'I like that we have made good Telugu content from Chennai'

...says writer-director Siva Ananth, as he joins directors Sarjun and Barath Neelakantan and actor Prasanna for a chat about their recent Aha anthology, Addham
'I like that we have made good Telugu content from Chennai'

Aha’s new anthology, Addham, is made up of three short films, Crossroads (directed by Barath Neelakantan), The Unwhisperable Secret (Siva Ananth), and The Road That Never Ends (Sarjun). All the stories speak of flawed judgments and centre on moral conundrums. Is stealing permitted when the victim is an evil man? Is infidelity excusable if your marriage is loveless? Can an accidental kill be tolerated when the perpetrator shows remorse? The complex stories are quite a departure from the otherwise simplistic, almost gimmicky content that pervades much of the regional OTT space. So that’s where I begin this conversation with the talented artists who have come together to make this Telugu anthology:

I found it to be quite a relief that Addham is nuanced and doesn’t spell out lessons. This quality of leaving conclusions to the viewer’s imagination is a far cry from the content usually found in the regional OTT space.

Siva Ananth: I think it speaks more of the limitation of filmmakers than of the audience. If OTT content is generally too definitive and narrow, it’s on the filmmakers. When we think of short stories, the names that come to my mind are writers like Sujatha, Pudhumai Piththan, JD Salinger, Edgar Allan Poe… These were all artists who trusted that the audience desired art of superior quality. The writer should believe that the audience is smarter than them.

I quite enjoyed the look and feel of all the three films that make up Addham. Was it hard to execute this finish, what with all the lockdown restrictions?

Barath Neelakantan: The goal was always to make the films look as good as they can. All of us, including the DOPs, art directors and costume designers, worked towards this singular objective. There were challenges concerning locations and costumes, as you can imagine, but I think we have achieved what we set out to.

Sarjun: After reading all the three stories, I chose The Road That Never Ends, as it seemed to burst with visual potential. The other two stories mainly take place in the interiors, but now, having seen them, I can see that they have turned out to be visually stunning in a way I didn’t imagine. We had location-related challenges while shooting our film. Permissions were hard to secure, and until a day before shooting, we hadn’t even finalised some locations. But the overall output and reception makes me happy.

Siva: As filmmakers, we are not in a position to carry disclaimers asking the audience to be kinder towards our content as it was made under tough circumstances. So, we focus on doing the best we can with what we have.

Prasanna: Just the opportunity of getting to work, despite all these limitations, was euphoric. Though I did a couple of advertisements, it had been months since I had shot for a film. I had spent eight months without meeting my love (laughs).

Could you talk about how these three stories were assigned to their respective directors?

Barath: Crossroads was the only story I listened to. I realised that the setup was slightly similar to an idea I had explored in my Tamil feature film, K-13, but this also gave me the rare opportunity to get better at something I’d already done. The other stories were great too. Sarjun’s film was striking for how emotional it was. Siva sir’s film was visually breathtaking. I would never have imagined a mental health professional’s office to look as it does in this film.

Siva: As filmmakers, we all have different accents. I think there’s much to learn from an actor like Prasanna who inhabits roles in his own way, often making it better than it is in text.

Prasanna: I think Siva will remember a call I made after we did a reading session. I wasn’t sure whether to interpret my character as a jaded veteran or a confused young man who is looking to find romance again. When I asked him that, he simply asked me to be myself in front of the camera. So, that’s what I did. I poured quite a bit of myself into the character.

Barath: While Prasanna was performing the bar scene, it was a voyeuristic experience almost for me to stand by the side and observe him. It felt like I was actually at a bar, watching two people flirt with each other.

Sarjun, your story is about a man who engages in sexual abuse of minors. Somehow, these controversial stories seem to find you.

Sarjun: (Laughs) Originally, I was to direct another story in the anthology. But I do love this story a lot because it has everything. I knew that all I had to do was enable the actors to perform and record it. The script has everything, and it just needed to be captured by someone who knew their basics in film language.

Jayaprakash is an unusual choice for the character in your film. I also enjoyed Rohini’s cameo.

Sarjun: JP sir was our first choice. We needed someone fairly popular in Telugu, but someone who’s from Chennai, as we were shooting it here. As for Rohini ma’am, I expected this excellence from her. She called me to ask many questions about the nature of her character’s past, so she could get into the skin of the role. It showed a lot of commitment.

Somehow though, she keeps getting slotted into these crying roles.

Siva: Well, it’s simply because few actors can do crying scenes as well as she does.

Barath, in your film, there’s a scene with Prasanna’s rather depressed character interacting with the bartender, a scene whose idea reminded me of The Shining.

Prasanna: I’m so glad you said this. We thought the same thing too. I mean, this isn’t to compare, but just this idea of a lonely man at the bar, having a deep conversation with the bartender…

Who may or may not be there…

Barath: Absolutely. I am quite heartened that a lot of people have picked this scene out for special mention.

Siva, in this story, there’s the angle of an unlikeable wife. When you write such characters, given the general culture of wife jokes, do you find yourself worrying over how it will be perceived, or having to be more careful as a writer?

I don’t want to be cautious because I know my politics well. Often, I find that many of these responses are shaped by the critic’s own bias. Another reviewer could well argue correctly that all three stories are women-centric, even though it was not a conscious choice to make the stories feminist. The objective is always to write real people, and many of the conversations from the stories, including the one between Prasanna’s character and the madame, were all drawn from people I have seen and the experiences they have had. Hey, perhaps, I can next write a story in which the men are shown in poor light. The men can all feel bad then.

What was heartening for all of you about being part of Addham?

Prasanna: I’m glad that I got to operate on my home turf: romance territory. All three short films were beautiful collaborations between talented people who trust each other.

Sarjun: I have known Siva for almost 10 years now, and during this time, I have heard many of his stories and have waited to direct one of them. Now, finally, it has come true.

Barath: This is the first time I have directed someone else’s written material. If not for Addham, I may not have learned the pleasure of doing this. I look forward to more such collaborations.

Siva: I like that we have made good Telugu content from Chennai. In the 90s, it was easier when many Telugu artistes worked here. I’m grateful that Allu Aravind and Aha approved this project. I feel great affinity towards the Telugu industry and I’m glad that we have made a satisfying Telugu project.

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