The Telugu film Goodachari (2018), a coming-of-age spy action thriller, announced the arrival of a new writer-director, Sashi Kiran Tikka. He had honed his skills on the sets of Sekhar Kammula’s Leader and trod a path familiar to aspirants, filled with rejections when he set out to make his debut film. The turnaround happened when he and his friend, actor and writer Adivi Sesh, decided to collaborate. The spy thriller that doffed its hat to older Telugu spy dramas such as Gudachari 116 and Agent Gopi stood out that year, alongside other memorable films such as Brochevarevarura and Care of Kancharapalem. Goodachari was appreciated for its edge-of-the-seat narrative as well as smart production management that ensured a slick film within a limited budget. Sashi and Sesh had a similar approach for some portions of their next film, Major, the biopic of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan. Now writing his next film, Sashi Kiran discusses his approach to work, learning from the New York Film Academy (NYFA) and Sekhar Kammula.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Your debut directorial film Goodachari is an example of how a film made with a moderate budget can look richer than it is, in terms of technical finesse. How did you make every rupee count?
If you give the script of Goodachari to a producer or an executive producer and ask them to evaluate it, they are likely to say it is a ₹15 to 18 crore film. We were aware of it. But we did not have that luxury, we had to make the film within five crores. Both (Adivi) Sesh (co-writer and actor) and I went to film schools in the United States and approached our film like an American indie. We knew what expenses could be cut short; we wanted to use the resources to create situations in front of the camera rather than behind it. The sets had no hierarchy; there were no caravans, the same food was served to everyone and while filming the Himachal Pradesh portions, we all stayed in a budget hotel where a room cost ₹1000 per day.
Did you adopt similar measures for Major as well? You mentioned once that your father asked why a bunch of you were staying at your family home (in Rajahmundry) rather than checking into a five-star hotel.
We had better budgets and privileges while filming Major but we followed a similar method for the non-Taj portions. We cut expenses where we felt the need to, though not as much as for Goodachari. This film demanded a certain scale. Eight or nine sets had to be constructed at Ramoji Film City to replicate the interiors of The Taj Palace, Mumbai.
The writing of Goodachari had a lot of surprises for viewers. How did the writing collaboration between you and Sesh work?
We are friends who talk cinema and bounce ideas off each other. We have a lot in common. When Sesh gave me an early draft that he had written as a teen, we knew it had to be reworked. There was no father angle in the initial story. We wanted to write something contemporary and there was a lot of brainstorming and a few quarrels. We wanted the twists and turns to be organic in the spy action drama. Abburi Ravi (writer) helped us finetune the script. For example, we had written the portion about how Anish Kuruvilla trains his team. How Madhu Shalini applied them on the field was Ravi garu’s idea.
Do you sound off the script to others around you?
We do extensive focus group sessions even today for my new script. The story and situations are narrated to people who are from a non-film background to see how they react. We take feedback and improvise the writing.
You had stated that you are open to collaborations rather than writing and directing each film. How would you discuss this approach?
I think there are no hard and fast rules. The late Balu Mahendra sir was a writer, director, cinematographer and an editor. He made some amazing films. Some people can do it all. I love to direct. When I write, I like to collaborate, brainstorm and make a story better.
While writing Major, were there dos and don’ts that you and Adivi Sesh followed to avoid cliched tropes in biopics?
There were certain expectations when we teamed up to do Major. People wanted a stylish action film like Goodachari. We knew that within the framework of the biopic, we had a certain leeway for fiction. For instance, no one knows what exactly happened inside the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. The NSG soldiers are good in combat, so we could use some stylish action. The drama in the interval portion was a cinematic liberty. We retained the soul of Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s story.
The hostage character played by Sobhita Dhulipala was in reality a male character. Did the change in gender come about since you thought the audience would connect better to a young mother saving a child? What prompted that change?
Right from day one we wanted a female person for that character. Nearly 80% of the hostage drama was based on accounts from people. A similar hostage portion with a young woman happened at Nariman point. We used that episode at the Taj Palace. Sobhita is the hero of that track.
How much of your writing and direction would you attribute to your training at the New York Film Academy?
My days at the academy helped me a lot. I played multiple roles as a cinematographer, editor, etc. We worked in groups in film school and learnt a lot. I specialised in direction and took special classes for writing. I was not sure of how to construct a story. Film school oriented me to write and take it to its finishing point with a bound script.
When did the interest in storytelling begin?
I think it has been there since childhood. The visual art of storytelling and its importance came in later. But I always narrated stories to my family members. My well wishers began saying that I should consider storytelling. 2005-06 is when it got serious.
Tell us about your childhood and what prompted the interest to go to NYFA.
My childhood was spent between Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru; cinema was always a part of me wherever we travelled. I was exposed to films in different languages and these films shaped me. While studying at St Joseph’s High School in Hyderabad, on Monday during the lunch break, I would narrate the story of the film I had watched on Friday or Saturday. Some of my friends who later watched the film would say that my narration was better than what they saw. I pursued MBA before realising that I was keen on cinema and went to NYFA.
Returning to India, you joined as an assistant director to Sekhar Kammula for Leader. What were the key takeaways from that experience?
There are no hierarchies on his sets and there is an indie approach to filmmaking. I observed who does what on the set and how he delegates work.
What happened between Leader (2010) and Goodachari (2018)? Were you pitching stories to producers? Were there other projects you were working on?
Soon after Leader, I began pitching my story but nothing materialised. Sesh was my neighbour and he had directed Karma. Since I had managed the promotions of Leader, I used that experience to help Sesh promote it. That’s how we bonded. In 2015, we met again and bounced off ideas. Nothing had worked for me between 2011 and 2015. My struggles were similar to that of any newcomer. Ravikaran Perepu and Sesh’s Kshanam were released in 2016 and that opened up possibilities for new ideas. Then we began working on Goodachari.
What are you directing next?
I am working on a script that is close to my heart and I am confident that it will turn out to be a good one. It is a drama with some action.
What do you think of the changes in Telugu cinema in recent years with the blurring of language boundaries?
I think it has always been there, to an extent. Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Bombay and Shankar’s Indian were appreciated nationally. When you have a story that can cross borders, this will happen. Baahubali and RRR have now laid a clear path. But I believe that certain rooted stories should not be forced to go national. Some of Jandhyala’s films for example. Writers and directors need to be clear about what stories need to be told to everyone.