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Rohit Penumatsa: We are an underground movement that is frowned upon

An artist’s representation of the ‘Sheesh Mahal’ stories   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We feel like a Scandinavian thrash metal band with a limited audience…” says Rohit Penumatsa, and Sasi, who goes by the name Camp Sasi, chips in, “...but whenever there is a concert, a lot of headbanging happens.” The independent Telugu filmmakers are looking forward to the release of their feature film Sheesh Mahal, scheduled to hit theatres soon. A few paid previews held recently witnessed full houses, with a sizeable audience being those who are familiar with their series and films available on YouTube and Avanti Cinema (avanticinema.com).

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The two have a steady following among aspiring filmmakers and film aficionados who look for content that is alternative to mainstream Telugu cinema. Story Discussion (1 & 2), A Love Letter to Cinema, MIST and Nirudyoga Natulu are among their popular works. Often filmed with limited budgets and starring emerging actors and aspiring directors, their films are known for sharp commentary on the city and the film industry.

Sheesh Mahal might be gearing up for release now, but its music, composed by Vivek Sagar, has had loyal listeners in recent years. The film has been in the making for eight years, having roughed it out with resource crunches.

One festival, many stories

Rohit Penumatsa

Rohit Penumatsa   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The film narrates a bunch of stories in the backdrop of the International Children’s Film Festival of India, held in Hyderabad in 2013. Rahul Ramakrishna plays an independent filmmaker, whose characterisation is inspired by Sasi’s journey in cinema, wanting to document the film festival and the people it brings together. He also documents the single screen theatres in Hyderabad struggling to survive.

Running parallel to this director’s journey, replete with hilariously frustrating moments of working with limited resources, is the story of an adolescent ragpicker who gains entry into the film festival. Another story traces young love between a Malayalam-speaking, Hyderabad-based teen and a girl from Khammam. Meanwhile, a father of two who works at a theatre in the Old City is moved by a film that is screened at the festival.

The narrative uses footage filmed during the children’s film festival, from lyricist and director Gulzar and actor Ranbir Kapoor attending the opening ceremony, to the hundreds of children pouring in to attend the screenings. “The idea emerged a couple of days before the film festival. The festival gave us ample access to theatres across the city,” recalls Sasi, who appears as a cameraman with quirks in the film.

Sheesh Mahal’s credits include cinematography by Gnana Shekhar V S, sound mixing by Teja Asgk and the multi-hyphenate Piyush Mishra who penned a Hindi song, impressed by the film’s footage. The soundtrack includes a Tamil song, picturised using montage shots, as an ode to the 3Bs, as Sasi calls them: “directors Balu Mahendra, K Balachander and Bharathiraja.”

Sasi and Rohit met through common friends and the latter’s brother, bound by their common fanboy enthusiasm for Chiranjeevi. Both had grown up watching mainstream Telugu cinema, lapping up all its masala-laden stories, until they individually discovered world cinema. Sasi’s introduction happened through the Hyderabad Film Club. “I watched an Iranian film and thought it was incredible how they made good films with even the simplest of stories.”

Camp Sasi

Camp Sasi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sasi, who was making advertising and corporate films, observes how some of his peers who are now established directors and technicians, found their way into the film industry by making peace with the overtly business oriented ways of filmmaking.

Rohit, too, shares a similar observation: “We have seen aspiring directors who come with dreams after having watched films like Fight Club (David Fincher; 1999) but inevitably end up making films pandering to a star’s image.”

Funded by fans

Sasi and Rohit wanted to play by their own rules, sharing writing and direction responsibilities, and finding an audience thanks to the internet. How did they get funds? “Our fans,” replies Sasi, explaining how people have been forthcoming with anything from ₹100 to a lakh or more from time to time.

It was while filming Sheesh Mahal that Sasi began enjoying the freedom of making an indie project. Rohit, who at first wanted a mainstream experience, gradually took a liking to the experience. The first story Sasi wrote was the one involving the characters in the canteen of the Old City single screen theatre and the rest followed. The ragpicker story was an offshoot of another story he had written, of a ragpicker finding a gun. Here, the boy chances upon a film reel. “The film is also an attempt to look at Hyderabad through its stories,” says Sasi.

They did not fathom that the film would take this long to release. “There were times when we got frustrated and did not look at the project,” says Sasi.

Rohit and Sasi might have a niche, loyal following in the indie circuit but state that the Telugu film industry, barring a few such as directors Vivek Atreya and Hasith Goli, have not commended their work. “A lot of people are dismissive. The more they discourage, the more enthusiastic we get,” laughs Sasi. “We have friends in direction departments. A few assistant directors like our work so much that they get into fights with their peers. So we are an underground movement that is frowned upon,” adds Rohit.

Sheesh Mahal is likely to get a limited release in Hyderabad and the US soon.


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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 10:17:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/telugu-indie-filmmakers-camp-sasi-and-rohit-penumatsa-talk-about-their-film-sheesh-mahal/article37784400.ece

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