CE Year in Review 2022: Indie Telugu films take centre stage during the year of biggies
Five young filmmakers who contributed to some of this year’s finest storytelling in Telugu cinema open up about their creative journeys and what the future holds for them and the industry
There’s always a great spirit and enthusiasm when like-minded, creative people are brought together, even if it’s for a virtual conversation. The energy and fervour were ubiquitous during our year-ender conversation with five young Telugu filmmakers.
With Ante Sundaraniki, Vivek Atheyra made perhaps the year’s most inventive Telugu film and proved that skilful screenwriting can do magic even if the plot is familiar. Sashi Kiran Tikka directed a rousing biopic in the form of Major that told the story of 26/11 martyr Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and yet managed to steer clear of jingoism. Vimal Krishna’s DJ Tillu, one of the biggest surprise hits of this year, brought smiles to the trade and made the audience laugh hard at a time when everyone needed it the most—post the tumultuous third wave of COVID-19. Shree Karthik’s Oke Oka Jeevitham, on the other hand, made the viewers tear up with its heartfelt tale of a mother and son. Sai Kiran’s Masooda scared the audience more than any other Telugu horror film in recent times.
The five filmmakers discuss movies and everything around it. Excerpts:
An extra burden that young Indian filmmakers are compelled to carry is the task of narrating their own scripts to producers. Communicating ideas to the ultimate decision-makers is a tricky business. “My film shapes up over narrations,” Vivek Athreya says. “Every time you are narrating the script, it evolves. For example, when I give narrations to senior actors, they expect a starting point and an ending point for their characters and this helps me, as a writer, to understand such elements better. I take my narrations pretty seriously. The challenge, however, is that the listener might envision a completely different film from the one you are trying to make.”
Sashi Kiran Tikka seconds Vivek’s words. “Nobody is reading a script these days. Narration has become the status quo now. I have given countless narrations but I feel they are essential because they give you an understanding of which beats in the script are working and which aren’t. While I might not be able to give a perfect narration, I can make the listener feel the emotion to an extent. There were instances when people teared up after listening to my narration of Major. To me, it corroborated the standard of writing and reminded me of the responsibility of translating it immaculately onto the screen.”
Sai Kiran’s response sits in contrast to Vivek’s and Sashi’s. “I just can’t narrate my own films. I can narrate the story of a film I have seen to my friends and can convince them that it’s a great film but when it comes to my own films, I falter. For Major, I didn’t give many narrations. I was glad that Rahul [Yadhav Nakka, producer] read the script. But yes, I want to practice giving narrations and get better at it.”
The three steps
Many filmmakers believe that shooting is the price a director has to pay to get to the editing table. When asked what process among the three major stages of filmmaking—writing, filming and editing—excites them the most, Sai Kiran shares, “To me, it’s the moment an idea sparks that is the most exciting. While working on the idea, there will be good and bad days but the excitement returns on the editing table. I like editing a lot.”
Shree Karthik adds, “It all starts with the writing process and the happiest moment is perhaps when you finish the 120-page draft. Well, the shooting process has its ups and downs. I find editing to be the best process; it’s a personal process with just you, your editor, and your baby in a room. I hate dubbing!”
Vimal Krishna throws a slightly different perspective, “I enjoy writing and shooting. The shooting process allows you to see your characters from the script come to life and it’s a process that I immensely enjoy. While Siddhu and I were discussing and writing the film during the lockdown, Siddu would enact a few scenes and I was just waiting to capture it all. So when we finally went to filming, it was quite an experience.”
“Writing and editing are more organised processes in filmmaking,” Sashi adds. “The blood pressure of a filmmaker always tends to be on the higher side while filming,” he laughs.
“My preference would be writing, editing, and shooting. The filming process can be chaotic at times. I am a little lazy, and I find writing and editing to be my zone. Also, I seem to be the only one who loves dubbing,” Vivek says, laughing.
The way forward
How is the evolution of the audience’s taste—catalysed by the pandemic—influencing their craft? Vivek Athreya quickly responds, “There is no doubt that the attention span of the audience has drastically reduced. Frankly, I don’t know if we have the patience to listen to even a 5-minute song. In fact, audio labels are now asking for just 3-minute songs. Also, in today’s time, there are so many factors influencing a film. Social media and societal pressure are also playing a major role. If you pressurise yourself with these factors and try to deliberately come up with novel ideas, you simply cannot write. You never know why something works in a film and why something doesn’t. It cannot be engineered”
Vimal quickly adds, “Exactly. Something like DJ Tillu works only once. There’s no guarantee that it will work again. It is really tough to create with all these calculations floating around.”
Speaking about the influence of the popularisation of OTT on cinema, Sashi adds, “Right now, we are competing with films from across the world. Even Steven Spielberg recently said that American filmmakers should start telling ‘native, American stories’ instead of chasing VFX spectacles. I think we should put our efforts into telling original stories from our land and when told effectively, they’ll go global with subtitles.”
The pan-Indian bandwagon
Pan-India might have been the most overused film-related term of 2022 with numerous films from across the country jumping on the bandwagon. The trend was created by the success of the Baahubali duology and the box-office returns of the KGF films, RRR, Pushpa, and more recently, Kantara, is ensuring that the momentum of this trend sustains. Do they see themselves making pan-India films in the near future?
Sashi, who tasted success with Major’s Hindi version, responds, “It is not a hard and fast rule that every film is a pan-India film. Even for Major, we could only do Hindi and Malayalam. I am very clear about which story should be positioned at a pan-India level and which should be aimed at our audience.”
Vimal seconds Sashi’s point and adds, “It all depends on the story you are telling. I don’t want to disturb my script just for the sake of adding the pan-Indian label.”
Sashi adds, “Right. To make a pan-India film, you need to have your orientation, operations and the team right. It is a huge process—from identifying the cultural aspect to hiring the right assistant directors for the projects— and it has to be done diligently.”
Sai Kiran shares, “I think it is difficult to second-guess the story’s reach while writing. When it is a mammoth task to even impress a friend with a script, catering to the pan-India audience is something else altogether. I think one has to write what they like, and then it all depends on the producer.”
A change in Telugu cinema
Speaking about one change in Telugu cinema he hopes to see, Sashi shares, “I strongly feel that we should encourage independent cinema. The culture should be nurtured further.”
Vivek agrees and adds, “I think indie should be our next commercial cinema. And it is possible only through collaborations between huge stars and young filmmakers. I don’t mean myself but with everyone. It would be great if stars experiment more. I personally feel that Chiranjeevi garu—beyond his stardom—is a brilliant actor. He is an actor we should all be celebrating. If you see films like Rudraveena and Swayam Krushi, you’ll understand what a great actor he is. Yes, his commercial game is on spot but if he manages to balance the commercial cinema with slight experimentation, I think fanboys of Chiranjeevi, the actor, will also be satisfied. I think only stars like him can the Indie culture to the next level.”