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We asked Nag Ashwin, maker of films like Yevade Subramanyam and Mahanati, to draw up a list of films that left a deep impact on him. His choices include films he saw growing up, discoveries he made while studying filmmaking at the New York Film Academy, and ones that he learnt the most from. 

nag ashwin mahanati

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

Director: David O. Russell 

I randomly found this film about 5 years ago and I think it’s definitely one of the most funny yet philosophical movies that I’ve ever seen. It was very transformative. I loved that a movie can talk about something so existential in such a ridiculously comic way.

Spirited Away (2001) and Paprika (2006)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon

Till I saw Spirited Away, I didn’t know that animation could be so much more than what we had seen till then. After this, I ended up watching not only all of Miyazaki’s films but also other animated works that had brilliant storytelling and wonderful direction. That’s when I discovered Paprika, which was also amazing. In fact, I think it was even better. It totally blew my mind. 

Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)

Director: Guru Dutt 

I love a lot of the films of that era but this one had an everlasting impact on me. Hyderabad has a mixed culture so I saw some Hindi films while growing up like Tezaab and Sholay. I consciously started watching older Hindi films only a few years back. This was when I was making ads and before I got down to making my first film. At that time, I was trying to consume as much cinema as possible. 

Anand (1971)

Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee

It’s in the same genre as I Heart Huckabees, where you can talk about something serious and also be funny. I love all of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s movies but I started with Anand because it’s the most popular and it really stayed with me. I ended up paying homage to it in a small scene in Mahanati.

Aapadbandhavudu (1992)

Director: K. Viswanath 

I saw it when it released and I really liked it. Later, my parents told me it hadn’t done well. Apparently it was a flop, and I just couldn’t understand how that happened. The film had a great story but it was also wonderful as a complete cinematic experience. The music, casting, everything worked for me. It didn’t have a happy ending or anything, in fact, it’s an extremely dramatic and intense film.

Aditya 369 (1991) 

Director: Singeetam Srinivasa Rao

It’s a science-fiction movie about time travel. I remember meeting Srinavasa Rao, he’s now in his late 80s and lives in Chennai, and telling him that I really wanted to make the sequel of this film. I said I’d like to be a part of it in any way – either by writing or co-directing it with him. But he’s not interested!

Mr. India (1987) 

Director: Shekhar Kapur

I was fascinated with the idea of a watch that could make someone invisible. I think I enjoy films that you can watch at any time – as a kid, an adult or octogenarian – and Mr. India is one of them.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Director: Cameron Crowe

This is a remake of a Spanish film called Open Your Eyes and everyone says the original is far better. I’ve seen both and somehow prefer the Cameron Crowe remake much more – it’s just a great trip.

Mahanadi (1994) 

Director: Santhana Bharathi

The film is essentially about a father searching for his child in Calcutta. It starts off as a really happy movie and then gets really dark. I remember my grandmother refusing to let me watch it as a kid because the daughter in the film is sold into the red-light area. The movie has a really brilliant song in which the notes of the veena match with the appearance of pillars in a trolley shot. 

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Director: George Lucas

I had VHS tapes of Star Wars when I was in school in the late 90s. This was my first interaction with Star Wars, I had no clue what it was before that. I saw it and wondered, ‘What is going on here…can you even make movies like this?’ It totally changed how I looked at cinema. 

The Lord of the Rings series (2001 – 2003)

Director: Peter Jackson

I think these are the only movies that I’ve watched over and over again. They hold up every single time in terms of the storytelling, VFX  and artwork. It’s brilliant how the films adapted a book that appeared to be un-adaptable. My other big takeaway was that people were willing to wait one year for a sequel. Before this, I didn’t know that was even an option. 

WALL-E (2008)

Director: Andrew Stanton

It’s honest and innocent and another great example of a film you can watch at any age. 

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Of all of Kubrick’s films, I love this the most. I think Dr. Strangelove is about him having a lot of fun – it’s comical and crazy. I watched a lot of Kubrick in film school and his early works like like Killer’s Kiss also hold up well. He’s a great filmmaking icon. There’s so much to learn from the way he worked. 

Braveheart (1995)

Director: Mel Gibson

I remember crying in Braveheart. I was in the 7th grade and very fascinated that a movie could move me like that. I felt so personally affected by it. It’s one of the first films for I could watch in the theatre with my friends without adult supervision.

Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Fountain (2006)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Requiem is the first Aronofsky film I saw. I think the music and edit of this movie affected me for the next couple of years. Everything that I tried to write or make was an attempt to achieve that till I realised I couldn’t.

The Fountain is a film I slept through the first time I saw it. I didn’t know what the hell was happening. And years later when I rewatched it, I thought this was the most amazing film I’d ever seen.

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charlie Chaplin 

I enjoy all of Chaplin’s work and have watched all of them repeatedly but this is the most relatable and emotional. These are films that I like to revisit – if not the whole thing at least parts of it. They are so perfect that I keep going back to see how they pulled off some things back then. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Director: Michel Gondry

This film is a mix of sci-fi, comedy and a morose, nostalgic love story – it’s got all the genres. It’s a favourite also because it’s the first time I was discovering the use of in-camera special effects. 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

I discovered Singin’ In The Rain just before making Mahanati. Maybe I had watched it before, but I just can’t get myself to make it through musicals. I haven’t managed to finish films like Chicago either. But this one I rented on Apple TV and watched because I was looking for things in the black-and-white era. It was not just about the music but the storytelling through dancing and singing, which was so different from something like Westside Story or Grease. I thought this was a perfect film.

The Great Beauty (2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

I saw this at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. I had a short film at the festival. I ended up watching a lot of movies because I was given a pass, and this one was just spellbinding. I believe people compare Sorrentino to Fellini but I can’t tell because I don’t have so much exposure to Fellini. But I thought Sorrentino was spellbinding. I got obsessed by his work and watched all his other movies. 

The New World (2005) 

Director: Terrence Malick 

I remember watching this film alone on my laptop, in the middle of the night, wearing headphones. It was such a moving film and the heart of it is this beautiful South American actress who plays Pocahontas.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

I saw this in 2006 after a friend recommended it to me. I remember that at that time, there were a couple of popular directors from Mexico. I had just seen Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and my friend said I should watch this too. I loved the music and it’s fantasy done right.

Iruvar (1997)

Director: Mani Ratnam

There’s so much to learn from this film – it goes over so many years, there are so many characters and different storylines. It is a great piece of filmmaking. I rewatched it because I wanted to study what went wrong, why it didn’t do well. I kept studying it to understand why people didn’t like it – was it an editing issue, or did the characters not work?

April 1 Vidudala (1991)

Directors: Vamshi, Venkat Maddirala

It’s a Telugu film starring Rajendra Prasad and Shobhana where in order to marry this girl, the man has to promise be truthful. He cannot lie. It’s one of my favourites. 

Padamati Sandhya Ragam (1987)

Director: Jandhyala 

This is made by Jandhyala who was a writer known for his comedy films. This one was unique because in the 80s we had never seen this kind of a US diaspora movie. It’s about a family that is going to settle in the US. The father doesn’t want to and the rest of the family does. It’s aged really well. 

Missamma (1955) 

Director: L.V. Prasad

If I had to pick one film of Savitri guru, it would be this one. It’s also one of the earliest memories I had of her. My grandparents used to keep watching it. It had Akkineni Nageswara Rao, a huge star at that time, playing a goofball detective and making a fool of himself by singing a song badly in front of NTR.

(As told to Mohini Chaudhuri)

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