Harish Shankar reacts to both appreciation and criticism of ‘Ramayya Vasthavayya’ and talks about his perspectives on cinema

Harish Shankar grew up in a middle class family and was introduced to literature through his father, a Telugu pandit. Beyond books, both Harish and his father were huge film aficionados. “I liked films of Prakash Mehra, Manmohan Desai, David Dhawan, EVV Sathyanarayana and Raghavendra Rao. I’ve always been drawn to films with larger-than-life heroes,” says the filmmaker.

In the last two years, Harish has received both praise and criticism. Praise from die-hard fans of Pawan Kalyan and NTR who credit him for showing their matinee idols in a new light and criticism for relying on star power than content. “The more films I watched, the more I knew where fans of NTR, Mahesh Babu or Chiranjeevi would clap. I believe that cinema is born out of an understanding of sensibilities. People are clear about what they want to watch; they want to see their stars first and then the story,” says the director.

Harish doesn’t thumb down the view that stars need to be inherently part of a good film with a strong story to boot. “I respect that perspective. However, in my films, I try to entertain people and show actors in their best. If I had had a taut screenplay and a strong story, there would have been no room for the 10-minute antakshari in Gabbar Singh,” he reasons.

Ramayya Vasthavayya, he says, presented him with the challenge of showing NTR in a new avatar. “I’ve known NTR since my struggling days. I was a writer with Durga Arts and met him to narrate a story. We became good friends and wanted to do a film, but somehow things never worked out. By then, I finished Shock, Mirapakay and Gabbar Singh. Off screen, NTR doesn’t get weighed down by his family lineage. I wanted to show him as a college student to bring out that appeal,” he says.

However, Harish is also at the receiving end for the story and narration. The film that opens with Mukesh Rishi surviving an attempt on his life drifts away and returns to the story only towards the interval. Harish compares this narrative style to that of Mani Ratnam’s Roja: “I don’t believe in screenplay rules; old rules are replaced with new ones each Friday. I really liked Roja, which begins in Kashmir, goes off to a hamlet and returns to the starting point after Arvind Swamy is kidnapped. In RV, I tried to adapt that style.”

A breezy first half followed by a rather heavy second half is how he wanted the film to be. “Maybe people expected me to offer a lot of entertainment in the second half of RV, just the way I did in Gabbar Singh. I wouldn’t grow as a writer if I fill all my films with only entertainment,” he says.

As for the characterisation of the lust-filled antagonist, essayed by Ravi Shankar, he says it was imperative to make the villain forceful, even if revolting, so that the story had its impact.

On a lighter vein, Shock, Mirapakay and RV have all had bits of Ilayaraja’s songs in the background. Harish says he’s a huge fan of the maestro. “I haven’t come up with a story good enough to approach the maestro to compose for my films,” he smiles.

Next, Harish is planning a film with Allu Arjun and hopes to leverage on his merits as a filmmaker. In college days, he tried his luck to enter National School of Drama. “I got through the prelims and there were just two seats for Andhra Pradesh. Two others from Potti Sriramulu University were selected. On hindsight, I feel they were more deserving. My perception towards art was commercial and for them, it was art in its purest form,” says Harish.

With whichever film he directs, Harish says the emphasis will be on dialogues as well. “I remember my mom and aunts listening to ‘sabda chitralu’ on radio where the soundtrack of films would be aired. By listening to a few dialogues, my mom would be able to identify the director. I hope someday people will listen to dialogues and say it’s a Harish Shankar film.”