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Directors’ Take: Telugu cinema’s emerging voices

Watch | Director Rahul Sankrityan’s next is a folk-noir Rayalaseema film

Watch | Director Rahul Sankrityan: ‘The rural culture in Rayalaseema has not been explored’

Director Rahul Sankrityan, now working on a period Telugu film set in rural Rayalaseema, reflects on his journey, his films ‘Taxiwaala’ and ‘Shyam Singha Roy’ and why he doesn’t settle for normal narratives

May 09, 2023 12:00 pm | Updated May 11, 2023 04:57 pm IST

Rahul Sankrityan

Rahul Sankrityan

In almost nine years, Rahul Sankrityan has preferred to go slow and steady and directed three films — The End, Taxiwaala and Shyam Singha Roy. In this interview as part of the directors’ series, he discloses that he turned down a few quick projects. He states that he cannot direct a film unless he likes a story and can relate to its world, “Shyam Singha Roy taught me that it is okay to take two to three years and make a film that people will love.” 

Directors’ take
This series of interviews shines the spotlight on some of the 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:

Your films — The End, Taxiwaala and Shyam Singha Roy — do not fall into the formulaic masala film category. Was that incidental or did you set out to make different kinds of cinema?

I am not a fan of regular commercial movies. The kind of films I like to watch — in theatre, on television or digital platforms — are the kind of films I aspire to make. Horror is one of my favourite genres and reincarnation is a subject that interests me. So all these stories have been a conscious choice.

Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Taxiwaala’

Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Taxiwaala’

Soon after Shyam Singha Roy, you mentioned that you are working on multiple ideas — a zombie film, a time travel story… What have you been writing?

Ever since I started my journey, I have been trying to explore many concepts and ideas. I am working on a period rural story set in Rayalaseema that talks about people, their culture and their lesser-known struggles. This will be an authentic Rayalaseema film, unlike the faction stories we have seen in the past. There will be some action as well. I would call it a folk-noir film. I am also writing a contemporary social story involving a government employee; the zombie film and a time travel film on a big scale are also on the cards.

You grew up in Rayalaseema in the 1990s. Were you exposed to the faction Telugu movies set in the Rayalaseema backdrop and did it appeal to you?

Films on Rayalaseema, to my knowledge, were about faction and revenge stories. I don’t remember any other aspect of Rayalaseema being explored at that time. I enjoyed them a lot; there was a sense of false pride. There is a rural culture in Rayalaseema that has not been explored. People are loving and sensitive. During my research for my new film, I visited a few villages and witnessed how helpful people are. If you ask them for a route, they will guide you until you reach the place and make sure you are comfortable. 

You stated in an interview that your idea of cinema changed after watching Mani Ratnam’s Yuva and the Hollywood films such as Star Wars and Titanic. What were the other films that piqued your interest?

I also liked watching Titanic, Jurassic Park and Anaconda. I watched the Telugu dubbed versions of English films in theatres in Kurnool and later the English films on Star Movies. I enjoyed this experience of watching dinosaurs suddenly appearing on screen. I also enjoyed watching action films like Terminator. I don’t like subtle films and perhaps that drives the choice of films I make.

You studied B.Tech and worked in an IT firm before you realised that your interest is in cinema. Did your short films and the indie project The End turn out to be your film school?

Totally. Even my last film Shyam Singha Roy was like a training ground. Every film teaches you something. I haven’t been to a film school and haven’t worked with a mainstream commercial director, which I regret because it is taxing to work on your own. I was a shy kid. Moving to Hyderabad and working with those who had better exposure was not easy. I was not good at narrating and selling my stories, I was low on confidence. But I can write well. With The End, I understood what it takes to release a film and how the distribution works. With Taxiwaala, I understood the structure of the industry, how an established production house works and the economics of the industry. During Shyam Singha Roy I could focus more on storytelling since the other things were taken care of. I could explore the characters better. I realised that cinema has the power to transport people into a different world, almost having the power to change their perspectives. So the next time I want to make films that will live longer.

While learning to navigate the industry as a new filmmaker, did you regret giving up a stable IT job and did you feel the need for guidance? 

There were times I thought I had made a mistake and wondered if I should go back. But there was no comfort zone for me in my software job as well. So I had to fight this through. The biggest challenge for a filmmaker, more than concentrating on the art, is that most of your energy goes into dealing with people and day-to-day situations. It boils down to how efficient you are on that day. That is not how a storyteller or an artist functions. It was a tough decision to leave my job and get into the cinema. The only thing driving me was that I needed to make things happen.

Looking back at Shyam Singha Roy, would you have done certain things differently? One of the complaints was that the Vasu character (one of the dual roles enacted by Nani) was rushed through and the entire focus was on Shyam (Nani) and Rosy (Sai Pallavi).

I agree with that (criticism). The initial idea was about how Vasu discovers his Shyam. But Shyam and Rosy’s characters were so strong that, on the edit table, we felt that is where the USP of the story lies. The reincarnation part is something we have seen in other films. Which is why in the final film the first half featuring Vasu appears weaker than that of Shyam and Rosy. I had the opportunity to discuss this for a probable Hindi remake (which has now been dropped), I thought I could rework Vasu’s character.

Nani and Sai Pallavi as Shyam and Rosy in ‘Shyam Singha Roy’

Nani and Sai Pallavi as Shyam and Rosy in ‘Shyam Singha Roy’

For the Bengal portions, did you go into a rabbit hole of discovering Bengali cinema after you took up this story or were you already clued in?

For some reason I had this fascination towards Bengal, because of its people, literature, social reforms and politics. So when Satyadev Janga came with this story I was excited that I could explore Bengal through my film. I had already watched some of Satyajit Ray’s films and thought I could do something of a tribute. Shyam asking for a job at the ‘Royal press’ is a tribute to Aparajito. I also watched films of Rituparno Ghosh, Mrinal Sen and Guru Dutt to understand the portrayal of the educated youth of the era (1960s and 70s). I had time for research during the pandemic.

How comfortable are you with directing a story written by someone else as opposed to writing and directing yourself?

It is a privilege to get a good story written by someone else. Conceptualising and writing are time-consuming jobs. I don’t mind getting a good story, maybe working on the last draft and collaborating. I know my literary standards and am aware that my knowledge is limited.

There was a time when new directors would feel the pressure to keep scaling up with their consecutive films and raise their brand value. Is that an easy space to negotiate, considering you refused a few films?

Every five years the way an industry functions keeps changing. When I entered the industry, I realised that everyone is after a hit. When one or two different films change the business, the trend shifts in that direction. The focus is on large scale films nowadays. Young filmmakers should know how to adapt. If you have a strong voice, you can be a trendsetter.

After Pushpa-the Rise, RRR and KGF, the focus is on spectacle films. A few medium budget and small films have also done well. How do you look at Telugu cinema in the post-Baahubali phase?

Post Baahubali and post pandemic, people are open to all kinds of content. The audience is clear about what films they will watch in theatres and what they will watch on their mobile phones, computers and televisions. Big scale films that can engage viewers with spectacle, emotion and action guarantee a theatrical experience. 

What are the challenges that come with wanting to direct these big films, apart from the need for an established production house and a star?

The challenges would be similar to that of any other job - what is your experience with handling big budgets, stars and the expectations of their fans? What is your experience in handling crowds and action sequences? Producers and artistes look at what films the director has done before. Nowadays, people are also open to all kinds of stories and directors. They take time to listen and understand. Anyone can go and pitch a story. You just have to know how to sell your story.

What kinds of films are you hoping to direct?

I’d like to make films that can transport people into a different world, forget their reality and connect with the emotions of different characters. It could be a therapy in terms of comedy, pathos, action… in short, the navarasas. 

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