Flavours, Food And A Film: Director Karthik Saragur On His Amazon Prime Movie Bheemasena Nalamaharaja

The director of the critically acclaimed Kannada film Jeerjimbe, whose Bheemasena... releases tomorrow, speaks to Satvik Sampath Kumar about the challenges in conceiving a shot, the influence of OTT platforms, and, of course, food.
Flavours, Food And A Film: Director Karthik Saragur On His Amazon Prime Movie Bheemasena Nalamaharaja

If Jeerjimbe, which won four Karnataka State Film Awards, is any indication, director Karthik Saragur is someone who intimately knows his roots. There is a lot of buzz about Bheemasena Nalamaharaja (BSNM), and the trailer piqued everyone's interest. Karthik speaks about the world his film is set in, how legendary poet DR Bendre found a place in the film, and more. Excerpts from an interview.

How did you come across the phrase "Benndre…Bendre Aagtiya"?

If there's any poet who has been able to capture the real flavour of Kannada, it has to be the legendary DR Bendre. There is a very nice anecdote about this phrase. An aspiring poet would write poems every day and take them across to Bendre's Dharwad residence. Bendre would read them, but never comment. The boy one day asked him, "Bendre aagodhu henge?" (How do I become like you, Bendre?). The poet's reply? "Neenu Benndre…Bendre Aagtiya" (Bendre also means, cooked), implying that with more experiences in life, as you mature, you'll become a poet like me.

We wanted this to be a conversation between two kids, since it draws a parallel that food is as innocent as children. 

Your Jeerjimbe narrated the story of schoolgirl Rudri, whose primary wish was to ride a bicycle. You showcased issues such as child marriage in rural India. How different is BSNM's world?

Jeerjimbe was more a socio-economic film, and the goal of the protagonist was self-discovery through a bicycle. In BSNM, I've concentrated more on family as the basic unit. What we have tried to capture is the acceptance of each individual within a family. We have six different flavours in food (salt, sour, sweet, bitter, pungent, astringent), and each of them has its own uniqueness. The film is about how much can one accept members of the family, and, at the same time, retain one's individuality. 

In cooking, every ingredient is measured and goes through a process to get a well-made dish. In this film, the characters go through something similar. It is a metaphorical journey of each character shown through the process of cooking.

It is said that 50 per cent of a film's success is based on casting, What is your casting process like?

For Jeerjimbe, I worked with 250 newcomers. The only professional actor was Suman Nagarkar. I would narrate the story, ask my cast to react to the situation, and capture the moment. For BSNM, I had actors sensitive enough to understand the depth of the characters. Usually, I spend a lot of time with actors prior to the shoot to get a peek into their lives and capture the rhythm of how they speak. I ask my artistes to improvise the dialogues, so it is organic when they perform. I prepare artistes by telling them the backstories of the characters, and capture their spontaneous reaction. 

How do you shoot a conversation without a scripted dialogue?

I have a three-structure rule while shooting a scene — a beginning, a middle and the end. I shoot each scene like it's a short film. 

What are the challenges while working with newcomers?

During Jeerjimbe, I was handling kids of a similar age group (between 12 and 15). Their reactions would almost be the same, so I had to break the monotony and extract individualistic performances from each of them.

In BSNM, the characters range in age from five to 70, and we also artistes who had a textbook-oriented approach to cinema. For example, for a veteran like Achyuth Kumar, my approach would be different. I would just tell him the focus points. For Aadhya, my instructions would be completely different. It's more like a trial-and-error process. Among the child artistes, Chitrali Tejpal was very methodical in her acting process. She performs like she's trained in an acting school. For a scene, Chitrali was dressed as Lord Krishna and she had nine focus points when it was being filmed — she performed it in one take. So, there is a lot to learn and unlearn in this whole process.

What inspired you to narrate a story based on the six rasas?

We often tend to confuse between navarasa (nine emotions) and shadrasa (six flavours). Food and cooking have a huge contribution to make in our daily understanding of life. During scripting, it occurred to me that each character resonates with a flavour. In Karnataka, we have a rich food culture, which changes every 50 kilometres. We've tried to put together the flavours of Karnataka in our film.

I read that lead actor Aravinnd and you held a lot of discussions in story development. What were these discussions like?

I believe that those who have spent their bachelor's life abroad become good cooks. Necessity teaches you many skills. Aravinnd spent a large portion of his life in the UK, and gained the skill of cooking for a large group. I come from a family of hoteliers and, at some point in between film projects, I happened to cook at a restaurant for six months.

I think, cosmically, we were prepared with the knowledge of cooking to be a part of this movie. Aravinnd was very dedicated, and you would have noticed in the trailer how he speeds up the cutting of onions; it was not enhanced during post-production. He shared a few of his personal experiences with the presentation of dishes such as ragi mudde Ganesha, airplane dosa and snowman uppitu, which we included in the film. I depend on my artiste to execute my vision.

What is your perception towards film getting an OTT release vs one in theatres?

Of late, content consumption has become very personal and OTT platforms provide that personal space. So pandemic or not, OTT was there. Watching a movie in a theatre is magical, and every filmmaker wishes to provide that to his audience. But now, how can I demand such an experience? How can I expect family audiences for whom I have made the film to go to a theatre when they are afraid to even step out of the house? I've adapted to the new normal.  I don't see OTT platforms as a threat, I see them as complementary to theatres. 

As a director what genres would you like to explore? What are your upcoming projects?

I am currently working on a crime thriller that seeks to understand the psyche of someone committing a crime. The moment before a person pulls the trigger, he/she is as normal as the rest of us, but once the bullet is fired, a murderer is born. What runs in the mind during that split second of pulling the trigger? That's what I am trying to explore.

You've made an entire movie on food. What's your favourite dish?

It is a little unusual. It involves having hot rasam, a loaf of bread and coconut chutney. It sounds weird, but that was my staple during my student life in a Ramakrishna Mission hostel for eight years. Once, while shooting in Switzerland, I happened to experiment with the same dish at the hotel, when someone patted my shoulder and asked "Are you from Vidyashala?" That is how popular the dish is among those of us who studied there. In the entire universe, if you come across someone having bread, rasam, and chutney, that person has to be from a Ramakrishna Mission hostel.

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