Please tell us about yourself and your interest in making films.
I was born in Chennai, but grew up in small town Andhra. After a B.Tech from IIT Mumbai in Electrical Engineering in 1984, and an MS from SUNY in 1986, I worked for several years as a Microprocessor Designer in California’s Silicon Valley before deciding to take up film at Columbia University in 2001. Vanaja was my Master’s Thesis at Columbia, and it tells the story of a young fisherman’s daughter who goes to work in the house of the local landlady, but comes up against age-old barriers of Class and Caste. While at the IIT, I used to write Short Stories and learned the Veena, Photography came later, when I was in the US, but it isn’t surprising that these three – Writing, Music, and the Visual Medium, are some of the core elements of filmmaking. The last, Acting, was something that I had to add on later.
Influence of Telugu Cinema and your favorite Telugu Directors
I love the old Classics – Maya Bazaar was one of my favorites, and as a child, I used to be enthralled by listening to the Songs, especially if they had a touch of the Classical to them. I don’t have any favorite Telugu Directors, but my favorite Indian Director is Satyajit Ray.
Influence of International Cinema and your favorite Foreign Directors.
I can’t point to a single style or genre and say that it has had an enormous impact. We had some of the most well known names in Film Study at Columbia, and what I came to take away was a respect for almost all the genres of filmmaking. Right from the Avant Garde to the old B&W Classics. Arthouse always had its appeal though, but as an example, you cannot stick to it as a genre and hope to learn everything. For camera placement, the Coen Brothers have created some splendid work. For camera movement, there’s Max Ophuls. For blending the surreal with the ridiculous, there’s Kusturica. For his work with the actors there’s Jacques Doillon.
Could you tell us about your film VANAJA?
As a film, VANAJA is deceptively simple, and it can feel like straight narrative. But there are several things that need to be examined when analyzing the film. At one level, you’re watching the coming of age of a precocious 14 year old, but on another, you’re journeying through a system in which boundaries are not only entrenched but enforced with severe consequences for those who transgress. The central question is of course, the case for justice, and how it is applied. VANAJA is different in several other respects too: it’s use of metaphor – the crow, the lantana flower, the final Igiri Nandini dance, the baby towel, the milk in the drain etc, create a parallel commentary to what the audience is already putting together, and no understanding can be complete without attention to them. The film’s use of non-actors, I think, establishes a fault in the norm that most people have taken for granted for a very long time. A professor of mine at Columbia, Lenore DeKoven, used to instill in us a belief that the most important contribution an actor can make is his or her life experience. And I think VANAJA demonstrates that.
The procedure of writing the Script for VANAJA?
That’s a tall order, but I don’t believe that you can write a story without knowing the characters or issues – be they political, social or psychological, or that you can describe the characters without knowing the story and its associated issues. The best way, at least for me, is to sit down with pen and paper and let the mind wander. Any snippet, word, image or sound that comes to mind gets written down. But the first elements that distill from this process tend to be the issues that I’m trying to address. I certainly don’t know the ending, and although I do like to get the work critiqued by friends, I’m careful to balance their opinions against my own gut reactions.
After that, I write down a Synopsis and then descriptions of Character, Internal Conflict, External Conflict, Location, Dramatic Circumstance and Story Issues. Then I move on to writing a beatsheet and only then the screenplay.
We heard that the Budget of VANAJA Film is $20,000/- Is it true?
Unfortunately, we cannot comment on the budget.
In what format have you shot VANAJA? Which camera did you Use? How was the Editing Done? What was the Cost of Blowup?
VANAJA was shot on Super 16 using an ARRI SR3, using Kodak’s Vision-2 7205 (250D) and 7218 (500T) Film Stock. The rough cut was completed on Final Cut Pro. Once the edit was locked, we created a Digital Intermediate by scanning the Negative at 4K and down-converting to 2K before Color Correcting and Printing to 35mm.
How much did Film Study help? People say that we will learn more while Shooting than Studying. So, could you please tell us what you learned while shooting VANAJA?
There is nothing to stop people from picking up cameras and experimenting. There’s enormous value to that, but unfortunately most of such home videos only end up on Youtube. There’s nothing wrong with that either, but learning Filmmaking is like designing a building. There’s the craft of it – camera placement and movement, scene study, blocking, directing the actor, script development and a hundred other things. And then there’s the art of it – something that you need to watch hundreds of movies from some of the world’s greatest and perhaps even the worst directors, to understand what the term means.
There’s too much to describe in terms of what lessons shooting VANAJA has brought, but the simplest one is probably the verity of Murphy’s law.
What do you feel about present day Telugu Films?
I don’t watch them. So I can’t comment.
Your advice for the New film Makers
Persist. But make sure that you have the talent first.
Could you please tell us about your next project?
I’m looking to make a film that’s biased towards an International audience. The pacing will be faster, and as such it probably won’t have the sense of gentle exploration that VANAJA has, but I hope to infuse it with current day global issues that effect us as a single interconnected community.
In spite of earning so much International acclaim, why is VANAJA not written about much in Indian News Papers?
Appreciating Arthouse takes time and effort. Our local audiences aren’t there yet. Abroad, good universities have several disciplines devoted to the Arts. Students who major in History or Chemistry, still have the option of taking several Art oriented courses. And by Art, I mean the several disciplines that come under it, from writing to music to film to photography to painting to mention a few. In India, except for a few colleges, most education focuses on churning out SAP programmers or Web designers who are narrowly focused on their trade and not much else.
Where you don’t have an audience, you won’t have a Press Interest.
It will take a generation or more for us to develop such an audience. First economic prosperity and stability need to set in.
Do you restrict yourself only to Art Films?
I restrict myself to good films.
Could you please name a few recent Telugu films that you liked?
I haven’t seen them, so I couldn’t say.