Interview
The Telugu film, set in the '80s, has gone on to become a blockbuster.

“I cheated Ram Charan when we started shooting the film,” Sukumar confessed at a recent interaction with the media about Rangasthalam, much to everyone’s surprise. “On the third day of the shoot, I asked him to wear a hearing aid, as part of his characterisation. He asked me, “Do you think it’ll be good, darling?” I said ‘yes’, but deep down in my heart I wasn’t sure about it. He believed in me and it’s this blind faith in me and the film that motivated all of us to make Rangasthalam. I apologise to Ram Charan for that (laughs).”

The film, starring Ram Charan, Samantha, Aadhi, Jagapathi Babu, and a slew of other actors, has turned out to be a blockbuster at the box-office and it’s poised to be the biggest hit in Ram Charan and Sukumar’s career. Beyond the numbers, the film’s realistic imagery from the ’80s, cinematography, music, production design earned rave reviews, apart from the performances of the ensemble cast, and Sukumar’s writing and direction.

The idea of Rangasthalam

Apparently, Sukumar has been toying with the idea of making a rural drama for several years now. Cinematographer Rathnavelu, who has collaborated with Sukumar for films like Arya, Jagadam, 1-Nennokkadine, and now Rangasthalam, recalls Sukumar talking about it even before the making of 1-Nennokkadine.

“It’s not easy to make such films. Besides, a lot of actors too prefer modern stories. After Sukumar made Nannaku Prematho, he narrated a couple of storylines to me - one of them was a contemporary story revolving around green revolution and another was a rural drama. We spoke about it and finally, I told him to go with a rural drama because he spent several years of his life in his village near Razole and he has fond memories from his childhood. Initially, he wanted to make a rural drama which is more contemporary, but I was more inclined to making a period drama because it gives us more scope to showcase local culture. Today, everyone has a laptop and a cellphone, even in rural areas. Besides, I haven’t done a period film set in a village for a while now. So, it was a challenge for all of us,” Rathnavelu says.

It was during the making of Nannaku Prematho that Sukumar was introduced to Ram Charan by their mutual friend, Ranga, who is said to have told Sukumar, “You have no idea about Ram Charan’s fan base and what a good film with him in a lead role can do at the box-office.”

The duo decided to collaborate for a film and it didn’t take too long for Mythri Movie Makers to green light the film. “The producers were quite excited when I narrated the story in October, 2016; however, I wasn’t ready to start the shoot until April, 2017. Charan was free from early January 2017 onwards, but I felt that I could fine-tune the script even more. Funny thing is that I hardly met Charan prior to the shoot, and I think I narrated the entire script only once to him. He was quite impressed with the characterisation of Chitti Babu, and this film wouldn’t have been possible without him. Full credit to him for not thinking about his image and what his fans would think before he decided to come onboard,” Sukumar recalls.

Finding Rangasthalam

Rangasthalam, Rathnavelu says, is among the films which drew a lot from the locations that it was going to be shot in. When the team decided to set the story in the '80s, they had to choose the right setting the background too to give it a realistic feel.

Initially, the team suggested shooting the film in Araku valley, but Rathnavelu vetoed the idea saying, “You’ll get a beautiful scenery in Araku, but it’s very hard to depict culture there. It wasn’t until we visited areas near Kolleru lake and Godavari region that we found our Rangasthalam. All these years we have seen Godavari region filled with lush green imagery, and beautiful views of the river. When I went for a recce there, I loved the burnt out feel that the area had when the time was around 11:30 AM. That was quite different from what we are used to watching on screen all these years. Later, we found acres and acres of grasslands by the river side and that location inspired us to turn it into a ‘killing field’ in the story. It’s at the entrance of the village and everyone has to pass through it. It has an eerie feeling too because a lot of people get killed there. The grassland added a lot of character to the storytelling. Unlike today, we had a lot of festivals, fairs, folk performances, Hari Katha, Burra Katha, in our villages couple of decades ago. In the film, whenever a confrontation or an emotional scene is about to unfold, you’ll find one of these elements in the background. Showing all that in the film helped us to transport the audience back to the '80s.”

The village where the film was shot is nearly a couple of hours' drive from Rajahmundry, and the whole cast and crew were, admittedly, quite surprised that nothing much has changed in those areas even after so much economic progress in surrounding areas.

“There’s no concept of savings in these places. People are content with what they make in a day and they don’t really think so much about their future. We tried working with few people from these villages but they wouldn’t show up after 3-4 days because they are happy with what they have earned in those few days (laughs),” Sukumar adds.

Capturing Rangasthalam on film

A lot of elements in the film, including the concept of a ‘society’, which is controlled by a few influential men from the village, the burden of debt on farmers, and a select few men heading to Gulf region, were inspired from real-life incidents of people who were close to Sukumar.

And he wrote so much about each character in the film that it had a ripple effect on the whole cast and crew by the time they came to the shoot.

“Ram Charan and Samantha had never lived in a village before they shot for the film, but it didn’t take them too long to get into the skin of their character. In fact, Ram Charan was so comfortable wearing a lungi that I was convinced that he became Chitti Babu the moment he arrived on the sets. If you ask me what really made a difference in Rangasthalam compared to his previous films, I would say it’s the depth in his characterisation. He has a hearing impairment, but at times, he gets what people are saying and sometimes, he pretends that he didn’t listen anything. It’s a tricky role, but he pulled it off so well. There were a lot of times that the whole set clapped after watching Ram Charan perform in multiple scenes,” Sukumar reveals.

Among the many challenges that cinematographer Rathnavelu faced while making Rangasthalam, one of the key things was to make the film look more dynamic and glossy, and this required plenty of effort. 

“It’s hard to shoot when the frame looks burnt-out. But that was a critical thing to do to achieve a hyper-realistic look for the film. The normal style of lighting won’t suffice for such style. Moreover, my team was quite skeptical about the shoot because it’s a dialogue-oriented script and there’s nothing much to do if you stick to the conventional style. So, we decided to shoot a gimbal for nearly 90% of the film. I had to be in the middle of the action to capture the story instead of sitting in one corner and looking at everything through a zoom lens,” Rathnavelu says.

Another key change that the cinematographer made was change the traditional method of shot division where a close-up shot, over-the-shoulder shot, and a medium shot are used to shoot conversations.

“There are too many actors to work with in several sequences and it would have been a time consuming process to capture all of that. Instead, we went for long takes where we capture everything in real time without being intrusive. Also, you can’t restrict the body language of actors in such cases. When they have the freedom to express their emotions realistically, cinematography has to complement it. That’s the reason why I feel like I’m a member of Sukumar’s direction team instead of being just a cinematographer. You’ve to think like him (Sukumar) while working with him, and getting into the psychology of the characters helps a lot.” 

The people of Rangasthalam

Elucidating the psychological aspect of cinematography in the film, he says, “For instance, take Jagapathi Babu’s role - he’s the most powerful man in the village and he’s above everyone else. So, when he stands and talks, he’s at least 4-5 feet above everyone else. His house is on a pedestal for the same reason because it signifies authority. I used a lot of hard-lighting while shooting his scenes, and if it’s a scene that’s set in the night, Jagapathi Babu is always close to a light source. It shows the character in a different dimension.”

Each character had a significant look in terms of the costumes and colour palette. While Ram Charan’s characterisation is innocent-but-tough, Samantha had a totally different look.

“For Ram Charan, we used nearly 30 shades of brown which highlighted his toughness. And I convinced Samantha to just apply red & brown tan base to make her look two shades darker, without any makeup. She wasn’t sure if it’s going to work, but once she came to the shoot, she just fell in love with it. She doesn’t like shooting in the sun, so we shot a lot of her portions early in the morning or late in the evening,” Rathanvelu adds.

Both the director and the cinematographer are all praise for production designers Ramakrishna and Monika, who created the '80s look. “They did a wonderful job and made my job a lot easier,” Sukumar stated, adding, “The duo brought life to the whole setting. They were particularly helpful in getting the properties to showcase the ‘80s look.”

Rathnavelu was clear that he wanted the whole village to look different in every sense.

“The colour palette had to be consistent with what the script demanded. You won’t see any bright yellows or blue or red anywhere. Everything had to be quite muted and earthy. Even the sky doesn’t look blue like how you see in other films. When Ramakrishna and Monika built the set in Hyderabad, it looked fabulous, but it rained twice much to our surprise. We had to bring in quite a few M90 series of lights to achieve the harsh burnt-out look while shooting here.”

The whole film was shot using Red Helium 8k camera and Rathnavelu says that Rangasthalam is one of first few films to be shot using the camera.

“It offers a great dynamic range to capture the kind of visuals we were aiming for. Some of the sequences had to be shot under extremely low-light conditions, so the Red 8k came in quite handy,” he says.

With Rangasthalam turning into a blockbuster, Sukumar is admittedly quite excited about what he wants to do next.

“Now, I feel like making different rural dramas set in different regions of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (laughs). On a serious note, I’m glad that I could tell the story of Rangasthalam quite convincingly, and since people appreciated our efforts, they have been kind enough to overlook some of our mistakes,” Sukumar says.

And Rathnavelu puts everything in perspective saying, “There’s so much rustic beauty in the Godavari region that I fell in love with it. I want to dedicate this film to the people of Godavari. We tried to recreate the scent of soil through the film. I hope we succeeded in that aspect.”