Gowtam Tinnanuri is among those filmmakers who would be happy to stay away from the spotlight, quietly working at his desk while writing or behind the camera on a movie set. “I have directed only two films, and one remake. I do not know enough to talk about filmmaking,” he says hesitantly when the conversation begins. Those two films — the coming-of-age Telugu romance drama Malli Raava and the sports family drama Jersey— continue to be fondly recalled by movie buffs. As the conversation progresses, the director opens up to share his journey into cinema and how he embraced both writing and direction.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
This series of interviews shines the spotlight on the newer crop of directors who made their mark in Telugu cinema in recent years. The series is an attempt to discuss how the larger-than-life Telugu films that capture nationwide attention co-exist with refreshing small and medium budget films.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
You usually shy away from interviews. Is it because you are an introvert or do you prefer to lie low when there is no film release?
It is a bit of both. If it is a film promotion the conversation is contextual. If it is a larger conversation about cinema I feel inferior to come in front of the camera and talking. My exposure to cinema is limited; there are more informative interviews out there featuring directors such as Ram Gopal Varma or Puri Jagannadh.
When your new film with Vijay Deverakonda was announced, it created a buzz on social media. What can you tell us about the film?
I am happy that people are looking forward to the film and hope it will be worthy of that excitement. Anything I say about the film will be diluted since we haven’t released any content so far.
Malli Raavawas a coming-of-age relationship drama and Jersey was the story of a talented but failed cricketer, treated like a biopic. These are not regular masala dramas. What made you believe in these stories initially?
Every film begins with the intention of wanting to tell a good story. An idea emerges, you work on it for six months or a year and it develops into a full-fledged story. The idea has to be exciting enough to work on the script. Then begins the task of getting the right people — actors and technicians — to make the film. Malli Raava is a love story where someone is so close yet so far. He (the male protagonist) likes the girl in school and meets her years later at work when he can make life decisions. However, they move apart. They meet for the third time years later and the story explores what happens next. At the time of writing the story I was looking forward to the journey of these two characters. The screenplay, camera, music and other aspects came later. Sometimes ideas that seem interesting fizzle out because without life experiences, you cannot flesh out every idea into a feature film.
Jersey began with the idea of a 36-year-old, a father, wanting to get back to playing cricket. I liked the line where the friend character asks Arjun (Nani) why he wants to play professional cricket at an age when he should be playing with his son. What you saw on screen is the ninth or the 10th draft. The story went through changes. In the initial drafts, the coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) was the father of the girl (Shraddha Srinath) and there was some friction between him and Arjun. The story evolved with each draft.
Your love for writing brought you to cinema. What do you enjoy about writing?
Calling myself a writer is overburdening. I know my literature skills and the limitations; I have read very few books and I feel lucky to be called a writer in this medium. A friend of mine wanted to be a director; he was working in an IT firm. Once, during lunch, he told me that he wants to direct a film. Before that, we had discussed our entrepreneurial dreams and we considered starting an Internet business. Suddenly he said he wants to direct a film and that he had this interest for a long time. He told me a one-line story and then we began figuring out how to write the story and screenplay.
We had both quit our jobs and for the first time, I went to a film set. My friend wanted a scene changed and gave me the responsibility to do it. I worked on it from 5pm to 1am and gave it to the assistant director. The next morning when I saw the scene taking shape through the actors, it was exciting. That gave me a high. There’s a dialogue by Brahmanandam in Ready where he says he can create a world if he wants to. Even today, the most exciting thing is to watch what I have written being translated on screen. Now I enjoy both writing and direction.
So did your friend’s film turn out to be your learning ground for editing, digital intermediate and other post-production processes?
It was a learning ground for several aspects of filmmaking. We had a rough story but did not know how to write a structured screenplay. I looked up online resources, read books for nearly eight months and wrote the screenplay. A director needs to know how to convey emotions with the camera, what is the role of editing, sound design, colour grading… in short, have a good understanding of the audio visual medium. I learnt that the script has to be written with an understanding of these crafts. I am grateful to editor T S Suresh and sound designer Radha Krishna who allowed me into their workspaces in Chennai and let me observe the editing and sound design processes. All this changed how I write scripts.
Malli Raava shaped after you met Rahul Yadav Nakka, who until then had no prior experience in film production. Did you also pitch the story to others?
I had a script and wanted to sell it. But I realised slowly that no one was interested in reading it, let alone buying it. Then I thought I should direct it. I met several producers over six years. I called production offices. The treatment was similar to how we dismiss calls that pitch loans. I also visited a few offices. The first big producer who gave me time was Suresh Babu. I emailed the story but did not hear back from his office. My search continued.
In this process I met Rahul and learnt that he is an angel investor for small businesses. He read the story and said he would invest 30%. Even then I could not find other producers. It was not about whether a film needed 10 lakh or 10 crore, no one wanted to risk it with a first timer. Then Rahul offered to produce it.
Since both of us were new, I decided to shoot a three-minute scene and work on the post production, so that we assess the footage before going ahead with the film. This process worked well and we gained some confidence. Malli Raava fared decently and helped me make my next film, Jersey.
Jersey was not only appreciated by the audience but also won the National Award for Best Feature Film (Telugu) and for Best Editing. Did that further bolster your confidence?
In my school days, I had heard about Anjali (by Mani Ratnam) winning National Awards (the film won three awards - best child artist, audiography and feature film in Tamil). I did not know of National Awards for films until then.
When I wanted to become a director, I aspired to win a National Award. I had heard that they (the government) give the winners air tickets to New Delhi and one gets to wear a formal suit and collect the award from the President of India. I was fortunate that Jersey won that year. There were several other good films. Naveen Nooli truly deserved the award for editing. He has the ability to view things from a different perspective. If an emotion does not work, he is upfront about it.
The National Awards gave me both confidence and credibility. But I am aware that I need to prove myself all over again for my next film.
You also remade Jersey in Hindi at a time when language boundaries had begun to blur post Rajamouli’s Baahubali.
I took up the opportunity to make the film in Hindi since I could take the story to a wider audience, work with actors such as Shahid Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, cinematographer Anil Mehta and others. In addition, it would give me further time to work on my next script. Looking back, I was satisfied with my work for Jersey’s Hindi version. It was depressing when the film did not do well commercially. I calmed down only after a friend reminded me that I had made the Telugu film without big expectations and should be happy with the progress I had made.
How do you look at this phase in which directors can dream big and their stories can cut across languages?
It is a good time to be making movies now. The audience is more accepting and forgiving. I grew up in Rajahmundry watching films such as Titanic in Telugu. Now every film is accessible in different languages.
The most important aspect is to try to narrate a good story. Then the other factors need to fall in place — budget, actors, cinematographer, music composer, release date… You cannot plan it all. Personally speaking, I want to make good films and if they turn out to be memorable, it is a win.