There’s seeing a movie with a live audience, and then there’s the probably once-in-a-lifetime experience that was Monday night’s Chinese Theatre screening of “RRR,” which had director-writer S.S. Rajamouli, composer-songwriter M.M. Keeravani and dual leads N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan coming together in America for the first time and bearing collective witness to an ecstatic American crowd’s determination to put the enthusiasm of any Indian audiences back home to shame.

The 900-strong crowd, which sold out the screening in 93 seconds, seemed to have pulled that off, in the eyes of one of the actors, before he quickly corrected himself. “Thank you so much for all the love you have showered upon us,” Ram Charan told the cheering, sometimes screaming crowd at the Chinese. “It’s even better than the love we got from India… or is as equal as the love we got from India,” he added, to laughter, the audience understanding that he did not want to get in any trouble back home.

Perhaps inevitably, the screening became a dance party for a few minutes at around the one-hour point, as the viral musical number “Naatu Naatu” unfolded on screen and dozens of attendees ran down to the floor in front of the IMAX screen and did their own version of the hook-step dance that became a global phenomenon on TikTok as well as in cinemas. That kind of scene came too late to influence any voting for the Golden Globes, where “Naatu Naatu” is up for best original song, but hearing further tales of audience hysteria for the number could factor into the tune transitioning from the Oscars’ 15-song shortlist to the final five nominees.

But the movie’s fervent fans won’t be satisfied if that is as far as it gets at the Oscars. Beyond Fest leader Spencer Hickman, who set up the screening in conjunction with the American Cinematheque, made no secret of the fact that this was part fan frenzy, part FYC event. “There’s never been an Academy screening like this before!” he exclaimed amid shrieks at the start. (Indeed, there were a number of Oscar voters and journalists among the throng.) “I don’t think this film should stop with best original song. I think we should go all the way to best picture.”

The screening had a surprise guest in filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who introduced the four-hour event well after its announced start time, due to downpours. “The flooding is a nightmare. When you leave the theater tonight, you might be in Santa Monica,” quipped Abrams. “But thank you for being here to see ‘RRR,’ a film I love and a filmmaker I so admire. This is a movie, as many of you must know, about two Indian revolutionaries. It is an epic. It is enormous. When I asked S.S. how long the shoot was, I said, ‘It has to be at least a hundred days.’” He provided the answer: “328 days. … I love its exuberance. I love its friendship. I love its heart. I love what it says about fighting for what’s right. I love the music. I love the insanity. The fever-dream madness of this movie is more fun than you’ll have in a theater — (more) than I can imagine having in any other film. It is so wonderful, and it is a privilege to introduce to you a man who himself is an Indian revolutionary.”

J.J. Abrams at the Q&A for “RRR” held at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on January 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Gilbert Flores for Variety

In his own introduction before the film unspooled, Rajamouli asked how many were seeing his movie for the first time, a question that got a surprising show of hands of about 40%. “For the people who haven’t seen it yet, I apologize on behalf of the people who have already seen it,” he quipped. “They’re quite a rowdy bunch. Sometimes they won’t let you hear what is happening on the screen. Sometimes they won’t let you see what is happening in this film. So all I can say is, please come back and see the film again.” (The subtitles factor — only about a fifth of the film is in English — helps with that.)

S. S. Rajamouli at the Q&A for “RRR” held at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on January 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Gilbert Flores for Variety

If anyone was wondering how many legitimate applause moments can be worked into a just-over-three-hour film (not counting an old-fashioned intermission, which precipitated probably the longest men’s room line the Chinese has seen since the days when roadshow intervals were a thing), the answer is an average of about one every 2-3 minutes. Although the film’s enthusiasts are not out to treat the film as camp, there was considerable booing, too, of the violently colonialist British villains. (Between the rabble-rousing rescue/revenge plot that sees cheers for 1920s Brits meeting violent ends in “RRR” and the Prince Harry backlash, this may not be the peak moment to be a proud Brit in America.)

“First the intention is to create something spectacular,” said the director in a post-screening Q&A with Hickman, “to create something that gives lots and lots of joy to the audience — for example, what we have seen here in the theater today. I like the audience to have not just a little bit of joy. I want them to have lots of joy. If they get angry, I want them to get lots of anger. If they smile, I want to have lot of laughter. So I want to give them the maximum pleasure experience of film watching.”

The extent to which that has happened in America — first with a theatrical experience, subsequently on Netflix — has been surprising by any measure, most of all to the still-startled principals. Said N. T. Rama Rao Jr., “America, up to now, was a vacation spot. We would come here for a vacation, maybe to visit our families. But for the first time, America is not a vacation spot anymore. … Thank you so much for not seeing us as somebody from the east but treating us as your own.”

Ram Charan, S. S. Rajamouli, M. M. Keeravani, N. T. Rama Rao Jr. at the Q&A for “RRR” held at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on January 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Gilbert Flores for Variety

The film marked the first time the two leads have worked together, although both have a history with the director. Rajamouli described Rama Rao Jr. as the extrovert of the pair and Charan as the introvert, though “most of it starts from him. … We had so much fun on the set, or probably I should say they had so much fun on the set. Many people know that they are such mischievous guys on the set. … Can you believe that these two guys are superstars? They have millions of followers who are ready to die for these two guys. They’re married. One is a father and one is about to become a father. And these guys complain like kindergarten kids… and they’ll go on and on, the whole set is waiting and the whole set breaks into laughter and the mood is gone. I used to complain about that a lot, but later on I realized, because the film has gone into 353 days, and I’m always so lost in my thoughts… the unit takes the energy from the director … But because of their mischief, because of the laughter and the energy, the joy they brought to the unit, I think we were able to work better. So it was wrong on my part to complain,” he conceded.

Asked what made “RRR” different from his previous films with the director, Rao Jr. said, “It’s always the same.” How so, asked Hickman? “Torture. Torture,” repeated the actor, to laughter. “The only difference is that I had a shoulder to cry on” in his longtime friend and fellow lead. “The way (Rajamouli) works, it’s a beautiful torture,” added Charan.

S. S. Rajamouli at the Q&A for “RRR” held at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on January 9, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Gilbert Flores for Variety

Answering a question about the many genres “RRR” embraces or skirts, from musical to comedy to action film to historical drama, the director said there is a demographic reason so many Indian films cross those lines. “That is the way of Indian cinema — it is one of the most affordable entertainments for a lot of people in my country. So going to the cinema with the whole family is almost a ritual. … Directors started writing stories where there is something for everyone — something for the kids, for the teenagers, for the adults, for the old people. So in that process, we developed having all the genres,” he said, while adding that the mixture is not random. “It is not all of them put together” in a blender, he emphasized. “There’s a pattern on how one emotion can go into another emotion. You carry the audience on these waves, these peaks and valleys.”

Composer Keeravani appeared overwhelmed by the reaction of the crowd. “It’s true that I have composed music for the movie ‘RRR,’ but the best music I have heard today is your laughs and applause… I wish to listen to that music on and on, again and again, and forever.”

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