The filmmaker opens up on his third film, Priyuraalu, which premieres on SonyLIV on September 17
Writer, director Rama Raju, the man behind two intense romances like Mallela Theeram Lo Sirimalle Puvvu and Oka Manasu, has an uncorrupted, uncluttered approach to filmmaking. The dialogue is refined and deep, there are no trivial commercial distractions, the innate philosophies of his characters come through beautifully. The narratives are so intertwined to music and the moments flow organically, like visual poetry. He's among the rare breed of filmmakers who believes that film-viewing isn't merely for entertainment, but is an experience too. Box office success may have eluded him though you can't point a finger at his sincerity to his craft. He makes his digital debut with Priyuraalu, his third directorial that releases on SonyLIV this weekend.
You learnt the ropes of filmmaking under Anurag Kashyap. What did that experience leave you with?
I was associated with Anurag Kashyap during his initial years of struggle in the film industry, right when Paanch and Black Friday weren't getting to see the light of the day. When we were working on a script together, the greatest piece of advice I heard from him was to stay true to the soul of the story and its characters and not merely chase stars. 'The world will watch your film when you're honest with your storytelling' were exactly his words. The thought truly inspired me and gave me the confidence to choose new faces when there's enough strength in my script. Mallela Theeram lo Sirimalle Puvvu was a far better film in my career because the narration was honest. Whereas, it wasn't the case with Oka Manasu because I tampered with its soul because of the familiar faces. His advice me the courage to cast entirely unexplored faces for Priyuraalu.
You're a loyal follower of the sage Ramana Maharshi, whose preachings in fact suggest one to have a detached approach to life. How do you remain detached from your work in a film world where fortunes keep flickering and changing at the drop of a hat? Aren't the extremities too hard to handle?
Bhagavan (referring to Ramana Maharshi) only asks us to be the observer and not react, be it pain or pleasure. He spoke very little and even when he did, had opined that truth was something much beyond the scope of his words. 'I am only speaking because you insist me to,' he said. I've learnt from him that one doesn't attain salvation in the forests. You must renounce yourself. With a career in films, I try to work within my limitations and not get affected. The game has to go on come what may; either I need to play it or stay away from it.
Priyuraalu is your third attempt at presenting the complexities of the man-woman relationship. What about it fascinates you?
The entire drama in the world, at least the majority of it, happens between a man and a woman. The nature of it changes with time. Over the years and ages, humans have become more accepting with relationships. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that there's nothing wrong with extramarital relationships. Within four walls, it's the right of the individual to take a call on their life. When an extramarital affair is neither a sin nor a crime, relationships become more difficult to handle. I've dealt with many such delicate points in a relationship in Priyuraalu. You can never find solutions to such problems outside; the answer lies within you and the relationship.
The trailer of the film felt like an attempt to look at a few relationships beyond labels like affairs, love, lust and so on...
I wish so much about the film wasn't revealed in the trailer. Initially, the idea was to end the trailer with the line, 'Nashtapothamani telisina..ishtapadithene prema.' I always believe that love, before or after marriage, always starts with the physical form and must culminate in a non-physical state. The film is a journey of how two such relationships mature into a non-physical state.
With Mallela Theeram Lo.., you had a man and a woman who fall in love even without touching each other. Whereas in Oka Manasu, you wanted the audience to feel the physical intimacy between the couple. Priyuraalu takes that notion (of Oka Manasu) forward. Doesn't it?
Yes! Priyuraalu is a very modern film, both in thought and execution. It revolves around people who believe in a physical relationship over an emotional one. The film is not about love, breakups or misunderstandings. It deals with an internal conflict. The relationships aren't influenced by any external factors.
Isn't it a double-edged sword to produce and direct your film? You have the freedom with the execution, but isn't your mind always on the finances?
When I write a script, I get a clear idea of the world in which the film is set, the geography and how I am going to execute it. You get a fair picture of the money you need to put into it. When I know I'm capable of putting together the budget myself, why bother involving someone else in the script and risk tampering with my vision? I already did the same with Oka Manasu because of the two big names involved in the film. With Priyuraalu, I'm telling my story with utmost honesty and with my money. This gives me more comfort. People warned me many times that though you may make a film under a shoestring budget, you will need at least Rs 1 crore to promote it. I just told them that I'm making a film that I know. I'd rather show the film directly to a buyer and sell it off. It's exactly the way Priyuraalu made it to SonyLIV. People may label me as overconfident or confident, but I'm sure about the product I have.
Both your films in the past were meant for a niche audience and not for the usual masses/regular theatre-going crowds. I feel they could've got their due had you made them in the OTT era. Priyuraalu's OTT release feels so apt for a filmmaker with your sensibilities...
You're absolutely right. Honestly, I still made Mallela Theeram Lo... for a theatrical audience. With Priyuraalu too, I feel the film has a lot of theatrical moments, especially with the love story between the maid and the watchman. I started making this film before COVID-19. We commenced the shoot in the last week of January 2020 and wrapped it within a month, except for a few episodes. Suddenly, we had a lockdown in March and it kept on getting delayed. We were able to finish the production only by December. Theatres remained shut and I opted for an OTT release. I still agree with the fact my narratives suit the OTT audience best.
You've taken nearly five years to make your next film after Oka Manasu. Despite the detachment from your work, how difficult was it to bounce back after a debacle?
After Oka Manasu, I nearly bid goodbye to my life in films. Everyone around was reasoning why the film was a misfire despite having great potential. I didn't care if the film was a hit or a flop, but the recovery phase was challenging. It was like falling into a hole you could never come out of. I had suicidal thoughts. There were a few occasions where I didn't understand what was I living for. I suffered for a few months. It was a visit to Arunachalam that changed it all. The moment I landed in Arunachalam, I slipped into a thoughtless state. It was as if nothing happened in the past and that I just had a bad dream. Like my guru says, I only had to do my duty next and forget the rest. I now make films, do my job and don't bother about aspects beyond my control. I do it for money, it's for survival after all, and not for my art to get appreciated.
There was an epicness in Oka Manasu that I felt couldn't come through in the final cut. Would you want to have a second chance at the script with a different team?
Yes, it's quite possible in the OTT era and I've begun working on it too. I want to pick that dimension from Oka Manasu that couldn't make it into the final film and explore it with a fresh cast.
Sunil Kashyap's music for Oka Manasu was earth-shattering, to put it mildly. What was it like to collaborate with him for the second time?
Sunil Kashyap is the hero of Priyuraalu. He has given such a wonderful score and took Priyuraalu to a different level altogether. I troubled him frequently, wasted a few months trying to come up with an alternative and I went back to him soon. In a matter of days, he came up with a stellar album, which I can confidently say is a far better album than Oka Manasu. He told me that the film inspired him so much and the music flowed effortlessly. He's still unaware of how he'd composed the music.
Working with newcomers has its own set of advantages and pitfalls. How did you pick these new faces for Priyuraalu?
There's only one rule with acting, regardless of how experienced or new, you are. You either have the screen presence or not, you either can or can't create that moment in a scene. You can't force that to happen. I didn't hold any casting calls or audition any of the lead actors in my film. Except for Kamakashi who has prior modelling experience, the other actors are recent engineering passouts who've very little knowledge of cinema. I just happened to meet them in different points of my life and wanted them in the film. Prudhvi, one of the lead actors, doesn't even watch films. He was very surprised when I approached him to do the role. The reason was simple for me, I saw my character in him and brought him on board. My films don't have heroes and heroines, they are just characters with a set of vulnerabilities.