Gunasekhar: Shakuntala’s inner strength will find resonance in the people of today
Ahead of the release of Shaakuntalam, the director talks to CE about adapting an ancient Indian text, the necessity of VFX, and more
Starting his career with the 1992 socio-political drama Laathi, which also fetched him the Nandi award for best director, Gunasekhar has had a memorable innings in the world of Telugu cinema, checkered with critical acclaim and commercial success. He is known for his dramatic stories, which lean heavily on art direction as well as the depiction of cultural values. One of the earliest Indian filmmakers to combine CGI with live-action photography in his directorials — Okkadu and Sainikudu — Gunasekhar is also a pioneer in using VFX technology.
After a seven-year hiatus, Gunasekhar returns to the silver screen with Shaakunthalam, a cinematic adaptation of Kalidasa’s play, Abhijnana Shakunthalam. Starring Samantha in the lead role, Shaakuntalam is set around the life of its titular character Shakuntala, the epic details her journey from youth to womanhood as she battles injustices and adversities. The tale of Shakuntala, her husband Dushyanta and her son Bharata, in fact, even acts as a prequel to the Mahabharata.
Tracing the inception of Shaakuntalam, Gunasekhar says, “I have actually been working on a Hiranyakashyapa film for the last five years. We spent two years on the script and three years doing extensive pre-production. But the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Since that project was stalled indefinitely, I wanted to do something compact, like a love story. That is why I took up Shaakuntalam as my next."
The filmmaker shares that the layers of Shakuntala's character were an added impetus to tell the story. “We often think of Shakuntala as this epitome of beauty. But there is so much more to her character. She had a lot of self-respect and gumption. We believe that Shakuntala’s inner strength will find resonance in the people of today, especially the women,” says Gunasekhar.
Known for making opulent films heavy on visual effects, Gunasekhar asserts that Shaakuntalam will be no different. “While we spent five months shooting for Shaakuntalam, the post-production took almost 18 months owing to the VFX," says the filmmaker, who goes on to explain some of the challenges he encountered during the making of Shaakuntalam. "Shakuntala grows up amongst a lot of animals. Recreating animals is artistically challenging, time-consuming, and expensive. Two decades ago, we could have easily shot our film with real animals, but we cannot do it anymore due to environmental laws and regulations. We planned our budget accordingly. For the VFX of animals, we opted for the best international companies, and for the CGI involved in recreating backgrounds, we opted for domestic organisations who are almost as good as their international counterparts, if not more,” shares Gunasekhar.
While Samantha's stardom is a highlight of Shaakuntalam, Gunasekhar opted to launch Malayalam actor Dev Mohan as Dushyantha. “We would have ideally liked someone from our own industry to play Dushyanta. It would have also made sense from a business perspective to hire a well-known Telugu actor. But I must admit, we had to rope in an outsider because our heroes won’t agree to such roles. The role of Dushyanta has a lot of shades, and the only way our heroes would do such a role is if they were the main lead in the film, and not as a secondary lead or as a supporting actor. Dev is a newcomer, but he was game for the role. He was willing to dedicate all his time and efforts to the role. What more does a director want?” asks Gunasekhar, who also sheds light on how Samantha became Shakuntala. “Samantha worked closely with danseuse and actor Aruna Bhikshu, who helped her to embody the grace and the coy femininity of Shakuntala.”
Even though Shaakuntalam is up for release on April 14, the makers of the film conducted a premiere screening for the public recently. “We initially organised the preview to just check out whether the 3D version of the film was on point. Since we anyway had to test it on a large screen, we were confident enough about Shaakuntalam to bring in the audience too. We received a lot of love from them, and I'm sure the film will be an enjoyable watching experience for the audience from April 14 too," signs off Gunasekhar.