Directors Tharun Bhascker, Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin and Sankalp Reddy discuss the making of Netflix’s first Telugu anthology film ‘Pitta Kathalu’
When the Telugu anthology film Pitta Kathalu – season 1 streams on Netflix on February 19, there are bound to be a few surprises. Pushing their boundaries in storytelling through four short stories are well-known directors of Telugu cinema. What began as a project on the lines of Lust Stories in Telugu, developed into an anthology on power dynamics in relationships.
Excerpts from an interview:
“I jumped at the opportunity when Ashi Dua Sara [producer of the series, on behalf of Netflix] met us in Hyderabad to discuss the project. We stepped out of our comfort zones to explore complex characters,” says Tharun. Moving away from urban rom-coms, he takes us into rural Telangana to narrate the story of a young woman caught in the crossfire of romance and politics.
Ramula stars Lakshmi Manchu as a politician, Naveen Kumar and newcomer Saanve Megghana. Having watched the film, I ask if Ramula is a true story. Tharun discloses that he happens to hear such real-life stories on a daily basis and was struck by how lightly it is taken [by people].
Shooting in rural Telangana turned out to be nostalgic, he says, harking back to the time he worked on the short film Sainma (a Telugu slang for cinema): “I wanted to return to that space and narrate a rooted story. People appear to be naive and innocent on the surface but are complex characters.”
For the title role, Tharun considered Anandhi (of the Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal) who hails from Warangal, and Haarika (of Bigg Boss fame), until a team member spotted Saanve who had auditioned for a smaller part. “She had earlier appeared in the background in a Chiranjeevi film. We knew we had found our Ramula; but on the day of the shoot, I was both excited and nervous. She had to enact a tough scene. The passion with which she worked and the energy on set reminded me of directing Vijay Deverakonda and Vishwak Sen in their initial days of shoot,” says Tharun.
At this juncture, Nag Ashwin chips in with a word of praise for Saanve’s performance in the film.
Tharun teamed up with two of his favourite comrades, cinematographer Niketh Bommi and music composer Vivek Sagar. Niketh had a camera that he hadn’t used for a long time and the grainy texture it rendered, Tharun says, was perfect for Ramula. Vivek and Tharun decided to have music that contrasted the visuals. “It’s a dark, Coen Brothers kind of space and shows the horrors the human mind is capable of. For the closing portions, Vivek decided to go all out with percussion. He also knows how to use silence effectively. I think this is his best work so far.”
Meera, starring Amala Paul and Jagapati Babu, delves into the darker zones in marriage and Nandini terms it as “clipping off” her family drama wings after Oh! Baby. “I ventured into a new space. I found the theme — power dynamics in a relationship — thought-provoking; it can be written in so many ways and I needn’t be worried about box office calculations,” says Nandini.
She and writer Radhika Anand decided to push the bar in writing and executing Meera. The idea stemmed from a Guy de Maupassant story and Nandini, a fan of Roald Dahl’s twists that take readers by surprise, wanted to “Dahl-ise” the story: “Once we had the end, we worked on the duality. We leave little hints so that after it’s over, people can reflect on the film and interpret why a character behaved a certain way. We constantly distract viewers’ attention,” says Nandini, to which Tharun says in agreement, “That happened to me while watching the film.”
Nandini terms this project as her freefall into a darker zone and she had her trusted cinematographer Richard Prasad, composer Mickey J Meyer and production designer Jayashree on board. They decided to juxtapose the sheen of the well-heeled in society with a looming darkness. “The lives of the rich seem glossy, like a mirage, but there may be horrifying stories within,” says Nandini.
They opted to have extreme wide and close shots to accentuate the distant but suffocating relationship between the lead pair: “And the opulent house stands witness to an ominous, macabre story.”
In a lighter vein, Nag Ashwin states that when the Netflix opportunity presented itself, he remembered his days as an aspiring director, wanting to make a film and wondering how to go about the logistics. “Now someone is giving us a budget to make a film and assuring that no questions will be asked. I thought ‘great, let’s do it’,” he laughs.
Both his feature films, Yevade Subramanyam and Mahanati, were not in the conventional Telugu cinema realm, but the director took the anthology as an opportunity to experiment further.
xLife stars Shruti Haasan and introduces singer-composer-lyricist Sanjith Hegde as an actor; he plays a wizard who designs a make-believe advanced virtual reality world that holds people in thrall. “I thought his looks and body language fit the character. He said he has never acted before; I asked him to not act, just come and do his thing and go. That worked,” says Nag.
Though xLife was conceived pre-pandemic, it was filmed only after the restrictions were lifted after the lockdown. The film takes us into a hypothetical world where people live in a digital bubble. Incidentally, 2020 was all about work from home. Nag, a fan of science fiction and Black Mirror, says that even if this film had come pre-pandemic, viewers would have connected with the idea: “Even before we were forced to work from home, date from home and do everything from home, there was the tendency to walk in a bubble.”
xLife was filmed in five days but involved elaborate set design and visual effect heavy post-production. “It required quite a bit of planning. The easier part was filming for five days during the pandemic; post production took almost three months,” he says.
The film has on board cinematographer Naveen Yadav while Sanjith Hegde and Soorya Praveen composed the music.
Sankalp’s first film Ghazi was filmed in a submarine and he followed it up with Antariksham 9000kmph, set in a spaceship. Venturing into a relationship drama space for the first time, he deals with complex characters drawn from real life observations. Tharun jokingly states that this time Sankalp shot a film within a few rooms but the tension was as palpable as within a submarine or a spaceship.
“The very idea of being able to experiment was exciting to all of us. People like those you see in Pinky (referring to the characters played by Eesha Rebba, Satyadev, Ashima Narwal and Srinivas Avasarala) exist in reality. I can’t reveal anything more, because it can end up as a spoiler,” says Sankalp.
He wanted to have viewers draw their own interpretation and went with an open ending: “I ended the film without an ending,” he says with a laugh.
However, the writing involved developing backstories for all of the characters and revealing tiny details all through the story. Pinky was filmed in October 2019 and it’s been a long wait for Sankalp and team. Sankalp teamed up with music composer Prashanth Vihari after Antariskham and cinematographer Naveen Yadav.
As a parting shot, Tharun states that narrating short stories of 30-35 minute duration meant starting fresh on a blank canvas: “It felt like film school. The story development and character arc, everything changes within a short time. We could reflect society in different, weird ways. I am sure there will be more such exciting content from Telugu cinema. There were discussions between directors Vivek Athreya, Venkatesh Maha, Swaroop and Bharat Kamma for an anthology, and it will be good if that materialises.”