Hands down, #90s: A Middle-Class Biopic is the best Telugu series to hit the streaming space (ETV Win) so far, and learning that the story is quite personal for its writer and director Aditya is both surprising and obvious. It’s obvious because the show empathetically captures a family's life, joys, and sorrows in 2007 with such attention to the nuances and emphasis on simplicity that you know it all comes from a very personal space. What’s surprising is the extent to which Aditya derived the story, the scenarios and its characters from his life.
In this interview, the writer-director opens up about his journey into films, the roadblocks he had to face, how his family shaped #90s and more.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What’s your story? How and where did you start?
I’m from Wanaparthy in Telangana and you can say that’s my inspiration for the show. Even the locations you see in the show are all based on Wanaparthy. I was born in 1994 and did my schooling until 10th grade there. It was only for my intermediate I moved to Hyderabad and I did hotel management post that. For a year, I worked as an Area Manager for Subway restaurants in Hyderabad. I wanted to try my luck in films and spent a year seeking opportunities but nothing worked out.
My father, a headmaster and maths teacher, suggested I go abroad, and since I love travelling, I felt I should give it a shot. So, I took exams, got a scholarship from Bournemouth University, and went to the UK. When I was in the UK, I learned from our university’s website that Naveen Medaram—who had directed 2 indie films and Babu Baga Busy (2017) by then—is our alumnus. I was instantly fascinated that a Telugu guy had already studied there and reached out to him. He liked Laggam, a short film I made in 2017 while working, and told me to meet him when I’m back in Hyderabad. After working for a while in the UK, I returned to India for good and worked in a BPO, drove Rapido, and did everything to survive because I didn’t want to depend on my parents. I had met Naveen but it was a very casual discussion. A couple of days later, I saw a recruitment post from Naveen, asking for assistants to join his direction team for a web series he was directing. As I wasn’t interested in assisting, I asked him if I could be a writer. He told me that the project’s script was locked but asked me to pitch if I had a story, saying he was interested in producing small films.
I eventually narrated a story to Naveen and he loved it and assured me that he’ll produce it. I couldn’t believe him and even told a friend over that I met a guy and that he was likely to cheat me (laughs). Post this, the lockdown happened and after the first wave was over, Naveen called me on one fine evening and told me to come down to Hyderabad to start the pre-production of the film. I just couldn’t believe it but we started the pre-production in a cafe named The Chocolate Room near Hitech City. We even completed the film. It’s called Teacher, starring Swathi, and tells the story of a prostitute who changes the life of a 10th-grade student.
So you already directed a film?
Yes. I wrote and directed it. It was supposed to come out but unfortunately, it got stuck at Abhishek Pictures and couldn’t be released due to some reasons. Half of the industry watched it and everybody who watched it appreciated me but it didn’t come out. I had a lot of hopes on it and I was completely low back then.
That must have been quite difficult to deal with.
It was. At one point, I finally accepted that my film wasn’t going to come out anytime soon, and nobody was going to believe me. I had to restart everything from scratch. Neither could I go and ask for a budget of 10 crores. So I decided to make something on a very small budget. The intent was to show my mark within the constraints. I needed to get the attention of the audience and I could see that we already had stories on college life, school days, breakups, life after marriage… There was a story based on everything. As I searched for a vacuum in the storytelling space to fill, I noticed that all the films portraying the middle class featured actors in branded clothes. I decided to address this space authentically by merging it with the nostalgia of the ‘90s.
So #90s was born out of necessity.
Yes. I wrote it in just 3 days. In total, it took me 7 days to fine-tune the entire script.
That’s kind of amazing! 7 days for the full version? Including the dialogues?
I always write with dialogue. I don’t go with a one-line order. I start directly with the script, encapsulating all the action, story, and dialogues. That’s because I have a structure—the start, midpoint, and the end—in my mind along with the characters. I didn’t type even a single word after that.
So after I finished it, I took it to Naveen because I was very close to him by then, and narrated it to a couple of people. He appreciated me for the writing and as I was leaving, he gave me a cheque. I couldn’t believe it because I never thought he’d produce another film, that too with me, after what happened with the first film. He said he’ll try talking to the streaming platforms.
Dealing with the OTTs was another task. One platform made us work for 6 months and then dropped it. At one OTT, the representatives didn’t finish hearing even the first episode because they felt there was zero conflict and asked me to wrap it up. They just didn’t understand the intent. At one OTT, it went up to the central head and they dropped it saying it resembled Gullak (2019). Once again, I was in chaos and all of a sudden, I got a call from Nithin, the creative head at ETV who had heard a lot about the show from another OTT. By then, I had no hopes because of the rejections. When they asked me to come for a narration, it was just another meeting for me. But as I finished narrating, they hugged me and told me that they would do the series. I still didn’t believe them. After two days, they called me to sign an agreement. It’s only then I finally believed them!
Where did you shoot it? I think the house and the locality are just fantastic.
The house is in Malakpet and the school is in BHEL. If you go there and see the house, you won’t believe that it’s the same house. We transformed it completely using colours. Even the floor was different, with posh tiles. We had to put on a mat to make it look like tiles made out of stone. That art is by Gandhi.
I really loved the DI too. The visuals have such a pleasant, nostalgic feel.
The credit goes to our cinematographer Azeem, who is very particular about colours, and Nikhil, who is a fantastic DI artist. They work too much and understand the details very well. My input to them was just to bring a periodic feel while also possessing that beauty. All of the long takes, especially those set in the house were planned and executed neatly, thanks to the team.
How personal is the story to you? Because the characters feel too real and if you were able to finish the script in 7 days, it means you must be familiar with what you are creating, right?
See, while writing a story, I believe in two things: the audience gets excited to see something they cannot do in their life (an RRR or a KGF, for example) and they love to see themselves on screen. So, 99.99% of the show is based on my family and friends. Every character is from my life, from my brother, my parents, my sister…
So you have a brother, just like in the show? And you said your father is a maths teacher too, like the dad from the show!
Okay, I’ll tell you the real story now. The father in the show, Chandra Shekar, is based on my father. The mother is based on my mother, whose name is Shobha Rani. My elder brother’s name is Raghu Teja (Mouli’s character in the show). My cousin's sister’s name is Divya. I took the same names for the characters in the show. And my name is Aditya (the younger son in the show). My dad is now retired but was working as a maths teacher in 2007, the time period of the show. Suchitha David Paul is my schoolmate. We aren’t in touch now but she texted me after seeing the show, joking that I should pay her for using her name (laughs).
My entire family came to the premiere, and they had no idea that the characters were based on them. Only my brother knew I was making something about the family and the rest of the family wasn't aware. They discovered it only while watching the show, and they loved it, this is the tribute I wanted to give to my parents.
This is beautiful. What was their reaction like?
They were all in tears. And like I said in the show, my dad never puts his hand on our shoulders as a gesture of love. I don’t have that rapport. After the screening, Shivaji sir (who plays the dad in the show) went to my father and asked him whether he portrayed him well on the screen, my father just said, “As it is cheshirru sir (you portrayed me accurately), thank you.” He then came to me and said, “Time ki thinu (eat on time)” and left. He didn’t even say a single word to me. I don’t talk to my father much. I only talk to my mom, to some extent. I was only looking at her during the fourth episode, when the mother in the show delivered a monologue about household chores and I just knew that it would connect with my mother. She pampered us so much. I would lazily lie on the bed and ask my mother to get me some water, and she would always come with a glass. Sure, she would scold us for being lazy but she’d still get us water. Not just my mother, every mother, every homemaker is like that. I have seen it with my atthamma, peddhamma, and many more women in my life.
So, it’s pretty much my life. Aditya from #90s is me.
So even the hilarious exam paper scene with the dad happened?
Absolutely. Whenever they distributed exam papers in school, I would always try to convince my brother to delay showing them to my father. I would tell him, “Let’s show him before sleeping or tomorrow morning just before leaving for school so he will sign quickly as he’d be running late.” I would even request my brother show his papers first. And of course, my father would beat the hell out of me, and my mother wouldn’t stop him because she knew I’d be happy if she interfered and saved me from the thrashing. So she would indirectly come and say the dinner was ready (laughs). I wanted to recollect things like these in the show.
How is season 2 going to be like?
Season 2 will follow Raghu’s intermediate and engineering life and how he changes after he moves out of his hometown. He starts using swearing words as he comes of age and things like that. It’ll parallelly narrate the family’s story as the sister and brother grow up. I have an idea about the structure but I’m yet to complete it. I’m working on a film right now and will come back to season 2 after that.
Do you think you can make something as personal as #90s again?
I have a couple more personal stories to tell. I want to share my perspective on life, career, and marriage through stories. My stories are my opinions. I don’t write stories, I weave drama around my opinions. In the third episode, Raghu says that people who don’t encourage you during your lows don’t have the right to appreciate you during your highs. I personally felt that I wanted to say that to my parents, teachers and the society. So I made one of the characters say that. And this is how I want to tell my stories.