In an exclusive conversation on FC Front Row, SS Rajamouli, or 'Mr. India' as the session was rightfully called, touched upon several intriguing topics. From the much-awaited release of his upcoming epic RRR, featuring massive stars like Ram Charan, Jr. NTR, Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn, to him oscillating between being confident and fearful of getting things right, the pan-India director gave a peek into his filmmaking mind.
Anupama Chopra: When we met for an interview in December, RRR was going to release in a few weeks, and it was a very exciting and heady time. And then Omicron took over, and the film got postponed again. We're in the middle of a global calamity and it feels petty to complain. But how did you process the emotion of being so close to the finish line, and then have the finish line move again?
SS Rajamouli: I tend to not worry too much about things that are not in our hands. Omicron coming in was not in our hand. If the shot is not coming right, if it's the CGI that's not coming out right, then I'll worry about it. Those things are in my hand. I can do something about it. A global pandemic is not in our hands. Remember Enter the Dragon? When Bruce Lee gets stuck, he just stops and starts meditating. I'm not a meditator, not as good as Bruce Lee anyway. But when things are not in my hand, I just let them be.
AC: So, this Zen-like expression you have on your face is also internal?
Rajamouli: I'm not a Zen-like person. I'm a very emotional and volatile person.
AC: Tell us a little about your process. Do you have a specific place where you work? Do you have an hour of the day when your imagination is more fertile than other times? Is there a methodology to your specific madness?
Rajamouli: I am more of a sunlight person. I like to get up early in the morning by 5 o'clock. When I start walking, it is my most fertile time. I keep thinking a lot of things while I am walking. My energy comes with the sun and goes down with it.
AC: You talked in an interview about how you're constantly wondering if you're getting it right, if you've given it your hundred percent. You said that the fear is always there. That's very intriguing for me, given how successful your films have been. Would you describe yourself as an insecure director?
Rajamouli: Maybe a part of it is yes. I can't say whether I'm insecure or not, but the fear is always there with me. It has been a constant companion. Fear and confidence, both are there in me.
AC: So you are a combination of great confidence and fear?
AC: Is there ever a moment when one goes much bigger than the other: when you have too much fear and anxiety or when you are overconfident? Does that happen?
Rajamouli: The confidence and fear oscillate. When I am working, I am more confident; when I'm not working, I am more fearful.
AC: You've also spoken about how your creativity and sense of drama originates from the Amar Chitra Katha comics, which were introduced to you by your father when you were 7 years old. But these stories are simplistic in their depiction of good and evil. Is that ever a challenge for you when you're trying to make characters who are more nuanced than this simplistic black and white?
Rajamouli: No. It's not a difficult thing for me at all. It comes naturally to me. I believe that your characters can be black, white or grey, but ultimately, that is not what's going to enthrall the audience or connect with them. What connects is the drama that you derive out of them. Sometimes, the grey characters derive the drama, and at times, the black and white characters do. Sometimes, the conflict between two good characters gives you the drama. Hence, the drama is more important than all the characters are.
AC: You talked about how in RRR, you didn't think of the image of Jr. NTR, Ram Charan or this massive persona that the two of them have. Did you ever have to be mindful of maintaining a balance and telling yourself that you cannot be partial to one?
Rajamouli: The images of the stars are important. That is what brings the audience to the theatres. They want to see the stars in a particular way. I am mindful of that, but I also know that if the characters are written strongly, then even if you go against their image, the audiences won't mind. It's not that I want to break their image or do something different just for the sake of it, but if the content of my scene demands that their action, their performance or their character, has to go against that image to enhance the drama, I'll do it.
AC: But did you have to balance between the two actors?
Rajamouli: I had to balance the empathy of the audience towards both of them equally. That's what my main job is. I didn't look at the screen space, the number of fights or songs they had. That's not the kind of balance I looked at. Instead, I looked at the empathy that the audience should have for them at the end of the film.
Fan question: When you have to make a decision on-screen, do you choose what your mind says or what your heart says?
Rajamouli: On a larger level, there is not much of a conflict there. Film is a combination of art and commerce. But I'm very clear that the art should lead the commerce. So, art first and then commerce. I won't change the art for the sake of the commerce. That's how I work. Sometimes, if I am not satisfied with a particular shot, I have to go back to it again and again. But going again and again to it will also affect my schedule, which in turn, would affect the cost of production. That is a constant battle. Where do I stop? Where do I put a line to say, "Ok, this is fine, I need to move forward and complete the schedule, the shot, the scene or the film."