Sekhar Kammula reflects on growing up in Padma Rao Nagar, which he revisits in ‘Life Is Beautiful’ and why he fears that his signature style might get repetitive.

Sekhar Kammula walks in with filter coffee, pulls up a chair, gazes at the colony set that has become his second home for a year and says, “This was a post office godown. We took this area on lease, got it cleared and Thota Tharani and his team worked for four months to design this colony. Now it’s become a part of Padma Rao Nagar landscape. People come here for morning walks and children come to play. But this set, too, has to go. It will be dismantled in a few days.”

Barely a few days before the release of Life is Beautiful, we engage Sekhar in a conversation in the early morning hours. “When we were growing up, life revolved around people in the colony. We played together, celebrated festivals and when someone moved out of the colony, we missed them. This film is partly my memories and partly my wishful thinking of how things can be. Before I grow old and cynical, I wanted to revisit my innocence,” he says.

Padma Rao Nagar has changed with time, succumbing to urbanisation. Sekhar reflects, “There were old houses and wells here. Musheerabad Jail was our activity point. It was barbed till a certain height. We used to fly kites and jump inside the compound to retrieve the kites. Monkeys have always been part of this locality. Compared to other areas, Padma Rao Nagar is less chaotic.”

Life Is Beautiful has 11 newcomers, along with Shriya Saran. The biggest surprise is the return of Amala Akkineni. “She liked the script but it took a lot of persuasion to get her to face the camera again. I don’t know if it was Nagarjuna who finally convinced her,” says Sekhar, refusing to elaborate on her role in the film.

Sekhar is aware of his target audience: “My films are watched by 30-35 lakh middle class audience who like sensible cinema with a touch of idealism,” he says. His idealistic stand was evident in Leader. He expected the film to trigger a debate. “Leader fetched good returns, but it didn’t spark a revolution. Perhaps it was ahead of its time; perhaps people didn’t want to see a serious film; perhaps they got used to corruption; I don’t know. Two years later when youngsters took to streets to support Anna Hazare I felt Leader wasn’t timed right. There was Telangana agitation and other issues at that time. Still, I’d say Leader is my best film.”

Most of Sekhar’s films, barring Leader, have a signature style — music, lyrics and women protagonists being rooted in native culture and a story with a message. While it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker not giving in to formulaic films, is his style getting repetitive? “That is my biggest fear. With any writer, there is the danger of getting redundant. When I feel I am reaching that point, I will look at outside scripts,” he says.

As we wind up, we ask him why he chose Roberto Beningni’s famous title for his film. “Life Is Beautiful sums up the essence of life in your younger days. I could have used a Telugu title but this has a better connect with youngsters,” he smiles.

Work of art

The colony set is true-to-life, like most of art director Thota Tharani’s works. His team worked on the vacant land next to Shivananda Ashram in Padma Rao Nagar. Three small houses, a salon and a cyber cafe were put up adjacent to a real house and the post office godown that existed in the compound. The construction is so realistic that we do a double take before differentiating the set from the real structures.

“We used non-realistic materials to arrive at a realistic look. In fact, many of the materials we use in film sets are nowadays used in real constructions as well,” says Tharani.

Plywood, PoP and bricks were put to use, but what made a difference was Tharani working on the structures to make them look ‘aged’. “It has to be done with care, to show how a house ages with the change in weather conditions,” explains Tharani. The team worked around the fruit-bearing trees in the area. A small tree house adds to the picturesque set. Today, the place is frequented by walkers and early mornings are characterised by chirping birds and a paddle of ducks.