A decade ago, when Sekhar Kammula’s Happy Days hit the screens, he was hailed as a rare Telugu filmmaker who understood the lives and aspirations of college goers.
The director, who had studied in CBIT, Hyderabad, before going to the US in the '90s, drew from his real life experiences to showcase the joy and tears that students go through in college.
The film went on to become a smash hit, earned a windfall profit, and finally, got Sekhar Kammula thinking about what he should do next.
Three years later, he made Leader (2010), a political drama which dealt with corruption in the system. It wasn’t a typical Sekhar Kammula film and the director agrees that he was moved by the then political scenario in Andhra Pradesh to make a film.
“There are times when everything you do is a reflection of what you encounter in your daily life. Leader was one such film. And then, I made another film (Anaamika) which was a result of my angst after the Nirbhaya incident shook us all,” Sekhar Kammula says.
“There’s no dearth of issues in our society for which we need to find a solution, and every filmmaker, by his or her very nature, is compelled to address social issues through cinema," he adds.
On 'Fidaa' and love
Truth is, he treats every film like a baby. For some inexplicable reason, while talking about Dollar Dreams (2000), the film which marked his debut in Telugu cinema, he called the film his ‘son’. And that tradition continued over the years.
His latest film Fidaa, starring Varun Tej and Sai Pallavi, is like his ‘daughter’, going by what he stated at the film’s audio launch.
Ask him what exactly he meant by that, Sekhar Kammula says,
“I felt that Fidaa encompasses a lot of progressive thinking and that’s the change I want to see in the society as well. I believe that men and women are equal, and a man should stand by and support whatever decision a woman makes.
I want to bring up my daughter like that. We worked really hard to make this film and it’s a labour of love for us. This film is very personal to me and it’s like my child.
After you watch the film, you can’t differentiate between the film and Bhanumati (the lead character played by Sai Pallavi). I’ve had a feminist approach to all my films and it’s all the more underlined in this film.”
The filmmaker is evidently upset with the lack of true love in films these days.
“It’s almost as if the concept of true love and pain doesn’t exist anymore and we see heroes indulging in all sorts of things, including stalking, threatening and abnormal behaviour, in the name of love. I think women will feel really good after watching Fidaa. There’s tremendous amount of positivity. You’ll really feel like crying and believe that your world will turn upside down when you miss someone. This is the reality of life, and sadly, this is rarely shown in our films. In my films, there are no external conflicts. The struggle is all in their minds,” he confesses.
So, is that the reason why there are no villains in his films?
He bursts out laughing and makes a valid point about how violent our lives have become without even indulging in bloodshed.
“I think I can create a menacing villain if I really want to. But then, the stories which you want to tell should dictate what you want to create. I don’t have a taste for violence or bloodshed. Truth is, these days, you don’t have to be violent, just words are enough to shake everyone around you (laughs).”
Fidaa narrates the story of Bhanumati, a 20-something girl who lives in Banaswada, a small town in the hinterlands of Telangana. She’s the embodiment of everything that many men would want to see in a woman - smart, independent, fiery and caring. Fidaa is about her journey and her life, and what happens when she falls in love with an NRI.
After Anamika, when Sekhar wanted to write a love story, ten days into the writing process, he asked his team if they have come across any films which are set in Telangana, and that led to his eureka moment.
“It’s surprising that no one has really explored the landscape of Telangana in all its glory. During the filming of Avakai Biryani (a film which he produced), we came across some beautiful locations near Vikarabad and the landscapes changed the tone of the film itself.
For a while, we were toying with the idea of setting the story in Hyderabad or in coastal Andhra Pradesh; however, by then, we’ve already had multiple films which explored everything there was to be shown in those regions. Being a Hyderabadi all my life, I’ve always been fascinated by the culture and rituals in Telangana. My kind of cinema has a lot of middle class representation and setting the story in Telangana seemed appropriate to tell our story,” Sekhar admits.
The process of writing the screenplay and scouting for locations in Banaswada, Ankapur and Nizamabad was a learning process, and the filmmaker recalls spending nearly 50 days in Banaswada, where hundreds of people from the town joined the team to give it a realistic touch.
“We spent a great deal of time trying to cajole and convince the local people to join us for the shoot.
A lot of props you see in the film were picked up from several houses in Banaswada and our direction department was quite careful while dealing with them.
I can never forget the love and affection that we received from the people there and even now, I feel like going on a long drive to all those places to just soak it all in,” he adds.
On his love for representing the middle-class
For the record, Sekhar Kammula has been one of the very few film filmmakers in contemporary Telugu cinema who have focused on the middle-class way of living.
The characters, the setting, and even the language is straight out of the bylanes of Hyderabad and, over the years, his films have reflected the lifestyle of people who have grown up in a community, where family values and caring for each other are in spotlight.
Call it his trademark, but there’s no escaping this in this films, especially the likes of Life Is Beautiful, Anand and Godavari. Has he ever felt that it has become a cliche now, we wonder, and he agrees with us.
“But then, there’s nothing much I can do about it and my penchant for middle-class representation in my films comes naturally,” Sekhar confesses. “I believe that every writer has only 3-4 stories that he keeps telling all the time. But there’s always a constant desire to tell something else. In that sense, Leader was my something else, Anamika was something else."
He goes on to add: "When I thought what else can I write about women, I thought that Sujoy Ghosh had written a good script and I wanted to adapt that story (Kahaani) in Telugu. So, every writer has 3-4 stories, which come from his heart, which s/he keeps toying around with. These are based on the core ethics and your belief system. If I’m writing a story specifically for a particular hero, then you can maybe come up with more stories or get inspired from other films to come up with your own stories. But original, heart-felt stories, are not so easy to come by.”
On the labour of love that every film is
Every film that he makes takes a major toll on him and by his own admission, he becomes so frail by the time his films are up for release that his own family members get scared about his health.
“My stories are big. Every film of mine can be made into 3-4 films because there’s so much content. I fall in love; I don’t give up; I just keep writing. I live with them, which is why I get drained out. It consumes a lot of energy and time.
A bigger task, especially when it comes to original and new ideas, is that these stories have to be commercially viable. They’ve to sell. You’ve to sugar coat, add music.
On top of that, I have imposed plenty of restrictions on myself that there shouldn’t be any vulgarity, I shouldn’t depict women in a certain way. I totally agree that it’s defensive filmmaking. I’m not so proud of it, maybe I could have done something else,” the director says, as a matter-of-fact.
Although he has no regrets with what he has done so far, Sekhar comes across as a person who held himself back from digging deeper into the stories that he has created so far.
So, why does he want to continue with the same style?
“The reason why I’m continuing with this is that it’s probably working and people are listening to what I’ve to say. But if you ask me if I’m really proud, really happy, then I must confess that after Anand, everything feels redundant. After Anand, only Leader was probably a different film but even there, I don’t think I had a complete understanding about the political scenario. I could have dug deeper.
Corruption is a convenient theme to address when you are making a film on politics; however, caste is a very touchy subject. When I ask myself if I have faced oppression because of caste, the answer is no. So, when I sit down to write about it, I have to get out of my comfort zone and try to address such issues. Someday I would like to do that.
Now, when I come back to doing a love story, like Fidaa, the whole idea is to push the bar a little more in terms of realism and address more social issues. The film will make you think about our families, places we grew up in, and the pain and separation from her family that a girl experiences when she gets married.”
The film opened to rave reviews and Sekhar Kammula was hailed for his sensitive approach to depicting the aspiration of a young woman, who hails from a small town.
Fidaa earned Varun Tej his first smash hit and Sai Pallavi has become a sensation among the Telugu audiences.
We ask Sekhar if he’s going to write yet another love story anytime soon, he smiles again.
“I might have hit a roadblock with love stories, I’m not getting any younger (laughs). Let’s see what I do next. We are working in a space where only some stories sell. If you go out of this space, people will say it’s an art film. It’s a fine line where you’re constantly struggling between wanting to tell your stories and them being commercially viable,” he signs off.