'My highs as a writer come from feeling intimidated'
Srikanth Nagothi breaks down his film Month Of Madhu in this conversation with Cinema Express
With just two films under his belt, namely Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna and Month Of Madhu, Srikanth Nagothi has established his status as a filmmaker with a penchant for sensitive storytelling. After opening to a limited release, albeit one that came with some glowing reviews, Month Of Madhu went on to find a larger audience in its film’s streaming run on Aha. In this freewheeling chat, the director talks to Cinema Express about what fascinates him as a writer-filmmaker and how he channels it all.
Vizag plays a huge role in your film. Could you speak a bit more about your relationship with the city? Why was the film set in this particular city?
I am from Hyderabad, but I have somehow always had a connection with Vizag. I have friends there. My family also lives there now. As far as the film is concerned, we wanted the ocean as a backdrop, hence Vizag. Change is a huge component of Month of Madhu, and we keep shuttling back and forth between two timelines. The sea, in such a situation, is a symbol of permanence, of bearing witness. We also considered setting the film in a hill station, but given how the story is already paced very slowly, there would be more lull than necessary if the hill station were a backdrop. So, we went for the ocean, and in extension, Vizag.
Filmmakers either make a film from the world they have lived in or they construct a world they are not familiar with, with a spirit of creative exploration. In which category does Month Of Madhu fall in?
Month of Madhu emerged from me trying to understand the phenomena of social judgement through the lens of divorce. Everybody in the film is prone to various degrees of judgement. I am not saying that we must shun all judgement, but we must not be so quick to jump into it either. It also takes a lot of courage to break free from a failed marriage, which the society ironically perceives as an act of cowardice. The film was my humble attempt to showcase that hidden courage and also, maybe, advocate for some empathy in all of us.
Your films, despite dealing with relationships, cannot strictly be categorised as romantic films.
I don’t believe in romance as a genre per se. It is a foil. Subconsciously there is always something else happening. My first film Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna is about a girl who feels left out. She has achieved a lot in her life, but there is some loneliness once she hits 30. Deep down, I wanted to make a film about people in their thirties. Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna is a softer film. You could probably categorise it as a romantic comedy, but Month Of Madhu is strictly a drama. We have barely shot any scenes with Naveen and Swathi together. Even when we did, it focuses on their eyes. Only their eyes are talking.
It is interesting that you mention you wanted to explore the lives of people in their 30s, given how every industry, including entertainment, is so obsessed with youth…
There is a lot of market research to prove that the economics of the film are driven by an audience much younger. They also form the repeat audience in theatres. That said, I have not written this film keeping any of this in my mind. I was not even trying to capitalise on any pre-existing demand. Maybe I will get there. But that is not the case for now. What drives my writing is a desire to explore the unexplored. When I don’t know what I am writing about, there is a certain intimidation. I get a high from that intimidation.
Could you give me an example of how you explored the unexplored in your films?
I have briefly worked with (screenwriter) Sai Madhav Burra for Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna. In his draft, Bhanu and Ramakrishna’s characters had equal footing. But I thought, “I know everything about Ramakrishna because I have grown up with boys like him. But I don’t know anything about Bhanumathi. Once I began to explore her character, the entire story changed. Through this process, I have created the woman I want to be acquainted with, and not just romantically.
Your films have featured strong women. Internal motivations aside, how do you approach factors like, say, feminism, when you write them?
I am not interested in being a feminist. I just chase opportunities to create interesting characters. It just so happens that when you write a really well-written and interesting character who is a woman, you come off as a feminist.
Naveen Chandra’s Madhu is a categorically unlikeable character. What was going on in your mind when you were writing him?
We never wanted to directly address his issues through his marriage. We see him interacting with other characters. Family and old friends. We wanted the audience to infer how hard it must have been for his wife of twenty years to live with this personality. In the younger portions, we wanted to show why he became the person he became. No one stopped him or reprimanded him for his behaviour. Everybody, including Lekha, was good for his ego. I did not want to judge him. Madhusudan’s interactions with Madhumathi mark the beginning of his redemption arc.
The non-linear storyline almost makes your film look like this thriller. There is always anticipation of what happens next. Did you adopt that approach consciously?
No. What we did approach consciously was how this world is viewed by a total outsider. This is where Madhumathi’s character comes into the picture. Her journey is written as a series of serendipitous events, through which more characters, be it the yoga teacher or the writer come into the picture.
Harsha’s character in particular struck a chord with the audiences at large. When he appears on screen, the film suddenly shifts in tone, from indie to mainstream.
We wanted to drive home the point that Madhusudan’s friends were complicit in his hubris. Whenever Harsha enters the frame, he is seen in conversation with Madhusudan. He echoes the larger theme of societal judgement that the film seeks to explore. We also wanted to show that judgement and toxicity are an addiction too, like alcohol. Harsha’s dialogues are the reason why our film got an A certificate.
We spoke a lot about your writing. Is there a writing philosophy close to your heart?
Trust the process. A perspective emerges when you are writing your characters. Whether you like it or not, your characters will speak to you. Your job is to listen to them. I don’t know if I am a good writer or a bad one but I want to facilitate the characters in my story to really just speak for themselves. That is what makes a story unique, gives it dimension. I don’t want the audience to feel the presence of a writer, the presence of something written, when they watch my films unfold. That is writing for me.