The filmmaker discusses why today’s audiences are more ready for mythological tales than in the 90s and how he reimagined Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam keeping their tastes in mind
‘Sky is the limit’ is a phrase that director Gunasekhar has genuinely sworn by, in his nearly three-decade-long tryst with cinema. Some laud his self-belief, while a few prefer to call it arrogance. Despite tasting more lows than highs in his career, he isn’t dissuaded by failure. 25 years after his first epic drama Ramayanam, the filmmaker has another crack at the genre with Shaakuntalam, based on Kalidasa’s play Abhijnana Shakuntalam, inspired by a subplot in the Mahabharata.
As Shaakuntalam, starring Samantha, Dev Mohan, Mohan Babu, gears up for a release this Friday, the director catches up with OTTplay.com for a chat.
While it’s natural that you have the skill and the experience to make a Rudhramadevi or a Shaakuntalam today, you took up an epic like Ramayanam in your initial years in the industry and made it with child artistes. How did it materialise?
I’ve always been fascinated by history and mythology. ‘Rama Koti’ was an integral aspect of my mother’s life and it was a huge influence on me. Many were scared by the very idea of making a mythological film with children. How do we make children act? As they say ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, I took inspiration from Mira Nair, who’d made Salaam Bombay and got street kids to act while organising workshops.
She came up with a book based on her experiences and I bought it at Landmark, Chennai. Books were our main reference point before the internet took over. Mira Nair elaborately explained how she went about grooming them for the screen and I adopted a similar approach for Ramayanam. Producer MS Reddy was very excited about the idea and wondered if it was practically possible. I assured him that I’ll train them long enough for him to gain confidence.
The workshop lasted for over 3-4 months. The Sabdalaya Studios in Hyderabad was still under construction and we’d begun the workshop in peak summer. We selected kids from every top school in the city and chose the best of the lot; entrusting the responsibility of the workshop to Aruna Bhikshu and her husband. Given they came from a theatre background, they were quite excited by the idea and made Ramayanam possible.
In both scenarios, Ramayanam and Shakuntalam, where you’re catering to the audiences of the 90s and 2020s, mythological films haven’t been in vogue in mainstream cinema. Three decades apart, how different are the challenges to make an epic drama?
More than in the 90s, I have a firm belief in the tastes of the audiences of this generation. Our biggest challenge as filmmakers back then was the absence of exposure to the best works from the world and it was a challenge to upgrade ourselves from time to time. We find inspiration to make quality films when we watch great cinema. Except for Doordarshan’s weekly segment dedicated to movies, there was little/no access to cinema from different regions.
It’s not a big deal to watch an international film today but it was a luxury for us. Bicycle Thieves drove us crazy back then and it was an ordeal to find a copy. Our struggle was similar to the child in the film who was desperate to ride a bicycle. Owing to a few technical issues (NTSC/PAL system), some video cassettes wouldn’t play on our television sets. With the digital boom, viewers of this generation have no such limitations and they’re already introduced to the best of world cinema. They readily spot all similarities/references to international films.
I felt there could be no better time than now to reintroduce mythology to our audiences; many of my media friends suggested the same. In Hollywood, every second/third film is a period drama and there’s always a demand for such stories. With modern-day advancements, it’s technically feasible to make such films. For some reason, we haven’t gathered the courage to make period/epic/fantasy dramas in Telugu - Baahubali, Rudramadevi and others were only a recent phenomenon.
However, there’s an issue with the acceptance of period/mythological/historical dramas. Films like Baahubali set technical standards so high and even a film like Rudhramadevi was compared to it despite the huge difference in budgets. When we state budget constraint as a reason, audiences no longer buy that for an excuse - they pay the same money for any ticket and want nothing but the best.
They in turn ask us to abandon the idea at the conceptualisation stage if it’s technically not upto the mark. I still say it’s necessary for filmmakers like me to at least attempt something like this and thereby pave a path for others. With Shaakuntalam though, there’s no chance for such an excuse - I have made it following global storytelling standards. I tried to strike a balance between a feasible budget and quality execution and have worked very hard on it. I am very happy with the result.
For someone who’s made films revolving around the biggest male stars of our times - Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Babu, Allu Arjun, how did the experience of directing two female led-films - Rudhramadevi, Shaakuntalam - transform you as a storyteller?
I haven’t intentionally made male/female-oriented films in my career and looked for stories that inspired me. When I studied about Rudhramadevi in my school days, I was triggered, moved and later felt I had to tell this story myself. After Rudhramadevi, I worked for over five years on the pre-production of Hiranyakashapa; the time was worth it and the film was pushed owing to many reasons. It was only accidental that Rudhramadevi’s release was followed by Shaakuntalam.
Budgets are always an area of concern when telling a story centred on a woman. Earlier, the audiences for it were also minimal and I believe that’s no longer an issue now. The markets of actors are dependent on good storytelling these days and Kantara is the best example of that; it didn’t matter who was Rishabh Shetty, audiences were ready for it. I am sure Shaakuntalam’s openings will be no less than any A-lister.
How have you reimagined the epic for today’s audiences? Has Samantha’s casting been of good help in reaching out to your target audiences?
There are two aspects to the story in Shaakuntalam - the romance and the self-respect of Shakuntala. In this film, I have tried to focus more on her self-respect and we cast Samantha accordingly. If our focus area was the romance segment, we may have opted for another actress. It’s an added advantage to our film that she also has the vivaciousness to pull off the love portions with elan.
Samantha has done complete justice to the character. I wasn’t surprised to hear a no from her initially - she was quite aware of the challenges it would’ve presented and a less-capable artist may not have gauged that. She was rejecting many films then and looked to settle down as a homemaker but rethought her decision and wanted this to be her last film before a long gap from cinema.
Meanwhile, in Dushyanta’s story in Mahabharatha, he comes across as a very negative character and there isn’t a particular reason why he distances himself from Shakuntala. He’s portrayed as if he was mean on purpose. In Kalidasa’s beautiful adaptation of the story, he introduces the concept of a ring and humanises Dushyanta and justifies his behaviour.
Kalidasa gave a renewed identity to their characters, without deviating from the flow of Mahabharata, and the readers were compelled to relook at their segment in the Adiparva again. He reimagined Shakuntala’s character beautifully and made readers look at her with a lot of reverence.
In backdrops like forests - which India has in abundance - isn’t it distracting to film those segments using sets and VFX? Doesn’t it hurt the texture of the film?
We’d begun the shooting of Shaakuntalam during COVID-19 and it was a practical hassle to find dense forests where there were no towers/electrical poles in the vicinity; Kashmir was a location we’d considered. For practical reasons, we opted to shoot those segments in a set. With the trailer, one may be conscious of the fact that it was shot on a set because of the way it was cut.
With the film, you can be assured that the sets won’t overpower/distract you from the storytelling. Even with the king’s court, we’ve tried to utilise a live set as much as possible and used VFX only for extensions. We set a target for ourselves to be as realistic as possible and I think we’ve managed it. There’ll be a lot of difference between the trailer and the final result.
Unlike films like Okkadu and Ramayanam, where you’d used sets more than VFX/CGI to drive the story forward, did the focus on technology prove to be a burden with Shaakuntalam and Rudhramadevi?
We use VFX in two instances - for enhancement and to create something that’s not possible organically. In terms of CGI, Okkadu is the most complicated film I’ve been a part of. Many don’t even know that Okkadu had CGI until I mention it to them. We constructed a Charminar set that was 75 feet high, unlike its original height - over 150 feet. When I was on a recce in the old city area, only the minars (of the Charminar) were visible from the terraces and I wanted to recreate that view for Okkadu.
You’d notice that a majority of the film is set on rooftops. To ensure that the view of the streets was authentic from the rooftop, we used visual enhancement. It was quite complex for 2002 and it would’ve only been possible with the trust of a producer like MS Raju and a star like Mahesh Babu. It was the most expensive Telugu film then.
Ramoji Rao, who was so excited by the idea, suggested I erect a Charminar set, true to its original height at RFC. I was baffled; this would have taken years to be built. As a director, my priority is to film a scene organically on the sets without CG. With films like Baahubali and Rudhramadevi, it’s hard to get the architectural finesse in a live set. There will be sets, but you need to rely on VFX to contribute to the authenticity of the era.
What were your visual references for Dushyanta’s kingdom - the Puru dynasty - in your conversations with the art director?
Even before we meet the art director, we interact initially with a set of concept artists and give them a rough gist of what we expect from them; they come back to us with the sketches. The basic reference points for Dushyanta’s kingdom were from temple architecture - the Mayan tradition in particular. Maya is believed to be the architect of Indra and other kings/kingdoms in mythology. His references were crucial for the Puru dynasty. Only when we finalise the basics, we discuss them with the art director.
Describe your efforts with the writer Burra Sai Madhav to maintain a literary finesse in the chaste dialogues while also simplifying the language for the average viewer…
I don’t consider myself a Telugu scholar and I see if I’m able to understand the dialogues first. Later, I get my daughters to listen to them and pay heed to their responses. However, in trying to simplify the language for the masses, we can’t use everyday slang for a film like Shaakuntalam. When you go verbose, there’s a risk of alienating audiences from the film. We try to strike a middle ground. Our writer Burra Sai Madhav takes Mayabazar writer Pingali as his inspiration. The dialogues in the film can be understood by everyone but there’s a certain literary finesse too. He took enough care and I hope we’ve achieved that balance in our film.
In the last decade or so, you’ve worked on three films that are both physically and mentally straining. Why didn’t you take up a story, say a social drama, that wouldn’t stress you as much, in between?
I am not particular about the number of films I do or the time I take up for them. I’m as comfortable with Rudhramadevi as much am handling a social drama (Okkadu, Choodalani Vundhi). The hard work I put into every film is no different, it’s the same for a disaster like Nippu too. I don’t want to settle for something because it’s the easier alternative. I’m coming back after an eight-year-long sabbatical but in that, five years were dedicated to Hiranyakashapa - you’ll notice the efforts when the film is out.
On a different note, what can one expect from Hiranyakashapa?
The scale of Hiranyakashapa is unimaginable; the visual detailing and finesse will be on a different level altogether. Audiences will be surprised to know the richness of our mythology. DC/Marvel films are a rage universally and with Hiranyakashapa, I’ll prove that it is possible to create a similar impact with our mythological tales too. For instance, Thor - the God of thunder - is Indra in our context. The former uses a hammer and Indra has ‘vajrayudham’. There are more powerful, compelling characters than Avengers in Indian mythology and Hiranyakashapa will stun everyone with its character depth.
Can we expect more mythologicals from your production house, taking the idea of ‘Mythology for millennials’ forward?
When my daughter Neelima, who studied art and visual culture in the UK, shared her excitement for Shaakuntalam and other Indian mythological tales, I was surprised and inspired at once. She coined the phrase ‘mythology for millennials’ and felt it was necessary to tell those stories to this generation of audiences. She represents the younger generation of today and we went ahead with the project, taking her tastes into consideration. I hope this film marks the revival of the mythological era. Provided Shaakuntalam is successful, it’ll give us the motivation to try something similar in the future.