Sashi Kiran Tikka: ‘Major’ is Adivi Sesh’s best work thus far

Adivi Sesh and Sashi Kiran Tikka during the making of the film

Adivi Sesh and Sashi Kiran Tikka during the making of the film | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What the world knows about Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan is that he fought against terrorists in the 26/11 attacks of 2008 at The Taj Palace Hotel, Mumbai, and was killed in action. Major, the Hindi-Telugu biopic scheduled to release on June 3, is pitched as a personal, emotional story of Sandeep. “His parents, friends and colleagues remember him as a vibrant person with a great sense of humour. Our film shows the man behind the hero,” says director Sashi Kiran Tikka, when we meet for this interview during the post-production of the film.

Post the release of the Telugu espionage thriller Goodachari in August 2018, Sashi and actor Adivi Sesh, also co-writers of the film, had decided to work on individual projects before another collaboration. However, things turned out differently. As Sashi puts it, “Sandeep brought us together again, sooner than we expected.” 

Dream projects

Sashi and Sesh have known each other since 2010, in the early stages of their film careers. As Sashi recalls, “We used to discuss story ideas that could be our dream projects. One of the ideas Sesh had was Sandeep’s biopic.” 

Adivi Sesh and Saiee Manjrekar in the film

Adivi Sesh and Saiee Manjrekar in the film | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In mid-2018, Sesh had almost completed Evaru (a Telugu remake of the Spanish film The Invisible Guest), when producers Sharath Chandra and Anurag Reddy enquired if Sesh had a story that would be interesting for an all-India film. Sesh pitched the idea of Sandeep’s biopic. A meeting with Namrata Shirodkar followed and Mahesh Babu also came aboard as co-producer. Sony Pictures also stepped in. 

Meanwhile, Sashi was busy with another script. When Adivi Sesh called to ask if he would direct Major, Sashi was not keen. Back home after the interaction, Sashi could not stop himself from researching Sandeep Unnikrishnan: “The more I read, the more audio and video clippings I tuned into, the more I was drawn to Sandeep’s story.”

Memory lane

Sashi and Sesh met Sandeep’s parents, retired ISRO officer K Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan. “My conviction to tell Sandeep’s story grew stronger. We met them a few times thereafter and recorded several hours’ worth of conversation. When someone recalls their son’s life, it does not happen in a chronological manner. The stronger memories pop up first; one memory leads to another. It was a challenge to condense 31 years of Sandeep’s life into a film.” Sesh and writer Abburi Ravi worked on the script and dialogues, while Sashi got busy with pre-production.

Mahesh Babu, the producer
Sashi remembers their first meeting with superstar Mahesh Babu, once his wife Namrata showed keen interest in the project. “He had liked Goodachari and during the pitch of Major, was able to imagine how we would make this film. Namrata ma’am kept in touch with us on a regular basis. Mahesh gave us complete freedom. He could have produced any other masala project, but he backed us. I am thankful and respect him for that.”

At the time Major was announced, in 2019, Uri: The Surgical Attacks was running to packed halls. “We were asked if Major was ‘Uri jaisa film?’ We told people that Uri is an incident-driven film while ours is a personal story of a soldier.”

Both Sashi and Sesh knew that narrating Sandeep’s story is a responsibility: “We used the lockdowns to finetune the script, the edit, etc. Of course, there were low moments. We would remind ourselves of the promise we gave to Sandeep’s parents — that we would make them proud and happy.”

A few incidents narrated by Sandeep’s friends from The Frank Anthony Public School, Bengaluru, and his colleagues at the NSG (National Security Guard) and the hostages made their way into the script. “One of the hostages recalled how, when Sandeep told them that they could trust the NSG, they felt he was god-sent.”

A little known anecdote about Sandeep harks back to the time he served on the Jammu-Kashmir border. Sandeep would tune into Pakistan’s radio station for Sufi music. He would request his colleagues in New Delhi to email the radio station with requests of his favourite Sufi numbers: “The internet connection was not great. So Sandeep sought the help of his Delhi colleagues.”

Adivi Sesh as Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan

Adivi Sesh as Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Taj blueprint

Major was filmed for over 120 days in real locations and seven sets were erected at Ramoji Film City, recreating the interiors of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Sesh and Sashi stayed at the hotel to get a sense of the place and its maze-like interiors. “David Headley had done a recce at the hotel and had given the terrorists a fairly good map of the interiors of the hotel that was 105 years old in 2008. The Mumbai police and the NSG, in contrast, knew very little about the hotel when they stepped in on a dark day trying to put down the terrorists and save people,” says Sashi.

Many of the technical team members of Major, including cinematographer Vamsi Patchipulusu and editors PK and Vinay had worked for Goodachari in different capacities. The team had pulled off a film that looked slicker than a budget of around ₹ 4.5 crores would allow. “Many of us who come from film schools are adept at making low budget, high-quality films,” Sashi laughs, adding, “ Major got us better budgets, given the bigger canvas.”

While casting, Sashi was particular that his actors should be able to speak Hindi and Telugu. Revathy and Prakash Raj were cast as Sandeep’s parents, Saiee Manjrekar as Sandeep’s wife and Sobhita Dhulipala as one of the hostages. “We were lucky to get the right people. Prakash Raj sir had met Sandeep’s father in Bengaluru and had become emotionally connected with the part.”

Sashi credits Sesh as the most hardworking member of the Major team: “He surprised me as an actor. I would rate Major as his career-best performance.”

After Major, Sashi plans to work on a film for Sithara Entertainments before he regroups with Sesh for Goodachari 2. A New York Film Academy alumnus who worked as an assistant director with Sekhar Kammula, he wants to make films that “narrate universal stories that are close to reality; something that people can connect with”.

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 3:17:30 pm |