscars, we will be more than happy to do it.
I’m crossing my fingers. But that must have been a very, very demanding and exhausting number to do as well — or was it broken up and not as bad as it looks?
NTR: Charan is a phenomenal dancer. And I think I can call myself a dancer as well. [Charan agrees.] So it wasn’t a step which was very complicated. We’ve done complicated steps in our respective careers before. But what was more demanding was “Naatu Naatu” was a song with a big story. It’s got a start, a middle, and an end to it. So what was more demanding, and what Rajamouli wanted to capture, is when two friends are into each other and they have confidence in themselves. They don’t really need to look at each other. To replicate that you are one single person? You’re two bodies, but your body, your mind, it operates like one single person as one unit.
So you’re looking straight ahead. And you’re in sync.
NTR: Yeah. The toughest aspect was the synchronization. It’s not good if we’re looking at each other. We had to rehearse, to know each other’s body movements, understand the pace, how each individual operates. There were times when I had to adjust myself to Charan’s speed and Charan has to adjust his style to my speed. And Rajamouli: He will heal you, request you, apologize to you, or he will go to an to any extent to achieve what he wants.
We were in Ukraine. Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, it was summer. The sun will rise up at six in the morning and set at eight in the night. We would start dancing at eight in the morning and at eight in the night. Go back to our rooms, throw our [costumes] off, put on T-shirts and start for the next rehearsing for the next day. Leave at 10pm or 11pm in the night, wake up at six again, go perform. This happened for 12 days. Plus we had seven days of rehearsal. So it was 20 days or three weeks of torture.
But it was way before the war.
RC: It was shot at the President’s palace.
NTR: Every time we talk about “Naatu Naatu,” [we think of] the visual of how Ukraine was, or how Kyiv was when we were there. And what it is now. It really hurts.
RC: We don’t know if we have to be happy that we saw Kyiv in its glory. Or should we be sad that it’s not that anymore. It’s just a glass of emotions for us. So every time we see “Naatu Naatu” we talk about Kyiv.
Why is this movie different from the other Rajamouli movies in terms of a crossover global audience?
NTR: Universal emotions are carried, though it’s placed in India with two Indian freedom fighters. But what translated globally is the emotion of the friendship element of “RRR.” Yeah, the understandings, the individuality, the goals of each character, and how both of them have erased dramatic misunderstandings between them. That is the key.
Why was the movie not submitted by India for the Oscars?
NTR: We never expected anything as such, we were just happy that the Western world has taken “RRR,” has acknowledged it for us. Let me tell you this, everything in addition, let it be the Globe, let it be the Oscar, everything else is in addition to our happiness.
RC: Already, which we have experienced.
NTR: We come from a very, very tiny industry called Tollywood or whatever, Telugu film industry, southern part of India, to come to L.A., to a place where we’ve been only for holidays, or to meet family. We are here today for what is an achievement.