By now, anyone who follows Telugu cinema knows that director Sekhar Kammula writes his female characters with a certain empathy and realism. But not much is spoken about the universe he sets his men in " they 'allow' things to happen to them, they are vulnerable, don't mind not driving the relationship, and work around the house with a certain ease. They also know how to take 'no' for an answer.
Kammula, whose new film Love Story, starring Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi, struggles to react to observations such as these, for this is how he has been raised and what he grew up into. It is not a conscious call " he simply does not know any other way of working. "It's not agenda-driven, this writing men with a certain softness. Every writer has certain strengths, brought upon by how they were raised. Is it where I studied? Is it how my father interacted with the women at home? I can't put a finger on one reason but I've been this way since my debut Dollar Dreams (1999). I think that when I compose a scene, I use elements that are probably beautiful, give the hero and heroine sensitive behaviour, or rather behaviour I want to see, and picture that beautifully. My team lights up the frames well. I use a very positive dream-like canvas, and these characters play very grounded folks who have their egos, their fears, pains, who are afraid but put on a show of being brave and wonder if they did the right thing. As for the men, I stay clear of masochism when it comes to a character trait. They accept, don't impose," says Kammula.
But with Fidaa (2017) to an extent, and more so with Love Story, Kammula has been trying to break what is by now famously called his "ecosystem" " beautiful rain, positive vibes, a lovely romance, children. "I don't want to be repetitive in my storytelling. My US education allowed me to showcase NRI lives wel., I'm a natural with portraying engineering, software, the middle class, and even music. I write my own stories, and I fiercely guard myself against repetition. I double check myself, and there's my team too, who tell me to my face if something is not working " this is not how a woman thinks or this does not sound right " and I am very open to criticism," he explains.
Fidaa saw Kammula explore the world of farmers in Telangana. "That is something I did not know, I learnt it. It is a very different world from the one I inhabit," says Kammula, who smiles when he says that he might have created Bhanumathi (the effervescent hybrid pilla in Fidaa), but the people of Telangana made her theirs. But he also did manage to capture certain intrinsic things about small-town India " a jar of pickle is shareable, and compound walls between homes are fluid spaces that allow for movement of people, and pickles!
In Love Story, Kammula works within the scope of what makes a film his, but explores two important topics " caste and gender issues, and in a smaller way, the lives of those from small-town India. Revanth (Naga Chaitanya) is from a small town, and comes to the city with entrepreneurial dreams in the world of fitness. Mounica (Sai Pallavi, one of the only two heroines Kammula has repeated after Kamalinee Mukherjee) comes with a history that is steeped in gender issues.
"Revanth's life and backstory are alien to me, and I depended on my writers to bring that alive. And while I might be sensitive, being a man, I don't 'get' the range of sensitivity needed to understand how a gender issue affects a woman. I banked on the women in my team to help me with that. What happens when someone oppressed by caste and another by gender come together? That's what I am attempting. Yes, films have been made on caste oppression and discrimination, but they are set in a rural background and in a different period. We view it from a distance, and presume it is in the past. We presume these things don't happen in cities. We don't realise that about 40 percent of the population faces such discrimination. We talk about loving the country, about the millionaires, but we don't speak about the huge chunk of people who are underrepresented," says Kammula.
The National Award-winning director speaks about Vetrimaaran's Asuran, for example, which he considers brilliant, but says he cannot completely possibly understand rural politics the way Vetrimaaran has.
"What I've tried to do is represent caste discrimination in the way I can.
If someone watches the film and says 'this is my story', that's a great achievement. I speak about a man who's not any different from the next person, but is discriminated against. And a mainstream hero like Naga Chaitanya plays him. So it's a new palette."
Kammula speaks of how he likes to explore a new concept in every film of his. The advantage is that he keeps it subtle. Fidaa, in the first viewing, is a love story between a fiercely independent girl and a boy who lives abroad. "In reality, I wanted to speak about why being a ghar jamaai is still taboo. We always speak of a Prince Charming sweeping his Princess off her feet, but they never get to stay back in her land. I wanted to explore that. I had other layers such as migrating to a new country, students being packed off to study engineering like broiler chicken, and a girl admitting she likes to eat and sleep," elaborates Kammula.
Pallavi was the heartbeat of Fidaa, but Kammula feels her role in Love Story is better. "I think Varun's (Tej) role was the more difficult one in Fidaa. Pallavi is more nuanced here. She has layers to explore," says the director who first wanted to cast Pallavi in Life is Beautiful (2012). "Years later, I saw Premam, and knew she'd be perfect as Bhanumathi. Languages come easily to Pallavi, and she nailed the Telangana dialect. She looks quiet, but can be explosive on screen. I spend a lot of time writing a character, and I like to keep them as real as possible. So we usually get away with minimal make-up. I'd seen what range she was capable of while making Fidaa, even though I did not have to tap into that for the film. However, since Bhanumathi is an iconic character, we undid that bit by bit, and made a specific effort for Mounica to come across as a brand-new person," says Kammula.
Chaitanya has a lovely smile, blushes beautifully, and has a soft core, but few films have explored that side of the actor. That was exactly what Kammula went for. Remember the teaser with the shot of a kiss on the train and Chaitanya's winsome smile? "I like how he speaks, he's an introvert with a great smile. He's approachable, believable, and my team went through all his movies and interviews, and wrote down things he did often that we did not want him to do. The dialect is new for him, but he worked on it. We had a plan for him, and he surrendered completely."
With his actors, Kammula does not like to micro-direct. He prefers creating a creative perimeter and allowing them to do all they want within that boundary. So while the concept is his, the execution is by the actors. "They know the character intimately, and relate to that. Then on, they bring in the nuances and anything else they want to, but within the perimeter," he says.
Kammula enjoys the writing process, and what emerges from that is deeply original content. How does he go about it? "I don't consciously sit down to write something original. It could be a train of thought or a stray one that hits me when I drive. I don't even watch too many films. I write like how the characters would speak in the point of time they are living in. Like Roopa in Anand (2004). She cancels her wedding over a sari, but she has a reason to do that. In Love Story, since caste is a predominant issue, Revanth and Mounica speak about it. My only guiding thought is the answer to the 'Why' question. "Why am I making the film?"
Kammula's writing gets embellished in the staging of a scene too. When a man makes something as simple as coffee or tea, the woman does not deify him, and neither does the staging valourise the act. He retains the everyday casualness of the scene. And somewhere, this percolates down as 'normal behaviour.' But it is this very rootedness, this very realism that makes his films very difficult to remake. "They've not worked well at all, I wonder why," says Kammula. "Be it Happy Days (Jolly Days in Kannada and Inidhu Inidhu in Tamil) or Anand (Ninaithaale in Tamil). I'd like to believe there is a local flavour that's difficult to recreate."
Love Story will be available in theatres this Friday on 24 September.