"Nobody knows me!" laughs Ragavendra Prasad when I ask him for an interview. But this 29-year old achieved a childhood dream of making his first movie last year.
How hard is it to make it big in Kollywood? A young debut director speaks
Ragavendra Prasad's "54321" didn't set the box-office on fire, but he hasn't given up on his dream.
news Kollywood Saturday, January 14, 2017 - 17:06
54321 opened to mixed reviews and did not exactly set the box-office on fire. The reasons are many. For a person who does not have any connections in the film industry, getting the crucial first break can be a monumental task.
Ragavendra's family comes from Masinagudi near Ooty. He grew up in Coimbatore, surrounded by video cassettes of films.
His father wanted to become a filmmaker but couldn't achieve the dream due to financial constraints. He opened a shop that sold and rented out movies instead. The shop was named after his son: Prasad Audio & Video.
"After cassettes, came CDs and DVDs. Then we got a cable TV connection, so I used to watch films on TV. We used to watch a movie every single day," smiles Ragavendra. "I used to love watching Thalapathy. I've liked Mani Ratnam sir since childhood."
Hollywood movies were fair game too.
"My father used to make me watch Stanley Kubrick movies!" exclaims Ragavendra, adding that he didn't understand much of the English films he watched back then, but noticed that there was something "different" about them.
Eventually, his father's craze for films rubbed off on him. "I always wanted to get into films. There's nothing else I wanted to do," he says.
And so, when he finished obtaining a degree in computer science from a college in Coimbatore, he moved to Chennai.
"I was just waiting to finish college and come to Chennai, so I could start my career in films. I moved to the city in 2007," he says. "I wanted to try and find work as an assistant director."
Though Ragavendra had no contacts in the city, he managed to become part of a film called Eerpu.
"It was a big film. Yuvan Shankar Raja was the music director. The film took up to two to three years, but never saw the light of the day," he says.
Ragavendra was disappointed, but he continued to look for work. "I used to go to SJ Surya's office...Chimbudevan Sir's office. I used to try and meet many people, but nothing worked out. Chimbudevan Sir at least met and spoke to me for some time. I wasn't able to meet the others at all."
That's when he ran into Karthik Subbaraj and became a part of Pizza (2012), a thriller which went on to become a huge hit.
During the shoot of 54321.
"I started 54321 in 2013. It was supposed to have released then...but my film ran into the same problems that first-timers encounter. There were financial issues, so it came out only in 2016," says Ragavendra, explaining that this is why the film has a dated feel to it.
"Karthik Subbaraj heard the story and he really liked it. The same team which worked on Pizza - Santhosh Narayanan, Gopi Amarnath - were supposed to work on my film. But after Pizza came out, they all became big names and I couldn't put together a budget which could accommodate them," he adds.
Ragavendra then went about putting together a new team.
Shabeer, who plays the villain in 54321, has a background in theatre and Ragavendra got him on board after watching one of his plays: "The villain is the main actor in my film, so I wanted somebody who knew how to act. That's why I picked him. After seeing his work in my film, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan gave him an opportunity in one of her films."
Veteran actor Rohini was also part of the cast. "I wanted someone experienced like Rohini Ma'am or Suhaasini for the role (of a teacher). We approached her and narrated the story. She immediately agreed," says Ragavendra.
Since this was his first film, Ragavendra had to strike compromises on several fronts, including the cast of his film. "Not everyone was my first choice for the role. But what to do, certain compulsions happen...especially on your first film!"
54321 was completed in 2014, but Ragavendra had to struggle a lot to release the film: "My producer, GV Kannan, was also new. Most of my team was new. Nobody had contacts. Even though I knew Karthik Subbaraj, he had his own share of problems at that time, and I didn't want to go to him."
Ragavendra says that previously, there were many who'd buy the movie and release it, but that this has now changed. "For a film to release and get a good opening, it should have something in it. A hero who is a known face, or a director or producer or someone who is well-known! We had nothing, so we found it very difficult. We couldn't call anyone to release the movie...it was hard to even get in touch with people."
Another still from the film's shooting.
The film finally made it to the screens in August 2016.
Some time ago, Sivakarthikeyan and Silambarasan had spoken about the politics within the industry which prevents newer, younger people from making it big. What does Ragavendra think about this?
"Well, you don't get any support when you are new. They don't stop you, but they don't support you either. But once you prove yourself, they will look you up," he feels.
Ragavendra speaks highly of Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, a recently released thriller directed by a 22-year old, Karthick Naren. The film had a mostly fresh cast too.
"Only Rahman sir is a known face in it. But because the movie is good, it has received so much attention. If it hadn't been good, even that director wouldn't have received anything," he says. "Nobody really knows me, or who I am. They'll know only if I give a hit and prove myself."
54321 opened to mixed reviews. Was it heartbreaking as a debut director to read negative comments?
"It was very difficult at first. Then I got used to it. I accept many things that critics and others have pointed out. I did this film all by myself and I've learnt from the feedback," comments Ragavendra with refreshing honesty.
Despite the failure of his debut film, Ragavendra has not given up the dream: "My family, especially my father, is very supportive. Even now, I'm living off the money that they send. I'm working on my next script. It's going to be an action film."
Kollywood, like film industries around the world, sells dreams. Sitting on the other side of the screen, it's easy for us to forget that the people who make these films are sometimes living on nothing but dreams, too.