The debutant filmmaker speaks to OTTplay for an intimate conversation on his early days, intense struggles with money and loneliness, and the journey to making a most anticipated film.
Last Updated: 09.11 AM, Jun 09, 2022
Kannada Cinema has produced many unprecedented successes over the past decade-and-a-half. The turn of the century, especially, has ushered a new wave of talent into the industry with films and sensibilities of various kinds finding a platform. Be it K.M. Chaitanya redefining the "Gandhi Nagar" template of gangster cinema in Aa Dinagalu, Yogaraj Bhat introducing a more vulnerable hero to the palette in Mungaru Male, or even Pawan Kumar's subversion of the audience's idea of commercial cinema through Lucia, the proverbial room of acceptance and creativity has only widened during this course. In the same vein came the likes of Rakshit Shetty, Rishab Shetty, and others who, freshly buoyed by the influx of talent from their home region of South Canara, exemplified this trend by bringing in a sense of authenticity and rootedness to the mix. Add to this the mad and vibrant vision of Prashanth Neel (K.G.F: Chapter 2) and you have an incredibly exciting pool of talent that promises to keep this "wheel of change" turning with full gusto.
But the most rewarding factor of this phenomenon is the encouragement it has offered to the countless aspirants of filmmaking, and 777 Charlie director Kiranraj K's journey to this point is the perfect enunciation of that. Nestled far away from both the glitter and harsh reality of the movie business in a town called Kumbadaje (Kasargod District), Kiranraj never sought filmmaking as a fancy whim or a mere excuse to get away from mundanity but instead saw it as the perfect expression of his many emotions. His life, by his own admission, was never the comfortable one and was riddled with challenges for a very long time. He has had to confront financial difficulties from a very young age, he says, which took him to many grim corners of life but he waded through regardless, guided by his dream to tell stories on the biggest of movie screens. Today, as he braces himself for the first and most-awaited test of his filmmaking career, Kiranraj K goes down memory lane with us to share a few interesting and moving anecdotes from the journey so far. Excerpts:
1. Do you recall when you first reckoned filmmaking to be your career choice?
I have been pondering these aspects myself over the past few years, to be honest. It's interesting because no one in my family had ever encountered the film business - sure, most of them loved watching cinema but none were associated with the making in any form. In fact, I don't suppose the entire Kasaragod district could boast of much filmmaking talent at the time. But my own foray, so to speak, began at the time when my grandparents narrated mythological stories to me. I must have been a really young kid at the time and when I would look around at all the framed photos hung around me - you know, of deities like Rama and Krishna - I could visualize those stories in my head a certain way. And when a few years later we bought a TV at home and I was able to watch all the Ramayana, and Mahabharata stuff on it, I was surprised to know that the visualization in my head matched what I saw on screen. I think that was the first main subconscious inspiration for me towards filmmaking. Soon after, I began writing scripts for school plays and even performing them on stage to win prizes. By this time, when I was around 13 or 14 years old, I worked as a paperboy and was mainly curious about what the small cinema segment in the local Kannada newspaper carried. It was clear already that I wanted to be a part of the cinema industry but my main interest at the time was acting.
2. How did filmmaking or direction become the eventual choice?
I think, regardless of the choice of craft (acting or filmmaking), I never lost the conviction to be part of cinema. I moved to Mangaluru around the age of 15 or 16 and was working tough jobs like waiting tables at restaurants and bars, working as a security guard, etc. but that was only to support my family through the tough times. I remained hell-bent all along that I will be a part of the film industry. So, I would eventually move to Bengaluru to proactively pursue a career and spotted a magazine ad for an acting course called "Star Creators" that was run by Guru Deshpande sir. It was at this course that I met Jayatheertha sir (Bell Bottom) who would conduct occasional sessions on film direction for the acting students. The two of us got along very well and he spotted my keenness to tell stories and nudged me to join the direction course at the same institute. I couldn't fathom that shift at first because I wanted to be an actor but he made me realize that if I wished to narrate my stories a certain way, film direction was the ideal fit. And thus, my filmmaking career began.
3. You speak of financial constraints back home. How did your family respond when you said you wished to pursue filmmaking?
My parents were vehemently against it and so were all the uncles and relatives because they saw the world of cinema as this rather mean place where I could never find success. And to make things worse, I couldn't find any decent opportunity after finishing the filmmaking course so I worked mostly as a junior artist for the next six months and earned about 100-150 bucks a day - the plan behind this was to meet the direction teams and find work as an assistant but that never materialized. But I had a script ready for a small, 100-minute film called Kaavala in the meantime so the best choice was to head back home and work on it. This eventually became a telefilm, of sorts, and since it carried a subtle message related to education, I was able to screen it in auditoriums, clubs, and schools because teachers encouraged the film. I would soon make a silent short film called Kabbina Haalu (Sugarcane juice) after that and had randomly sent it across to a short filmmaking competition in 2012 that took place to commemorate Dr. Vishnuvardhan on his third death anniversary. To my surprise, the film won the competition and Jayatheertha sir was one of the jury members on that - Sumana Kitturu ma'am was the second one and I don't recall the third person. And Jayatheertha sir himself was surprised to see that I was still so driven by the passion that he would ask me to join his team on Tony - interestingly, Imran Sardhariya sir was making Endendigu at the same time and he and I got along very well so he would request Jayatheertha sir to send me over to be an assistant director on his film. So, that's how I got my first bonafide break in the industry.
4. And things got better back home? Now that you had found proper work...
No, not until I began working with Rishab Shetty on Ricky and Kirik Party. S.V. Babu sir, the producer of Endendigu, was also producing Ricky at the time and that would become my next project as an assistant director. I had already watched Ulidavaru Kandanthe and become a huge fan of the film so working on Ricky meant a great deal. It was only after this that my family found some confidence in my future. Kirik Party happened soon after that and its massive success helped me further. Until that point, I didn't feel I had the answers to all their worries and doubts. The success of these films helped me grow in confidence as much as it allowed my family to breathe easy.
5. It's interesting that it all began with a magazine advertisement many years ago. Do you think you are still the same innocent guy today? If you spot an ad like that now, would you respond?
No, I don't suppose I would have. Also, things have changed considerably in these 12-odd years because the approach to filmmaking has changed. Social media, for one, allows you to get in touch with filmmakers and many have reached out to me for opportunities. Or aspirants come prepared with short films and ask for work which is great - I don't think it was as easy then to go out and make high-quality short films for a reasonable amount. I had to make most of my films with a simple handicam.
6. Let's talk about the making of 777 Charlie. You have said on multiple occasions that the film's emotional core is derived from your personal experiences - but why was this to be your bonafide debut?
Aside from the emotional angle, I wanted to prove myself as a credible filmmaker right from my first outing. In a way, my debut would be like my visiting card and I wanted to be known by this film. There were a bunch of ideas I was exploring but something about this man-animal bond rang very true to me - I realized that if I had to become a filmmaker then this is the story I had to tell. And plus this is an ode to my favorite filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin - I love visual storytelling and there's no one better than Chaplin at that. As far as the emotional angle is concerned, a lot of the sequences in 777 Charlie stem from my own personal experiences with pets and animals, and though I can't divulge exactly what they are, I can assure you that you will find me in the film. All the tears I have shed over the years, all the hardships I have faced, Dharma (the lead character) is a manifestation of that. I might sound overconfident at this point but during the making of this film, despite all the terrible challenges I encountered, I remained motivated to bring it to life and even felt that if anyone could tell this story, it had to me, and no one else. But, of course, nothing's possible without the support of your team.
7. Speaking of the team, how did Rakshit Shetty's involvement change things?
He would be the main reason the story has come to life today - from being the best producer who was by my side all along to agreeing to star in a rather "non-heroic" role, he has done it all. And despite the fact that I wasn't the most experienced director to deal with a film of this scale, Rakshit sir did not allow me to compromise on the vision. I grew as a filmmaker over the course of those 167 days of production and that's because he had my back.
8. Why do you describe his role as "non-heroic"?
In a sense, he isn't playing the savior in the film like most heroes do but is rather being saved by a small animal. Rakshit's character is vulnerable, and ordinary but very relatable because of its transformative journey. It's uncanny that my first film refers to the Dharmaraya and his dog story from Mahabharata, considering my own little journey towards filmmaking began with these mythology stories.
777 Charlie releases worldwide in theatres on June 10. Rakshit Shetty, aside from playing the lead, also produces the film under his home banner of Paramvah Studios. The cast also includes Sangeetha Sringeri, Raj B. Shetty, Danish Sait, and Bobby Simha - Nobin Paul has composed the soundtrack, Arvind S. Kashyap has handled the cinematography, and Pratheek Shetty is the editor.