I've learnt to direct actors, thanks to Mammootty: 'Yatra' filmmaker Mahi to TNM

Director Mahi V Raghav speaks to TNM about directing Mammootty, his interactions with Jagan and more.
I've learnt to direct actors, thanks to Mammootty: 'Yatra' filmmaker Mahi to TNM
I've learnt to direct actors, thanks to Mammootty: 'Yatra' filmmaker Mahi to TNM

More than a year after filmmaker Mahi V Raghav began thinking about the core idea behind Yatra, he’s finally ready to the show the world, the remarkable journey which changed former CM of Andhra Pradesh, YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s life and the political landscape of AP back in 2004.

The film focuses on YSR’s padayatra, which brought him closer to the people in the state and paved the way for his victory in the elections. Making this film, Mahi V Raghav says, gave him a sense of closure, unlike his previous films.

“In both my previous films, irrespective of the result, I realised that I was banking too much on my writing. But having worked with legends like Mammootty, Sreekar Prasad, and Sirivennela Seetarama Sastry gave me immense confidence that I could truly direct a film. In a way, it almost feels like my debut film,” Mahi says, adding, “Maybe, ‘directing’ is too crude a term to describe the process. I mean, how do you direct someone like Mammootty? My job was to write and communicate to everyone what I had in mind. We are all co-creators in this process.”

The director doesn’t want to use the term ‘biopic’ to describe his film and all the more so, since it focuses on a specific segment in the protagonist’s life. He took a conscious decision to not reflect the exact same incidents or characters who played a key part in YSR’s life during the padayatra, and even the timelines have been altered for dramatic effect.

For instance, YSR’s padayatra had unfolded nearly 15-16 months before the elections were held in 2004; however, in the film, Mahi intentionally tweaked this timeline to six months before the elections.

“I don’t know what people mean when they use the term ‘biopic’. The way I see it, all biopics are fictional and there can never be an honest biopic. It’s always going to be fictionalised and more so for the format of a film. If I’m making a documentary, judge me on the basis of factual and chronological turn of events. But when it’s a film, you’ve to respect that format because you’ve to engage the audience emotionally. Yatra is inspired from a true event and a real character. We have tweaked the characters and timelines for dramatic effect. I want the audience to judge me on the basis of the story, and not the actual events and characters that happened in the past,” Mahi explains.

The drama centres around how YSR changed as a person and with Mammootty playing the central character, Mahi V Raghav had to ensure that this real story works as a film too. After all, the heart of a biopic lies in the drama within the story and the environment it’s set in. And he underlines the fact that he had no intention to make a political film.

“Whenever you make a character-driven story, whether it’s a biopic or not, you’ll find yourself drawn to that character in a lot of ways. What I love about YSR is not his courage or his powerful persona...what I found really interesting was his humanitarian side. He was a humble man, and had a lot of gratitude and loyalty towards his people. Sometimes, he would go out of his way to help those whom he didn’t even know personally. This part of his life is what inspired me to tell his story. I drew inspiration from random accounts of people, from different walks of life, whom I happened to meet over a span of several years. It’s astonishing that everyone had something or the other to say. That’s how the story of Yatra developed quite organically,” Mahi says.

Despite the stature of the character on which the film is based on, Mahi acknowledges that he feels quite detached from the film.

“There’s no glorification of the character and it’s not a fanboy version of someone whom he treats as God. I’m just the voice to this story which I have heard from others. I don’t have a sense of belongingness that this is my baby,” he says.

The director is all praise for Mammootty, who brought in plenty of nuances to play the character and there were several moments where he was pleasantly surprised with how Mammootty had interpreted the character and imbibed YSR’s traits.

“Throughout the shoot, I kept telling Mammootty that he made my job easier. Thanks to him, I’ve learnt how to direct actors. Now, I know the approach he has towards his craft, and that gave me a lot of confidence that I can approach any other actor and direct them. When it comes to writing a script for a Telugu film, we tend to be more dramatic and we expect the same from the artistes too, but the way Mammootty interpreted the character was quite different. He felt that YSR had to be more grounded and real. In the film, you’ll not find Mammootty overdo anything,” he says.

Elaborating further, Mahi recalls how Mammootty stumped him during the shoot while performing in an emotional sequence.

“There’s a scene where YSR is about to walk out of a hospital after meeting a farmer and he comes across the farmer’s wife. Towards the end of the scene, he rubs his nose with a hand towel. Mammootty doesn’t repeat whatever he has done before, every time we do a retake; however, that little gesture of rubbing his nose was consistent in all takes. Much later, when I asked him about it, he told me that when someone is extremely emotional and is about to burst into tears, you feel it on your nose first before tears roll down your eyes. In that scene, as a leader, YSR is trying to put up a brave face, but he’s unable to control that wave of sorrow that’s hitting him. That’s the kind of detailing that Mammootty brings to his performance. Subconsciously, you’ll be blown away by such nuances," he says.

When the film’s trailer was released a few weeks ago, Mammootty was praised for imbibing the body language of YSR extremely well; however, there was some criticism about his voice. That the actor had put in quite a lot of effort to dub for himself is indeed praiseworthy, but, all said and done, it’s extremely different from how YSR spoke.

Despite all these murmurs, especially on social media, Mahi defends his decision to retain Mammootty’s voice saying, “Right from the beginning, we were clear that we are not going to mimic anyone. That’s the thumb rule. If we fall into that trap of making the character look alike to the real life personality, it’s a battle which we won’t win. I’m confident that five minutes into the film, you’ll fall in love with Mammootty’s performance and his voice too," he assers.

Mahi goes on to explain the rationale behind Mammootty dubbing for himself in the film: "We focused more on the character, irrespective of how they looked. Mammootty has that strength and aura to captivate your attention. Besides, it was Mammootty’s decision to dub his voice because for him performance is a combination of both acting and dubbing. Even if he didn’t want to, I would have still requested him to do it. I’ve seen his films like Swathi Kiranam and Thalapathy, and he has an amazing voice. We can only try to make his voice close to reality, but we aren’t claiming that we have mastered it. We have lost the trend of authenticity in Telugu itself. But I don’t think the audience will think too much about it. What people are going to notice more is the invisible agony which a character feels."

Ever since the film was announced last year, there was quite a lot of speculation about who are going to play YSR’s family members, especially his son, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, and daughter, Sharmila.

However, Mahi reveals that he took a conscious decision to not touch upon this part of YSR’s life. In fact, he had written a minor role for YS Jagan’s character, who was supposed to appear towards the end of the film; however, he dropped the character altogether to not distract the audience at such an emotional part in the narrative.

“Among his family members, the film has characters of YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s wife (Vijayamma) and his father (YS Raja Reddy) playing prominent roles. Both of them played a key part in his life which led to his change at a later stage in his political career. I know that had we retained YS Jagan’s role, we would have got more eyeballs and footfalls; however, it didn’t seem right for the story I wanted to tell,” he adds.

Admittedly, he met YS Jagan on a couple of occasions to tell him about the film he was making. The first time when he met Jagan, he was pleasantly surprised with Jagan’s graciousness to not take credit for what his father hadn’t done.

“When I told him that the film’s subplots would include Arogyasri, Pension scheme, and waiving-off farmers loans, Jagan stopped me abruptly and politely said that we shouldn’t take credit for what his father hadn’t done. It needs a lot of graciousness and spirit to say something like that. It shows the conviction that one story might not change anything. He acknowledged that YSR had implemented a scheme to give free electricity for farmers, and that the central government had waived off farmers loans. For that matter, Jagan wasn’t involved in the creative process at all,” Mahi recalls.

Is this film releasing to capitalise on the election season? Mahi wards off the suspicion before you can ask the question.

“I must also clarify that Yatra is not a propaganda film. It’s foolishness to underestimate the intelligence of voters. A film won’t influence or change anything, especially in today’s day and age. They know quite well whom to vote for,” Mahi signs off.

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