Hanu-Man, the first film from director Prasanth Varma’s superhero series, will be released soon. The Telugu film will also be dubbed in multiple languages. Prasanth debuted with the multi-genre Telugu film Awe in 2018, which won the National Film Awards for best visual effects and make-up. Those who follow Telugu cinema would be aware of his short films that got him noticed by stars such as Ravi Teja, Sundeep Kishan and Kajal Aggarwal and yet, Prasanth had his doubts when stars offered to produce his first feature film. He wondered if he would be asked to tailor the script to suit a star’s image. He was convinced when stylist Prasanthi Tipirneni and actor Nani reposed faith that his script will stay intact and produced it under Wall Poster Cinema. At his Hyderabad office, Prasanth reflects on his journey from ad films to feature films, his interest in mythological stories and his training in technical aspects that contributed to his directorial skills.
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 interview:
Just before your first film, Awe, you stated that director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao is your inspiration to explore different genres. In your short career so far, you have tried to explore diverse genres —Awe was a genre bender, Kalki was a crime thriller, Zombie Reddyhad zombies in Rayalaseema and Hanu-Man is a superhero story.
I get bored quickly. For example, I used to play a lot of sports in my childhood. After 12 years I began focusing on cricket and then badminton. I will soon be playing tennis. We have one life and I want to explore different things. In cinema, once I finish working on a genre, I find it boring to do another film in a similar zone.
When I began working on Zombie Reddy, I didn’t know how to make a zombie film. I started figuring out the makeup and how to shoot horror. To immediately work on part two would have been boring. So I moved on to the superhero film, Hanu-Man. I hope to keep surprising viewers with new genres.
Hanu-Man is being projected as a pan-world film. Is that term being used since it has wide-release plans?
The initial idea was to make a Telugu film. Once we unveiled the title and the first poster, people from Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil industries showed interest. Since Hanuman is a universal deity, we thought why not make it a bigger film. Then distributors suggested we also release it in Hindi. I was not too ambitious. But producer Niranjan Reddy sensed the potential and was eager to scale it up. People from China, Japan, Korea and other countries have also approached the producer. It is almost like how Hanuman, who does not know his strength, keeps growing bigger and bigger. We plan to release the film in 11 languages, including Marathi.
Hanu-Man is the first film in the Prasanth Varma Cinematic Universe. We also have a spy universe from Yash Raj Films, a cop universe from Rohit Shetty, the HIT universe in Telugu and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s universe in Tamil. What prompted you to venture into this zone and that too without a big star cast?
I am happy that so many universes are coming up. It doesn’t matter who came first, it will be exciting for the audience. I am so lazy that I couldn’t come up with any other name other than my own name for this cinematic universe. When I began this film, I only looked at the potential of my market, which is small. Waiting for stars would have involved time. I was sure that at least a few people who followed my work would come to the theatres to watch my film. I strongly believe in the superhero genre and Hanuman is my biggest star. I worked with Teja Sajja in Zombie Reddy, in which he had an urban character. I thought he would be perfect in a rural character, as an underdog who gets superpowers. The audience has known him since his days as a child actor and I think they will cheer for him. My next film in the superhero series, Athira, is with newcomer Kalyan Dasari and it is bigger than Hanu-Man. I am confident that these superhero films will work.
Did Marvel and DC films also serve as reference points?
Yes, and I have watched all the superhero films, including Minnal Murali (Malayalam). I had to make my film unique. My hero cannot have the superpowers that someone else has.
Your films tend to have mythological references. Did that interest come from your school days in Palakollu?
I studied in Sri Saraswathi Sisu Mandir, Palakollu. Apart from science, mathematics and social studies, we had an extra subject in which they taught us stories from the itihasas. We had Ramayana as a subject in Class VI or VII, then Mahabharata and Bhagavatham. We had competitions to recite slokas from Bhagavad Gita. I liked the drama in these stories. Recently during a trip to Mumbai I picked up a book on lesser-known tales in mythology. These stories continue to fascinate me and subconsciously it reflects in my writing and that of my sister. She is part of my Scriptsville team. We are working on another film that we haven’t announced yet and in this, we tried not to have any mythological references.
You studied engineering and then made ad films, shorts and feature films. Was there a moment of reckoning when you decided to pursue a career in films?
My friend and music composer Shravan was making a music video and asked me to help. I knew nothing about filming music videos but looked up online resources and helped him. We worked on a few videos and I started to learn more about filming and editing since I wanted the videos to look better. I don’t remember when my interest in filmmaking got stronger.
You learnt visual effects, editing and cinematography. How did all this give you an overall perspective of filmmaking?
Since there was no editor for the music video I learnt editing and similarly, cinematography. I had fun doing it. Even today I tell my team let’s enjoy the making of a film. A few months ago, in the same week I was working on the teaser of Hanu-Man, another film, and the promo for Balakrishna’s Unstoppable show for Aha - all in different genres. It was possible only because I enjoy what I do.
The visual effects in Hanu-Man promos are being appreciated. Awe also won the National Award for best visual effects. What is your process?
I have some knowledge about visual effects and sometimes I work on it along with my team member Venkat. My initial learning of VFX helped me understand how to shoot the footage such that the VFX artist working on it later will not have a tough time. For example some scenes are best filmed using a static camera and the movements can be done during post production. Recently I met director SS Rajamouli and sought his advice for some aspects of Hanu-Man. For one shot, he suggested that I remove it unless it is absolutely necessary for the film. This saves a lot of time. It is important to finish the final cut of the film and then work on VFX.
You founded Scriptsville to nurture screenwriters. You had nearly 40 story ideas that were waiting to be made into scripts. What does Scriptsville do?
We want to do a lot of things but don’t have much bandwidth at the moment. We are working on a few ideas and developing them into scripts. Some of my earlier stories are also being rewritten. Adbhutam (on Aha Telugu) is one of them, three more films and a web series are being made from my earlier scripts.
It took you eight years to make your first feature film. Several projects almost went on floors, only to be cancelled at the last minute. What kept you going?
More than 18 films got shelved. Once I had decided to direct a feature film, I did not want to do anything else. I had lost my engineering certificates and decided not to reapply. I was a class topper and there were times my family asked why I was getting into cinema. My initial plan was to do a masters’ programme, work for a couple of years in the IT sector so that if I fail in cinema, I have something to fall back on. One of my friends told me that someone who swims with tubes will never learn to swim. Filmmaking is also like jumping into an ocean. About 99% will sink. I tried writing a few scripts to suit images of stars. But ultimately I was firm that I wanted to make my kind of a film. Awe took shape. Even after Awe, following Singeetham Srinivasa Rao garu’s advice, I began making the films I had set my heart on rather than wait for the stars. If a star is willing and has the time, then I will make such a film.
What do you think of Telugu cinema today?
A lot of people told me that larger-than-life and superhero films will only bring the audience to the theatres, rather than normal dramas. But we have seen how well films such as Writer Padmabhushan have done. No one knows what will work. It is important to write a film that you would love to watch in theatres. There will be surprises like Kantara. There is more competition and more opportunities, especially in the digital space. New and emerging names will direct while the experienced will be showrunners. No one can be lazy in their writing and think it will work.