The Auteur Form Of Art -- The Story Of Srinivas Avasarala
Movies is an interesting form of art that introduces us, the common people, to many talents across the world. Without any relation, movies give us a great fortune to adore people by merely looking at their work as an artist. We might have many movie makers, but the ones whom we establish a connection are remembered and are said to have achieved their goal as a filmmaker. Among the latest breed of filmmakers in Telugu, leading from the front is Avasarala Srinivas, who had already marked his niche with his acting versatility. He multiplied his fortunes with his directorial debut, ‘Oohalu Gusagusalade.’ This one movie is enough to describe the diverse brilliance of Srinivas in multiple facets of movie making. Those quirky conversations, crisply composed screenplay and methodically thought direction speaks volumes of the Srinivas Avasarala’s storytelling skills.
And thus it comes as a natural progression, that we at VoxSpace approached him for an interview perhaps to know him and the ideologies that run inside his head. Much to our surprise, he seemed very much like anyone of us, but very crisp and bang-on with every word that he utters. Here, check out here our exclusive chat with one of the most promising next-generation filmmakers, Avasarala Srinivas.
When one talks about Srinivas Avasarala (or Srini if you will) and his presence in Telugu movies, one is always met with an unsaid assumption that the role you’ll play or the movie you shall make, will have a certain sense of cinematic intellect going for it. Many film observers would say that this in itself is a rare quality to achieve for anyone associated with movies. A preceding image of qualitative work per se. We wonder how you’ve managed to imbibe and enhance that image of yours over the past decade? Also, do you perhaps make an extra effort in picking projects which appeal to the intelligentsia of the film viewer’s community?
I will try and answer the latter part first. I don’t have the luxury of picking the projects that I want because there is not much going on. But I have the luxury of choosing from the offers that I get, and I have been careful about that. Because whenever a movie is a hit you are flocked with offers that would actually want to juice that image that you got out of the movie. Right after Ashta Chamma, my first movie, I was offered a lot of roles that sounded like an extension of the same role. I could have worked in them, at least half of them would have gone to floors and maybe a few of them would’ve actually become a hit. I see actors who are locked into an image because it worked for a few years and they are struggling to get out of it. It is too far the lane, you can’t turn around and say, ‘Hey, I want an image change.’
I try carefully not to juice anything too much, as I want the flexibility to work more and more. More in the sense not quantity-wise but explore different aspects. Because people grow and to not be able to express that, the new person that you are in an acting role, it would be such tragedy. I don’t want to be the person where I act in a film and come back home and be a different person. Everything I do should ring true to me at some level.
Coming to the man himself, whilst writing this article, our primary source of information about you was Wikipedia. Unfortunately, though, there’s not much to take up from there. So, there comes our curiosity again. What is the story of Srinivas? Where does the biopic start and what twists and turns, does it take to come to this point in the journey? And what secret lies behind the conversion of Srinivas Avasarala to, well, Srini?
I don’t know how to answer the second question without sounding like a megalomaniac. I should say I got lucky, I was in love with the process of filmmaking, acting, and writing. I wanted to tell stories. Even before I got my first offer I spent a good deal of money, time and effort trying to learn all the crafts. Luckily, I got a big breakthrough with Ashta Chamma. There is no conversion of Srinivas Avasarala to Srini, people still call me Srinivas Avasarala or Avasarala garu, I don’t pay much attention to that. But if you really want to know where I learned filmmaking I would say right after I went to the US.
I got in touch with a few Indian directors and one of them was kind enough to let me work with him on the sets. I was the director’s assistant for the movie Blind Ambition, it was directed by Bala Rajasekharuni. He first asked me to go to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to learn writing. He said if I wanted to learn filmmaking, the right start was by learning to write screenplays. I think that was the most valuable advice I got from anybody in the film industry. I’d advocate anyone to start film education, by screenwriting. And so from that place I went to New York, and I wanted to study at Lee Strasberg Institute, because like everybody else I was a big fan of (Al) Pacino and (Marlon) Brando. Luckily I got admitted and I studied acting for a bit at that institute. Then I got my offer for Ashta Chamma and I came back.
Coming to your enviable career which spans about a decade and pitches you in different roles of film experiences, namely writer, director, actor and recently Television presenter, we often wonder what does Srinivas truly revel in? Do you think it has been a natural progression for you in dabbling with these multiple roles, or would you say it was a conscious decision to pick them up, one after the other?
I get bored with myself every now and then, well not every now and then, but right after I do a project. I become bored with the kind of person I am, I get very low and it takes me some time to get out of it and re-invent myself. Talking about my personality, so far, I didn’t get to express myself truly in the films, but I think the film I’m writing right now is different from the film I wrote last time. The reason being, after Jyo Achyutananda I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to attempt the same genre one more time and I was getting bored of it. People wanted a film like Oohalu Gusagusalade one more time and I’m not in the space to write a film like that anymore because I’m not that person anymore.
I do a lot of things that transform me, not with the goal of transformation, but to find something else. I travel a lot, I’m into spirituality, I meet a lot of people and I read a lot. So, I think after every step you grow as a person and everything you do looks and sounds different. This is a journey where I’ll stay true to myself and create work that is true to me at that point in time. As I grow I will discover a lot about myself and hopefully, that comes across in my films as well. I don’t know what I am, I don’t truly revel in anything, I only believe in creating work that is actually representative of your worldview.
Literature and Srinivas Avasarala go hand in hand, is an affirmation many in the film industry would vouch for. It doesn’t surprise me when I see your body of work includes strong literature influences, namely Ashta Chamma (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) and your Directorial debut, Oohalu Gusagusalade (based on Edmond Rostand’s famous play Cyrano de Bergerac). The question therefore is, what is the story here? Where do you attribute your literary base on?
I think writing is a very solitary art and films are teamwork. So, no matter how independently you want to express yourself, your tone does get diluted in a film. It is a director’s medium, but there are a lot of other voices in the film as well. Most filmmakers learn from other films, especially in the Telugu film industry, so they all sound the same. Whenever you pick a book and read, it sounds different, it transports you into a different world and you see that. That makes you rich, your understanding of the world becomes richer when you read literature, than when you watch movies. And then when you create a movie you will have a unique voice as well. I think it’s good to get acquainted with a little literature. I don’t read much, but I still enjoy poetry- Urdu, Telugu, and English. I don’t get time to read much, but I’m lucky that I have a good collection of books and I carry a book whenever I’m shooting. So, whenever I get time off you would either find me reading the hard copy of a book or you would find me reading something on my kindle.
Continuing on the above thought it troubles us as writers when we see, Telugu film directors plainly ripping off western classics making them utterly nonsensical (like one recent big-ticket movie), while on the other hand there are so many talented writers here in the city. Purely from a filmmaker perspective, where do you think it’s going wrong? What is stopping filmmakers from employing regional novelists or playwrights or writers per se, in making great films with them? And this has been a problem pestering even the short film industry we so pride ourselves on. Where do you think the resolution lies in?
I do agree with you that Telugu film directors rip off a lot of Western classics or Korean movies. They are constantly looking for something to rip off, that’s how 90 % of the industry works. I feel sad because it’s such an uninspiring environment to work in. I also feel sad for the people that are actually doing this, because I think you get a great kick in expressing yourself. Whenever you come up with an original idea, that satisfaction versus something you borrowed from somebody else’s brain, it doesn’t work. I think one reason why that happens is because, we don’t have a film school structured here in the Telugu states.
It’s better now because there are a few schools that are actually trying to teach students. But, 10 years ago, I don’t think we had a film school environment where people learned the importance of being honest with themselves when it comes to art, or you don’t have that mindset where you respect other people’s work and not call it your own. Also, I think we as a culture, our survival is rooted in finding ways to bend the rules or play the law, we find ways to getaway. Sometimes I pity them, I don’t understand when people rip off a film and it becomes a success, why are they are pleased with themselves. Anyone can rip off a movie and make it a success. I think they have not tasted the true taste of ‘artistic success’ and once you taste that, I don’t think you will plagiarise anyone else’s work.
Now then, I can’t possibly know this for sure, but a while back, while your debut film was being released, we heard the rumours that Oohalu Gusagusalade wasn’t your first choice of film. It was said that you wanted to debut with a dark comedy/thriller script, but chose Oohalu.. because it was ‘easily acceptable.’ If this were true, even in parts, I always wanted to ask this question – why didn’t you go with the original plan then? Even if it weren’t true at all, would you have preferred to establish yourself with a film in any other genre or tone? Do you perhaps feel that Oohalu..’s success has brought a binding to you as a creative mind who would want to explore a totally opposite genre of film?
I had written a screenplay before Oohalu Gusagusalade, I still want to make it. But I didn’t find a producer to back it up. Like I said, back in 2013-14 we didn’t have this much variety in the industry, people were still doing the same old stuff, it was difficult to find space for me. But in 2017-18 things have changed. A lot more films with adventurous storytelling found their success. I’m happy that I’m a part of the group that is making the transition. I’m very happy with Oohalu Gusagusalade, it’s my film. When people say they like the film I feel very happy because that’s my personality, it’s how I talk and it’s my worldview. I was looking for a film that was easily acceptable and find a story and marry my tone of storytelling with that genre. I thought Cyrano de Bergerac was that film, which would actually gel well with my kind of writing, so I picked that film.
Steven Spielberg in one of his interviews with CBS once famously said: “It is as important for a good movie to meet commercial glory, as it is for a bad film to bite the dust”. Would you say that is truly applicable to our Indian film industry? Which films in the recent past, have truly impressed but have you wondering why they weren’t successful commercially? And have you come across movies which absolutely nonsense making millions?
I don’t know, I don’t pay too much attention to other films. I do go out and watch a film whenever I hear good things about it. I watched Arjun Reddy and Dangal last year. Whenever my friends are part of a film I go and watch it. If they want me to or they call me to a preview, I go and watch. I think it’s not important to discuss the whole scenario for a filmmaker. I concentrate on my own movies and I try to make them work. Because a film should make money, otherwise the industry is not going to be there. It’s good when a film makes money, but whenever a right film makes money I’m doubly happy.
Coming back to the personal story, as an actor you’ve played almost all types of roles. In all, what are those roles which have truly stayed with your heart? And if you could pick five roles to play again from any Telugu movie, ever made, what would they be and why? On the same thought, who is that one person, the biopic of whom you’d love to play the lead role as?
I don’t think I would pick any role that any other actor had played because if you truly like a part then the actor has done a great job and there is no reason for you to attempt and do it one more time. Coming to the biopic, I think the most important thing one should keep in mind is that one should not just keep a record of all the anecdotes, events in their life and film them. You really have to discover the internal pathos of the person. You need to have a view of their worldview, it might not have to be accurate. That is where the art is. I might not fit the part but the one biopic I would like to act in is of Kishore Kumar. I started liking him from an early age, his voice was magical to me. I didn’t even speak Hindi back then, I learned the language through his songs. Every syllable that he has recorded in a mic, I have it in my collection.
I get his sense of humour and his worldview. I equate many things of my life with him, if I had not discovered him as an artist I would have been a completely different person. I wouldn’t laugh at the same things I laugh at right now. I would have made different films. I would have written differently; I would have a different kind of music in my films. All in all, I would have been a different person. I think I get him; he has impacted me in a way no one else has. But I really think I would not fit that part. I hear rumours that Ranbir Kapoor is going to play Kishore Kumar in the biopic. I envy that project; I want to be a part of it. Coming to the roles, I like the roles I have played in Ashta Chamma, Oohalu Gusagusalade, Gentleman, Raja Cheyyi Veste, Oka Kshanam and the one in Pilla Zamindar. People still ask me about it.
As a storyteller and Director, what are the five things you take care of while selecting a script to bring to life? Might we say that you are one of the most brilliant dialogue writers in the industry today (Golden Nandi for Jyo Achyutananda for example)? In writing dialogues, is there a particular set of measures you take care of in working?
I don’t specifically have a set of rules that I follow when I write dialogue. One thing I cannot stand is ‘on-the-nose’ dialogue. People don’t talk about what they talk about. When a character says something, it is because he feels something else. Like for example in Oohalu Gusagusalade the lead couple meets in a balcony (they love each other) and want to be in each other’s company. You can’t have the characters say that ‘Hey, I want to be in your company.’ Instead, we have to create that feeling in the audience, not in the character. They talk about names, she wants to change her name and he suggests a few last names like Dubey, Singh, Singhania, Malhotra. To which she says she wants to be Prabhavati Venkateswara Rao. That is one of my favourite scenes in the movie. They convey so much fondness for each other without saying the words. Every dialogue is an exposition, they say so much about each character and the situation he is in.
It has to be in such a way that the audience decodes it, but they don’t figure it out that they have decoded it. So, they get a vague sense of who the character is and where does he come from. The smarter audience, the ones trained in acting and theatre, would get it. The non-trained audience should get an idea of it, they should not be spoon-fed. The audience has to work to get it. That’s where the audience is engaged. You can’t have a character say that he is a hard worker, you can’t put that in dialogue. You have to say something else which makes the audience think that he can get things done and is a hard worker. I don’t think I’m there yet.
They teach in film school that the second-best dialogue that one can write says the opposite of what the character wants to say. When the character wants to say ‘I love you’ and if he says ‘I hate you’ and the audience gets it, then that’s good dialogue writing. The best dialogue, they say, is the one that is not written. Hopefully, I will get there one day.
Now, guess it’s time to move into some lighter talks:
If you could remake one film of any director in the world into Telugu, which one would that be and why?
I don’t believe in re-makes, they don’t excite me. The true mazza in filmmaking is when the audience says -- I saw your film and I get you. It’s like when you are communicating with someone and they get you, that is great fun. And when you remake a film, that part is not there. You are not conveying anything that’s your own. So, I don’t believe in making remakes.
What are some four things about Srinivas Avasarala not many people know?
I don’t know what people know about me. I think what you see is what you get.
The music which makes your day? And Srini Mix Tape would consist of which singles?
I listen to a lot of ghazals. I listen to Kishore Kumar, I know all his songs by heart, that’s how much I’ve listened to him. I love Gulzar and Devulapalli Krishna Sastri garu and I listen to Ghulam Ali.
One thing in movie crafts, you think you are terrible at doing? And one thing you feel you are great at?
I think I will suck at cinematography. I really respect cinematographers and the kind of look they give to your film. I think a cinematographer is the director’s right hand. I am looking forward to collaborating with wonderful technicians. I completely respect their art and it’s one thing I would not try. I think one thing that I think I’m great at is directing my actors. I think all my actors have given fabulous performances in my films, be it Rashi Khanna, Naga Shourya, Nara Rohit or Ashok Kumar. I was able to get good performances out of them.
Dream team you’d want to work with, in terms of technicians, storytellers, VFX artists and Musicians so and so forth..
I don’t have a dream team yet. For me the main aspect of the film is storytelling. So I go with the team that understands the vision of the writer.
Favourite and influencing movies, writers, directors and actors?
In Telugu, I like Vamsi garu’s style a lot -- his writing, edit pattern, and characters. I like Mullapudi Venkata Ramana garu and Jandhyala garu’s writing a lot. I like Woody Allen and Rajendra Prasad garu’s acting. Whenever I write a film I imagine him (Rajendra Prasad) saying the dialogues. In both my films I had him in mind. (In Hollywood) I like Tarantino, I think he is a brilliant dialogue writer. I like Elia Kazan, I think he is a brilliant director. I like Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor, (Al) Pacino was a great influence when I started watching films, as well. I like Martin Scorsese and Sydney Lumet. I like Iranian films a lot. My favourite film is Bicycle Thieves and China Town.
To wrap this up, being now a representative of good and meaningful cinema, what are some of the tips and tricks of the trade that you would like to share with the newcomers in the industry, both storytelling wise and acting wise. And what perhaps is the motto you abide by?
Until a month or two ago I didn’t have any meaningful advice to give to newcomers in the industry. But one thing I’ve realized that you have to stay true to yourself. I have seen directors make brilliant work when they were young and once they grow old, they keep repeating the same value system from their earlier movies and it doesn’t work anymore. Because the main reason I think is that you have changed as a person and your films are still dated 15 years ago, then it doesn’t work. You still believe that if you create the same value system on screen, you will find success. But until that value system is true, as you grow, to you, you will not find success. So stay true to yourself, and don’t be judgemental.
Even if you want to explore the dark side of yourself, do it. You will be like Lars Von Trier, somebody making great movies. Don’t ever try to cheat yourself or project yourself as somebody other than who you are. That won’t get you success. You go to the west, you find directors like Speilberg and Scorsese making movies even in their 70’s, that is because they are staying true to their selves. Also, learn as you move on, you can’t be the same person you are. You can’t be the same person in the 50’s as you were in your 30’s. A lot of that learning comes from being non-judgemental and exposing yourself to a lot of literature and admiring other people’s work.
So that was Srinivas Avasarala talking about his exciting journey as an actor and as a visionary filmmaker. As we go forward in time, we are sure that Srini, will bring only pride and glory to Telugu film industry, as he is destined to. Till the next time then, ciao.!!