From 'Mahanati' to 'Yatra': Telugu filmmakers speak on the biopic craze in Tollywood

Directors Nag Ashwin, Mahi Raghav, Praveen Sattaru and producer Vishnu Induri weigh in on what goes into a biopic.
From 'Mahanati' to 'Yatra': Telugu filmmakers speak on the biopic craze in Tollywood
From 'Mahanati' to 'Yatra': Telugu filmmakers speak on the biopic craze in Tollywood
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It’s raining biopics in Tollywood. There was a time when only Bollywood was producing movies like Bhaag Milka Bhaag, Mary Kom or Neerja. But after the release of Mahanati, writers in the Telugu cinema industry are in the process of churning out far more challenging scripts that go beyond regular biopics.

We are not sure when Shraddha Kapoor will reprise Saina Nehwal, but Sudheer Babu is soon hitting the badminton court to get in shape for Pullela Gopichand’s biopic. Meanwhile, actor Sonu Sood is planning his directorial debut with a biopic on badminton star PV Sindhu. With the yet to be named NTR biopic and Yatra, a biopic on YSR, already being touted as the most awaited releases of 2019, Tollywood is in for a feast.

A fine balance between truth and drama

Biopics are known for their affinity to controversies. Dubbed as patronised versions of truth, directors are often blamed for whitewashing vices into virtues when it comes to the protagonist around whom the biopic is woven.

According to Mahi V Raghav, director of Yatra, there can be no honest biopics.  “Biopics are looked through the prism of the main character. The story woven around them are dramatized versions of reality. If people come to theatres to watch an honest portrayal of the protagonist’s life, they can rather read a book or watch a documentary. For a biopic to run, drama in it is quintessential,” Mahi says.

Mahi Raghav with Mammootty

But for Praveen Sattaru, director of the Pullela Gopichand biopic, enough drama exists in each of the character’s personal lives that there is not much need to dramatise things on screen. “For example, Gopichand’s mother used to walk 24 km everyday just to save 6 rupees so as to buy him a shuttle cock. When there is so much drama behind the camera, one need not add spices to it further on screen. We only need to capture the drama in its right sense,” Praveen says.

Meanwhile, Vishnu Induri, producer of the upcoming biopics on NTR and Jaylalithaa, says that a movie is born out of the director’s vision. “Truth in a biopic is a director’s version of facts. Truth would remain. But whether to amplify it or play it subtle is the director’s choice,” he says.

Vishnu Induri

Mahanati:  A benchmark?

Speaking to TNM, Nag Ashwin, director of Mahanati, says that the risks involved in bringing out the film were greater as the story revolved around a female character who did not emerge victorious at the end of the movie. 

“I spent almost a year in writing the script, talking to various sources, Savitri’s kin, journalists, reading up articles and newspaper clippings. I believe the success of the film was the authentic writing that gave life and spirit to the character of Savitri in the movie,” Nag says.

Nag Ashwin with the Mahanati team

The success of Mahanati has definitely given a boost to directors who have such stories in their minds, but were not able to find a viable market to turn their stories into commercial success. “Mahanati comes and everybody wants to make a biopic. If Mahanati was a flop, we all would have just rolled in our stories,” Praveen says.

Praveen was on the lookout for good scripts and that’s when Sudheer Babu came up with the idea of a biopic on Gopichand, almost 4 years back when biopics weren’t that hot, not even in Bollywood. “I pitched my story to various producers for the next three years. Things took a turn for the good only after Fox Star studios decided to come on board. Producers always need something to hang on to. What they need to realise is that it’s the story that dictates the success of a movie and not the genre,” Praveen says.

“Definitely, Mahanati has upped the expectations of audience when it comes to storytelling through biopics. But Balakarishna gaaru made announcements for the NTR biopic almost two years ago. So, to say that producers are not ready to bankroll genres that are not popular may not be right,” Vishnu Induri points out.

Weaving stories

While Mahanati focussed on the entire journey of Savitri as an actor, not all bioipics trace the protagonist’s entire life. On making a biopic, Mahi Raghav says, “There are two ways of looking at it. We can either take the entire life story of a person or focus on a particular segment. We are taking the events from 2003 to the padayatra. It is structured as a road film. If you look at the character, in 2003 YSR was facing a now or never moment. Had he lost that election, no one would have known YSR much. He had 30 years of political experience but had to come out with something new, which he did as the padayatra. Structurally, we see the event as a pivotal happening. The story ends with him finishing the Yatra.”

The amount of research that goes into the making of a biopic script is tremendous. Praveen says that one often gets only flat-out answers from personalities around whom the story is written. “It’s difficult to get anecdotes. Things also depend on the kind of questions we ask them. Also, we need to access their inner circles so that the story is knitted in its entirety.”

Praveen Sattaru

A political biopic is challenging; no such biopic has worked commercially except Gandhi. “Even then Gandhi was directed by a white man. Though we still refer to Iruvar for its brilliance 20 years after its release, the movie was not a commercial success. Therefore, YSR is a conscious decision that I have made. It’s still a human drama even though I have projected it as a political movie,” Mahi says.

Characters and controversies

Biopics are not really new in Telugu.  From Mayuri (1985, on dancer Sudha Chandran), Ashwini (1991, on athlete Ashwini Nachappa) to Pothana andVemana, Tollywood has had its share of movies carved around famous personalities. In the late '80s, director Krishna made a satirical movie on NTR titled Mandaladeesudu. Since it was a political satire, no actor from the industry was ready to play the role. Finally, the character was played by Kota Srinivas Rao, a character artiste.

Things haven’t changed much from the '80s. From Mahanati to Yatra, a major chunk of characters in these movies are played by artistes outside the industry. Be it Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati or Jaganmohan Reddy in Yatra, there is a barrage of actors from outside Tollywood.

Nag Ashwin says there are a few artistes in every industry who are ready to take up challenges no matter how controversial the role might be. “It was difficult to find artistes who could fit the bill of the yesteryear actors. We were lucky to have Dulquer in the film, who was already a star, had a lover-boy image and was ready to experiment with Gemini Ganesan’s role. Keerthy, fitted aptly into the shoes of Savitri without a second thought.”

Asked if it was a deliberate move to subtly play down Gemini Ganesan’s role in the movie, Ashwin says Gemini’s character was a reflection of Savitri’s thoughts. “The movie came out 40 years after Savitri’s death. There were a lot of rumours that surrounded both the characters. But for Savitri, Gemini was always her hero and I think Mahanati hasn’t gone beyond portraying Gemini through her eyes.”

Talking about roping in Mammootty for the role of YSR, Mahi says casting has nothing to do with controversies. “When a biopic on Dhoni was made, nobody went to the theatre to see Sushant Singh Rajput. People wanted to see their favourite cricketer Dhoni on screen. Similarly, Mammootty, who is a huge star by himself, fits YSR in his soul and spirit. It’s sheer luck that we got an actor like Mammootty on board.”

Praveen sums it up. “Something interesting and inspiring has to be told. We can’t mimic the protagonist, we can’t fake it. One can’t learn badminton overnight but there will be energy in it and people will definitely connect with the biopic on Gopichand.”

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