Director Gowtam Tinnanuri reflects on ‘Malli Raava’, the National award winning ‘Jersey’ and its Hindi remake as he works on his next with Vijay Deverakonda

Gowtam Tinnanuri is among those filmmakers who would be happy to stay away from the spotlight, quietly working at his desk while writing or behind the camera on a movie set. “I have directed only two films, and one remake. I do not know enough to talk about filmmaking,” he says hesitantly when the conversation begins. Those two films — the coming-of-age Telugu romance drama Malli Raava and the sports family drama Jersey— continue to be fondly recalled by movie buffs. As the conversation progresses, the director opens up to share his journey into cinema and how he embraced both writing and direction.

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Directors’ Take
This series of interviews shines the spotlight on the newer crop of directors who made their mark in Telugu cinema in recent years. The series is an attempt to discuss how the larger-than-life Telugu films that capture nationwide attention co-exist with refreshing small and medium budget films.

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

You usually shy away from interviews. Is it because you are an introvert or do you prefer to lie low when there is no film release? 

It is a bit of both. If it is a film promotion the conversation is contextual. If it is a larger conversation about cinema I feel inferior to come in front of the camera and talking. My exposure to cinema is limited; there are more informative interviews out there featuring directors such as Ram Gopal Varma or Puri Jagannadh.

When your new film with Vijay Deverakonda was announced, it created a buzz on social media. What can you tell us about the film?

I am happy that people are looking forward to the film and hope it will be worthy of that excitement. Anything I say about the film will be diluted since we haven’t released any content so far.

Sumanth and Akanksha Singh in Gowtam Tinnanuri’s debut film ‘Malli Raava’

Sumanth and Akanksha Singh in Gowtam Tinnanuri’s debut film ‘Malli Raava’

Malli Raavawas a coming-of-age relationship drama and Jersey was the story of a talented but failed cricketer, treated like a biopic. These are not regular masala dramas. What made you believe in these stories initially?

Every film begins with the intention of wanting to tell a good story. An idea emerges, you work on it for six months or a year and it develops into a full-fledged story. The idea has to be exciting enough to work on the script. Then begins the task of getting the right people — actors and technicians — to make the film. Malli Raava is a love story where someone is so close yet so far. He (the male protagonist) likes the girl in school and meets her years later at work when he can make life decisions. However, they move apart. They meet for the third time years later and the story explores what happens next. At the time of writing the story I was looking forward to the journey of these two characters. The screenplay, camera, music and other aspects came later. Sometimes ideas that seem interesting fizzle out because without life experiences, you cannot flesh out every idea into a feature film.

Jersey began with the idea of a 36-year-old, a father, wanting to get back to playing cricket. I liked the line where the friend character asks Arjun (Nani) why he wants to play professional cricket at an age when he should be playing with his son. What you saw on screen is the ninth or the 10th draft. The story went through changes. In the initial drafts, the coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) was the father of the girl (Shraddha Srinath) and there was some friction between him and Arjun. The story evolved with each draft.

Nani and Sathyaraj as cricketer Arjun and coach Murthy in ‘Jersey’

Nani and Sathyaraj as cricketer Arjun and coach Murthy in ‘Jersey’

Your love for writing brought you to cinema. What do you enjoy about writing? 

Calling myself a writer is overburdening. I know my literature skills and the limitations; I have read very few books and I feel lucky to be called a writer in this medium. A friend of mine wanted to be a director; he was working in an IT firm. Once, during lunch, he told me that he wants to direct a film. Before that, we had discussed our entrepreneurial dreams and we considered starting an Internet business. Suddenly he said he wants to direct a film and that he had this interest for a long time. He told me a one-line story and then we began figuring out how to write the story and screenplay.

We had both quit our jobs and for the first time, I went to a film set. My friend wanted a scene changed and gave me the responsibility to do it. I worked on it from 5pm to 1am and gave it to the assistant director. The next morning when I saw the scene taking shape through the actors, it was exciting. That gave me a high. There’s a dialogue by Brahmanandam in Ready where he says he can create a world if he wants to. Even today, the most exciting thing is to watch what I have written being translated on screen. Now I enjoy both writing and direction.

So did your friend’s film turn out to be your learning ground for editing, digital intermediate and other post-production processes?

It was a learning ground for several aspects of filmmaking. We had a rough story but did not know how to write a structured screenplay. I looked up online resources, read books for nearly eight months and wrote the screenplay. A director needs to know how to convey emotions with the camera, what is the role of editing, sound design, colour grading… in short, have a good understanding of the audio visual medium. I learnt that the script has to be written with an understanding of these crafts. I am grateful to editor T S Suresh and sound designer Radha Krishna who allowed me into their workspaces in Chennai and let me observe the editing and sound design processes. All this changed how I write scripts.

Malli Raava shaped after you met Rahul Yadav Nakka, who until then had no prior experience in film production. Did you also pitch the story to others? 

I had a script and wanted to sell it. But I realised slowly that no one was interested in reading it, let alone buying it. Then I thought I should direct it. I met several producers over six years. I called production offices. The treatment was similar to how we dismiss calls that pitch loans. I also visited a few offices. The first big producer who gave me time was Suresh Babu. I emailed the story but did not hear back from his office. My search continued.

In this process I met Rahul and learnt that he is an angel investor for small businesses. He read the story and said he would invest 30%. Even then I could not find other producers. It was not about whether a film needed 10 lakh or 10 crore, no one wanted to risk it with a first timer. Then Rahul offered to produce it.

Since both of us were new, I decided to shoot a three-minute scene and work on the post production, so that we assess the footage before going ahead with the film. This process worked well and we gained some confidence. Malli Raava fared decently and helped me make my next film, Jersey.

Child actor Ronit Kamra and Nani in ‘Jersey’

Child actor Ronit Kamra and Nani in ‘Jersey’

Jersey was not only appreciated by the audience but also won the National Award for Best Feature Film (Telugu) and for Best Editing. Did that further bolster your confidence? 

In my school days, I had heard about Anjali (by Mani Ratnam) winning National Awards (the film won three awards – best child artist, audiography and feature film in Tamil). I did not know of National Awards for films until then.

When I wanted to become a director, I aspired to win a National Award. I had heard that they (the government) give the winners air tickets to New Delhi and one gets to wear a formal suit and collect the award from the President of India. I was fortunate that Jersey won that year. There were several other good films. Naveen Nooli truly deserved the award for editing. He has the ability to view things from a different perspective. If an emotion does not work, he is upfront about it.

The National Awards gave me both confidence and credibility. But I am aware that I need to prove myself all over again for my next film.

Shahid Kapoor in the Hindi remake of ‘Jersey’

Shahid Kapoor in the Hindi remake of ‘Jersey’

You also remade Jersey in Hindi at a time when language boundaries had begun to blur post Rajamouli’s Baahubali.

I took up the opportunity to make the film in Hindi since I could take the story to a wider audience, work with actors such as Shahid Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, cinematographer Anil Mehta and others. In addition, it would give me further time to work on my next script. Looking back, I was satisfied with my work for Jersey’s Hindi version. It was depressing when the film did not do well commercially. I calmed down only after a friend reminded me that I had made the Telugu film without big expectations and should be happy with the progress I had made.

How do you look at this phase in which directors can dream big and their stories can cut across languages? 

It is a good time to be making movies now. The audience is more accepting and forgiving. I grew up in Rajahmundry watching films such as Titanic in Telugu. Now every film is accessible in different languages.

The most important aspect is to try to narrate a good story. Then the other factors need to fall in place — budget, actors, cinematographer, music composer, release date… You cannot plan it all. Personally speaking, I want to make good films and if they turn out to be memorable, it is a win.

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Director’s Rahul Sankrityan’s next is a folk-noir Rayalaseema film

Rahul Sankrityan

In almost nine years, Rahul Sankrityan has preferred to go slow and steady and directed three films — The End, Taxiwaala and Shyam Singha Roy. In this interview as part of the directors’ series, he discloses that he turned down a few quick projects. He states that he cannot direct a film unless he likes a story and can relate to its world, “ Shyam Singha Roy taught me that it is okay to take two to three years and make a film that people will love.”

Directors’ take
This series of interviews shines the spotlight on some of the directors who made their mark in Telugu cinema in recent years. The series is an attempt to discuss how the larger-than-life Telugu films that capture nationwide attention co-exist with refreshing small and medium budget films.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Your films — The End, Taxiwaala and Shyam Singha Roy — do not fall into the formulaic masala film category. Was that incidental or did you set out to make different kinds of cinema?

I am not a fan of regular commercial movies. The kind of films I like to watch — in theatre, on television or digital platforms — are the kind of films I aspire to make. Horror is one of my favourite genres and reincarnation is a subject that interests me. So all these stories have been a conscious choice.

Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Taxiwaala’

Vijay Deverakonda in ‘Taxiwaala’

Soon after Shyam Singha Roy, you mentioned that you are working on multiple ideas — a zombie film, a time travel story… What have you been writing?

Ever since I started my journey, I have been trying to explore many concepts and ideas. I am working on a period rural story set in Rayalaseema that talks about people, their culture and their lesser-known struggles. This will be an authentic Rayalaseema film, unlike the faction stories we have seen in the past. There will be some action as well. I would call it a folk-noir film. I am also writing a contemporary social story involving a government employee; the zombie film and a time travel film on a big scale are also on the cards.

You grew up in Rayalaseema in the 1990s. Were you exposed to the faction Telugu movies set in the Rayalaseema backdrop and did it appeal to you?

Films on Rayalaseema, to my knowledge, were about faction and revenge stories. I don’t remember any other aspect of Rayalaseema being explored at that time. I enjoyed them a lot; there was a sense of false pride. There is a rural culture in Rayalaseema that has not been explored. People are loving and sensitive. During my research for my new film, I visited a few villages and witnessed how helpful people are. If you ask them for a route, they will guide you until you reach the place and make sure you are comfortable.

You stated in an interview that your idea of cinema changed after watching Mani Ratnam’s Yuva and the Hollywood films such as Star Wars and Titanic. What were the other films that piqued your interest?

I also liked watching Titanic, Jurassic Park and Anaconda. I watched the Telugu dubbed versions of English films in theatres in Kurnool and later the English films on Star Movies. I enjoyed this experience of watching dinosaurs suddenly appearing on screen. I also enjoyed watching action films like Terminator. I don’t like subtle films and perhaps that drives the choice of films I make.

You studied B.Tech and worked in an IT firm before you realised that your interest is in cinema. Did your short films and the indie project The End turn out to be your film school?

Totally. Even my last film Shyam Singha Roy was like a training ground. Every film teaches you something. I haven’t been to a film school and haven’t worked with a mainstream commercial director, which I regret because it is taxing to work on your own. I was a shy kid. Moving to Hyderabad and working with those who had better exposure was not easy. I was not good at narrating and selling my stories, I was low on confidence. But I can write well. With The End, I understood what it takes to release a film and how the distribution works. With Taxiwaala, I understood the structure of the industry, how an established production house works and the economics of the industry. During Shyam Singha Roy I could focus more on storytelling since the other things were taken care of. I could explore the characters better. I realised that cinema has the power to transport people into a different world, almost having the power to change their perspectives. So the next time I want to make films that will live longer.

While learning to navigate the industry as a new filmmaker, did you regret giving up a stable IT job and did you feel the need for guidance? 

There were times I thought I had made a mistake and wondered if I should go back. But there was no comfort zone for me in my software job as well. So I had to fight this through. The biggest challenge for a filmmaker, more than concentrating on the art, is that most of your energy goes into dealing with people and day-to-day situations. It boils down to how efficient you are on that day. That is not how a storyteller or an artist functions. It was a tough decision to leave my job and get into the cinema. The only thing driving me was that I needed to make things happen.

Looking back at Shyam Singha Roy, would you have done certain things differently? One of the complaints was that the Vasu character (one of the dual roles enacted by Nani) was rushed through and the entire focus was on Shyam (Nani) and Rosy (Sai Pallavi).

I agree with that (criticism). The initial idea was about how Vasu discovers his Shyam. But Shyam and Rosy’s characters were so strong that, on the edit table, we felt that is where the USP of the story lies. The reincarnation part is something we have seen in other films. Which is why in the final film the first half featuring Vasu appears weaker than that of Shyam and Rosy. I had the opportunity to discuss this for a probable Hindi remake (which has now been dropped), I thought I could rework Vasu’s character.

Nani and Sai Pallavi as Shyam and Rosy in ‘Shyam Singha Roy’

Nani and Sai Pallavi as Shyam and Rosy in ‘Shyam Singha Roy’

For the Bengal portions, did you go into a rabbit hole of discovering Bengali cinema after you took up this story or were you already clued in?

For some reason I had this fascination towards Bengal, because of its people, literature, social reforms and politics. So when Satyadev Janga came with this story I was excited that I could explore Bengal through my film. I had already watched some of Satyajit Ray’s films and thought I could do something of a tribute. Shyam asking for a job at the ‘Royal press’ is a tribute to Aparajito. I also watched films of Rituparno Ghosh, Mrinal Sen and Guru Dutt to understand the portrayal of the educated youth of the era (1960s and 70s). I had time for research during the pandemic.

How comfortable are you with directing a story written by someone else as opposed to writing and directing yourself?

It is a privilege to get a good story written by someone else. Conceptualising and writing are time-consuming jobs. I don’t mind getting a good story, maybe working on the last draft and collaborating. I know my literary standards and am aware that my knowledge is limited.

There was a time when new directors would feel the pressure to keep scaling up with their consecutive films and raise their brand value. Is that an easy space to negotiate, considering you refused a few films?

Every five years the way an industry functions keeps changing. When I entered the industry, I realised that everyone is after a hit. When one or two different films change the business, the trend shifts in that direction. The focus is on large scale films nowadays. Young filmmakers should know how to adapt. If you have a strong voice, you can be a trendsetter.

After Pushpa-the Rise, RRR and KGF, the focus is on spectacle films. A few medium budget and small films have also done well. How do you look at Telugu cinema in the post- Baahubali phase?

Post Baahubali and post pandemic, people are open to all kinds of content. The audience is clear about what films they will watch in theatres and what they will watch on their mobile phones, computers and televisions. Big scale films that can engage viewers with spectacle, emotion and action guarantee a theatrical experience.

What are the challenges that come with wanting to direct these big films, apart from the need for an established production house and a star?

The challenges would be similar to that of any other job – what is your experience with handling big budgets, stars and the expectations of their fans? What is your experience in handling crowds and action sequences? Producers and artistes look at what films the director has done before. Nowadays, people are also open to all kinds of stories and directors. They take time to listen and understand. Anyone can go and pitch a story. You just have to know how to sell your story.

What kinds of films are you hoping to direct?

I’d like to make films that can transport people into a different world, forget their reality and connect with the emotions of different characters. It could be a therapy in terms of comedy, pathos, action… in short, the navarasas.

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