VoxTalks : “I Will Make Telugu Cinema Till My Last Breath” – C/O Kancharapalem Director Venkatesh Maha

A Candid One to One With The ‘C/O Kancharapalem’ Director

Every year, Telugu cinema introduces us to a bunch of young directors who realise their dreams through filmmaking. Likewise, this year too we have a couple of directors taking the stage. One filmmaker who has already drawn huge attention is Venkatesh Maha. The director of the much talked about indie film, C/O Kancharapalem. A very composed and sorted person in the head, Venkatesh’s journey in the industry started way back in 2009 when he came to Hyderabad with an aim to enter the film industry. This is his story…

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He is a person who considers that we should never leave our culture behind and being progressive is about learning new things, in conjunction and in addition to the traditions. From his childhood days spent in the lanes of theatres, to working as a floor director for TV reality shows, to weaving a story around a place, where he accidentally went to meet his friend, he takes us through his entire journey as a person who madly loves Telugu cinema. Yes, it is going to be a tedious read, but time went by while talking to him. Hope the same will happen as you go through the interview.

Hey, hi Venkatesh. We’ve heard a lot about the movie ‘C/O Kancharapalem’ and there seems to be a good buzz around your film.

Yes, fingers crossed! I was in an exile for the last one and half year and this movie was everything to me. I’m happy that a prestigious banner like Suresh Productions has vouched for it and there are butterflies already in my stomach as the release is soon approaching.

So, let’s start at the beginning. We are interested to know about the ‘story of the man’ behind ‘C/O Kancharapalem’.

I was born and brought up in Vijayawada and partly in Miryalaguda as well. My entire childhood was around Gandhinagar in Vijayawada, the hub of movie theatres. The atmosphere around a theatre on a movie’s release is a different euphoria altogether. The fans, their hungama, celebrations and what not. I used to literally walk to school amidst the movie cut-outs. Back at my home as well, my mother is a big movie-buff. For us in Vijayawada, watching movies is a part of our culture. It’s imbibed in most of the families. Therefore, whenever we’d find the time, we’d spend it on watching movies.

Likewise, my mother never refrained me from watching movies. In fact, every now and then, she would give me pocket money to watch movies exclusively. I used to not let go of any movie coming my way. Especially if I didn’t watch a Megastar’s movie on the first day, I’d consider that as a personal defeat. This way the cinema was a part of my upbringing. Gradually I developed an interest to become an actor and my family moved to Miryalaguda. By the time I hit my teenage, for some reason, I wanted to get independent and I moved back to Vijayawada. I tried doing some correspondence course and a few other jobs, but then I realised that studies were not really my cup of tea.

All this while, there was this constant push inside me to go and try my hand at films. After some hiccups here and there, at the age of 20, I landed in Hyderabad with a strong aim to become an actor. But, the insecurities that every outsider has were in me too. It was not just acting, I wanted to just get into the industry and work for films. I still consider cinema as one single science with 24 different chapters. And I was ready to do anything in this field. Even now, I have trained myself in such a way that I can work in any department. To meet my daily needs though, I picked a job with Apollo Health City.

Simultaneously, I roamed around with my profile giving auditions as an actor. After 3 months, I was offered a role. I was really excited, but only upon entering the set that I realised that I was only a company artist, who would fill the space next to the lead. As, I could not balance my job and acting simultaneously, I was asked to leave the company. In those times, for me, filmmaking was a synonym to Krishna Nagar. But, to my surprise, whenever I went there, it looked like any other road in the city. I could never figure out why the place was hyped so much.

One fine day at Manga Tiffin centre (Krishna Nagar), I came across an artist who seemed familiar by appearance. He told me to visit those same streets and the areas of Filmnagar, at early mornings. It was then that I realised the actual ‘Krishna Nagar’. It looked as if the entire atmosphere was only prepping itself for a long day shoot. The catering vans, generators, set and prop, vehicles and shuttles ready to transport junior artists. I went near one of the vans and asked a person who seemed like a supervisor about what was going one.

He directly asked me, ‘will you work for Rs. 150? We have to prepare a set for Pawan Kalyan’s movie.’ That’s it! The next moment I was inside the van even though I knew nothing. Before we reached the location, I already dreamt and made plans that I’d meet the director and ask for a role and this will be my entry. But, you see, things are never as easy as we dream them to be. However, this brought in me a confidence that I was at least entering the industry in some way. And from there on, I worked for a couple of projects in the art department.

From here on, I was lucky to find a group of friends passionate about movies. In this group, one of the guy’s movie got confirmed and he asked me if I could write for his movie. It was a new job! I took it up. This movie got shelved after 45 days, but the experience remains as a crucial one in my life. And yes, my good group of filmy friends. During this time, the regional short films on YouTube were just picking up. I wrote a script and pitched it to Tamada Media ergo Runway Reels.

I had no clue on any filmmaking crafts, but the executive producer in the company at that, Ms Radhika Lavu, was supportive and after liking the way I handled the script, she offered me a job in Tamada Media. Thus, I landed my next job as a production designer. Another role I had no clue of. I went back home googled it and then picked up the job. I worked there for close to 6 months and understood the craft better. It even helped me in building my contacts as well. From there another opportunity knocked on my door. This time it was for a TV show called ‘Rangam’, a dance reality show on MAA TV and the role was of the co-director for the show.

Though the money pouring in was less, all of a sudden the responsibilities were huge. I went on to work in this role for close to four years. I loved grabbing every opportunity that came my way because I was learning so much from each role. Even now, when I come across anyone who wants to join in the direction department, I’d suggest them to work at least for 6 months in any Television show. Your eyes will open to absorb many things. And as all this was going on, I was giving my own trials for auditions or looking for work everywhere possible. I happened to act in the movie Manam. Though the role was trimmed off on the edit table, I happened to meet Chuniya, the director famous for the series Yuva.

From there on, I started to make constant trials in getting into the direction department. There were many barriers, but somehow I kept myself going. Slowly I realised that direction was my area of interest. I was not a pro in it, but I could manage to convey a story on the screen. During these trials, I started to meet new people and there was an exchange of great knowledge theoretically and practically. One important person I will owe it to is Aparna Malladi. She imparted great knowledge to me. We gradually turned out to be a good group of individuals who’d discuss cinema and learn from each other. During this time, I completed my feature film script and showed it to Aparna. She was fairly impressed with my idea and had the confidence that I could pull it off.

Was this the script of ‘C/O Kancharapalem’?

No, it was another script that I might do sometime later. Aparna liked the script but she used to always say, ‘when you are entering the industry, you should enter with a bang.’ I was still adamant about the script and roamed around to pitch it. Things were not going well and after close to a month or so, I got frustrated caught up in this tedious workflow and wanted to go somewhere.

Actually, much before coming to Hyderabad, I had visited Kancharapalem, where I have a friend. In all these 7 years I never went back there. I called my friend and told him that I wanted to see him and relax there for a while. Maybe sit there and do my writing. He was more than happy to see me and in the next 2 days, I was in Kancharapalem. I spent a few days there and was roaming in the streets of Kancharapalem. While walking in those streets, like any random thought that we keep getting, it struck to me ‘Why can’t I do a film in this place?’ This was because, every day I spent there, the place was appealing in its way to me.

There were some unique characters, even more, interesting incidents taking place. I never felt that I wasted even a day in Kancharapalem. So, I sat down with a blank mind not knowing where to begin with. I started to make notes and whenever I came across an interesting personality, I’d take their pictures without their knowledge and ask my friend to tell me their stories. Everyone knew almost everyone there. Taking inputs from those characters, I created my own fiction and within 4-5 days I was ready with a story. I then approached my friend with the idea to shoot the movie entirely in Kancharapalem and he, in turn, spoke to his elder brother who was a big shot in that area. Immediately, he gave it a heads up and slowly I was getting good support from the people around.

Initially, I didn’t believe them, to be honest. I thought they were just giving me moral support for the sake of it. But, then they showed me a short film called ‘No Smoking’ which they made on their own and I was amused by the energy that they put into it. From this short film, I really liked one guy, I met him immediately and took him on board. Likewise, from a distributor too, I took his inputs for the movie and completed the movie’s script in about 2 months.

In this meantime, a friend of mine sent me the poster of ‘Thithi’ and recommended me to watch it. It’s a movie that was shot in the countryside, with most of the actors from a particular region. Something close to what I was going to do. I watched the movie and it boosted my spirit even more.

I came back to Hyderabad with the complete script and got it reviewed with the group of writers around me. Everyone was impressed with the screenplay and treatment and gave me immense confidence to go ahead. We wanted to go for crowdfunding and prepared everything for it. We were just a few moments away from going live when even Phanindra Narisetti surprised us with his pitch for crowdfunding. He received an amazing response for his pitch and this boosted us on one side, but got me also very nervous. Many people knew Phanindra and not me. And I used to maintain a very low profile.

During this time luck knocked our doors in the form of Praveena Paruchuri. She came and met Aparna and showed interest in producing a movie. Incidentally, I had made a pitch video with the artists from Kancharapalem and we happened to show the same to Praveena. And you won’t believe it, but upon seeing the first shot of the trailer, she paused and asked me if I had framed the shot. I acknowledged it with a yes. She said ‘I think I am going to produce this movie’ and after watching the complete pitch trailer, she gave a yes. Immediately things started to materialise. Within 3 days I was in Kancharapalem and she went back to the US. We got going with the pre-production process, prepared the schedule and thus the shoot began.

Awesome! From the lanes of Gandhinagar as a movie buff, you ended up as a filmmaker impressing your producer with a pitch trailer. We have been hearing great reviews about the movie from the industry insiders. Could you tell us the role of ‘Kancharapalem’ as a place and its influence in the movie?

We can place this story anywhere in the world where a man and a woman exist. It’s a universal subject. But, the reason it has become C/O Kancharapalem is, the behaviours and the mannerisms that the characters portray have been picked from Kancharapalem. Maybe if we took the same to New York, the behaviour of the story might alter. The behaviour of the entire film is the behaviour of Kancharapalem. It is a collage of four beautiful love stories witnessed by a place, Kancharapalem. The movie’s name was decided right from the beginning.

We understand that C/O Kancharapalem had its fair bit of struggles both in terms of finances and release. In that context, how could manage to keep the essence of the movie intact?

Not to boast, but even my friends feel the same and we all are proud that whatever I had written and narrated to my team, that itself was transformed on to the screen. Maybe the maximum that we had to alter was the locations, but every scene and sequence has been kept intact.

In this new wave of Indie cinema in Telugu, most of the stories have been urban stories. However, you have picked a rural subject and that too without any age binding. What was your belief system in telling the story in this new age of Telugu Indie cinema?

Right from the moment I narrated the entire script to Praveena, the producer, my belief was that the narration and screenplay were unique. This was also the main reason behind her backing the project from the very beginning. She too believed in this story and wanted to give the audience a new experience. I don’t know whether it is relevant here, but I also want to say one thing here.

Yes, please go ahead!

When people watch these kinds of movies, knowingly or unknowingly, they keep saying things like, ‘It’s got proper Tamil flavour’, ‘You have been influenced big time by Tamil movies’ etc. I truly feel, there is no big difference between our cultures. They only pick the rural rustic look from the movie and label it in such a way. I think the only difference between Telugu and Tamil movies is they make such real and rustic movies, whereas we simply don’t. And let me even tell you why we don’t make them…

See, people come from different parts of the state to Hyderabad to make movies. Initially, they put out their own stories from they came and once you settle in Hyderabad, stories will obviously be influenced with the company you build and the atmosphere you live in. We forget our rural or countryside and weave urban stories. I’m not against weaving such stories, but once in a while we should at least look back at our roots is what I feel.

I’d like to put forward another observation as well. Off late, through movies, our Telugu audience have been fed too much of the urban flavour. And any movie that comes with a rural background is labelled as an art film. Such is our fate. As a language and behaviour, we have somehow forgotten our roots and are not willing to pass on the pride in our culture to the next generation.

Look at the bitter side, a Tamilian will love and is vocal about his language and culture whereas we as Telugu people barely give any respect or take any pride in talking in Telugu. Whereas look at the same in Tamil. They are pretty proud of it and they never back off from owning their culture. So, we have to tell stories from our countryside as well. Let’s be proud of our culture and own it. We are going nowhere leaving our culture behind.

I want to become an international filmmaker and anyone who asks me about my work, I’d proudly say I’m a Telugu filmmaker.

That is fantastic! Talking about filmmakers and filmmaking, when we consider all the new-age filmmakers, including you, we see that everyone is a self-made filmmaker from outside. Why is that there very less number of ‘film-schools’ graduates per se who’ve made their mark? Where do you find the gap? Where does the disparity in film education arise from?

I think that the difference is, a filmmaker from outside is ready to work for anything and everything. While there are similar kind of students from film schools as well, but the major lot are not willing to step down and test the waters. Also, I’m not sure how many of them actually travel. As a writer, I think travelling has to be one of your sources to weave stories. There are so many stories all across the world, travel and find them. It is only after burning their hands, that I now I see that some have realised and are working towards it. It’s just awareness and the dedication each one is willing to put in it I guess. I sincerely hope people from film schools come and make it big. Trust me, there are some really talented people out there.

So, while coming here (Ramanaidu Studios) and all across the city, we observed that the posters have a peculiar format – that of using mostly silhouettes. What’s the story behind it, that is, in not showing the faces of the cast?

This credit has to go to Suresh Babu sir. He is a person who has an immense understanding of cinema and is a master in releasing a movie. Initially, I got some posters out, that were the caricatures of the lead characters. But then it was Suresh sir who advised me not to put out those posters out. The reason being, since Telugu audience is not used to watching such kind of cinema, it is easy for them to brand it as an ‘art film’. So, the first target it to pull the audience to the theatres. And for that, a caricature poster is never a good choice. Also, he didn’t want to reveal the lead characters to the audience. He wanted it to be a completely fresh experience. So, from all the options that were put forward, these silhouette posters were impressive and hence we went ahead with it.

We observed that there are four-story tracks in this trailer, could you give us a gist of their roles in the movie?

Yes, so I’m this kind of guy who falls in love every now and then. Of course, not the playboy types, but the dreamy and one-sided types. Like any human, I have had many crushes in my life. Right from the early teenage, adolescent, adult individual to a grown-up person, at different juncture our approach towards love is different. This movie captures those approaches, and also the society’s perspective towards these love stories at different age is the gist of this movie.

Sweet! Going to our next question, at this point in TFI, there is a beautiful wave of Indie/small films gaining momentum. How do you see this trend going forward in the future and its effect on the industry?

This is definitely a great moment for our Telugu cinema. The audience is embracing good cinema and I’m happy that this momentum is picking. I’ve already been getting calls about collaborating on new projects from good producers after listening to the widespread talk about ‘C/O Kancharapalem’. So, people are coming forward to experiment and try new cinema. Now, how are the interests of the makers protected, and how far will we be given the freedom to tell our stories the way we want is something only time can tell. But, yes, this is going to pick up and good times are ahead for Telugu cinema. And once these kinds of movies pick up, the audience will show interest and the business is automatically generated.

Even Rana Daggubati mentioned that the reason he is presenting this movie is – one, of course, the movie is something our audience need to experience. Two, if the audience truly accepts this kind of cinema then he himself is ready to venture more into making such cinema prosper. Many producers are aware of ‘making’ a cinema, the logistics involved etc. But, how many people are there who understand the nuances and aesthetics involved in making a true cinema? So, it is the responsibility of filmmakers (like us), to strike a balance between the two and help every department understand cinema in its true sense.

Okay, here’s a question a little out of the current topic. There is a huge ruckus going on between filmmakers, distributors and streaming services (like Netflix, Amazon etc) regarding their respective releases. As a new age filmmaker, what’s your stand on it?

See, I too watch movies on streaming apps and it has its own pros. But, I feel a cinema is something that needs to be experienced in a dark room with good sound and screen. That’s why it is called a cinematic experience. I have my own friends who are pretty laid back and wait for a movie to come on these streaming apps. But, that is not their fault. It is because they are not being lured enough to come and watch a movie is a theatre. If one is ready to spend money from his pocket and come along with his family to a theatre, he should completely enjoy it. If it’s going to be a mediocre film experience, why will he even think to spend that money?

So, I think you need to literally seduce and excite someone to come and watch your cinema. And makers have been successful in our own industry this way. Baahubali, Mahanati or Arjun Reddy are a good example of the same. Even though people knew these movies would eventually come online, they thronged at the theatres showing their love for cinema. Once we get them to the theatre to watch a movie, the rest is the next phase of business. But, before that, a film maker’s success depends on the audience he pulls to the theatres.

A few words about the interesting cast involved in your film.

There are 86 actors in total who’ve acted in this movie. Except for 3 actors whom I took from Hyderabad, everyone has been picked from Kancharapalem itself. In fact, even the producer, Praveena acted in this movie. We were all set for a shoot when one of the lead actresses suffered a serious injury to her leg, just a few days before the shoot. We were worried and were on a hunt for a replacement.

Praveena never flashed in my mind for any role, but one of my team members asked me to give it a shot and when we asked Praveena, she took it up like a sport. She was always interested in performing arts. Being an NRI, we initially struggled with her accent. But, eventually, she justified the role much more than what I imagined it to be. I personally took care of every character, acted and showed them how I wanted it to be performed.

Oh, we didn’t speak about the music of the film. Sweekar Awasthi, can you introduce him to us.

Sweekar is my childhood friend and we both came to the industry to make our mark. He has worked with Mani Sharma and is very sound technically. I must admit that this movie is not his genre, but for the stubborn person that I’m with him, I must say he has come here to stay. And one interesting fact about the music is, till we finished the movie, we didn’t even touch a chord or note regarding the music or BGM.

Though we wrote and planned accordingly, we didn’t discuss music at all and kept it for the end. It was only after the rough edit of the movie, Sweekar picked up his instruments and he has given some wonderful and soulful music. I’m not saying it because it is my film, but you will experience a completely different sound and music when you watch the film.

Nice. We are very much looking forward to this. So, after making the film and finishing the product, how did it land in the hands of Suresh Productions?

More than the shoot, the post-production for C/O Kancharapalem took a lot of time. From March 2017 to December 2017 to be exact. We finished the movie and now the biggest challenge was to take this successfully to the audience. In fact, not many were even aware that we were making a movie called ‘C/O Kancharapalem.’ So, I along with my group of filmmakers, Virginal Film Makers (Virgin + Original) sat down to draft a strategy in taking the movie forward.

Thanks to them, they have been really helpful in these matters. So, the first objective was to screen a preview for people within the industry. We brushed out all the contacts we had and invited people for a show which was scheduled at Ramanaidu Studios. As a part of this, we also invited Venkat Sidda Reddy, the executive producer of Suresh Productions for the show. We called our producer Praveena as well to come down for the preview show.

It was December 26th, evening 6 PM show. People turned up and we were all excited. As soon as Praveena walked into the studio, we went to meet Venkat Sidda Reddy to invite him for the show. As we walked into his office, I introduced her as the producer. She immediately said that she wanted to talk to Suresh Babu sir directly. We were stunned. It was 5 minutes left for the show and here Praveena was being stubborn to meet Suresh Babu sir. Venkat showed us the way to meet him. The show was about to start, so I said I’d go and introduce the film to the viewers. She asked me to leave and said that she is not going to come without meeting him.

She came back after 10 minutes. I asked her what happened? She said that she told Suresh Babu sir – if he doesn’t watch this movie, he might be missing out on something truly beautiful. Such was her confidence in the movie. Though Suresh Babu sir was a bit taken back, he came back to watch the movie after his physiotherapy session. He watched it for 10 mins and left. The movie was coming to an end and I was literally tensed. I too stood outside the preview theatre waiting for the doors to open.

As soon as the movie got over, there were whistles and shouts that I could hear from the theatre and the doors opened with a bang. It was the projection boy, he came out in complete excitement. Suresh Babu sir was standing towards one end. Everyone came out and were congratulating me. Then, Venkat Sidda Reddy walked up to Suresh sir and affirmed that they should pick this movie at any cost. That’s it! Suresh Babu sir confirmed he would be taking the film and releasing it. The next day he invited Venkatesh sir and Rana Daggubati as well to watch the movie. Rana was completely floored by the movie and said he would be presenting the movie.

So, basically, whatever you ask, there is a big and interesting story to it. That is the reason I’m taking much time in telling everything in detail.

So, what are your next plans?

I have a couple of ideas with me. But, as of now, I’m planning to take a crash course at New York Film Academy. My long-term aim is to be an international filmmaker and take Telugu cinema to heights. So, guess if I want to get there, I should enhance my skills to at better levels and walk in the right direction. I want to make Telugu cinema till my last breath.

Finally, how did the movie get into the New York Indian Film Festival?

Right from the time Praveena and I started to work on this project, she believed that this was a material for a film festival. Many believe that if we just have a good story and even if we shoot with a mobile camera, film festivals will accept the products. This is completely a myth. For a film to be selected in any international film festival, not just the story, but everything involved in the making of the movie should be of top notch. Especially technically is should appeal big time.

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