Indie Or Commercial, All Films Need To Be Told Honestly: Nag Ashwin On Netflix’s Pitta Kathalu

Directors Tharun Bhascker and Nag Ashwin speak about doing an anthology, their experience in film school, learning on the job and stepping out of their comfort zone.

“I’ve done a rom-com and a buddy comedy, but I came into the film industry with the love for crime. Martin Scorcese’s and Quentin Tarantino’s works are the films that I studied,” says director Tharun Bhascker. “If a story feels like it can be told in a way that somebody in South Africa will understand it just as well as somebody in Vizag, then you should go all out and try to tell that story,” says Nag Ashwin. The two directors, who have directed a segment each in Netflix’s Pitta Kathalu, speak to Baradwaj Rangan. Excerpts.

This is a very interesting set of directors, because Sankalp, Nag and Tharun have educated yourselves in films abroad and Nandini started as an assistant director (AD). What are the pros and cons of both approaches?

Nag Ashwin: I did both. I did a small course in New York Film Academy (NYFA) and worked as an AD here for three movies. I found the latter more helpful. I thought film school was a very fun equipment rental house, because back in the day getting a camera to shoot something was a big deal. I think the P2 camera was the biggest thing and it was very expensive to rent out, but I don’t think you need that anymore.

Tharun Bhascker: It was different for me, because the moment I went to NYFA, which was in Bombay by the way, I did the diploma course. What was fascinating over there was a set of rules that were text-bookish; maybe, other foreign films follow these rules. When you come to the Telugu industry, it’s entirely different. They have made a different sense of the entire thing and got accustomed to it. The film grammar is also very different. But my ignorance of that actually proved to be helpful, because I just went ahead and did the film with sync sound. So, on set, I discovered a style of cinema that was slightly different.

Nag Ashwin, you have made this big announcement with a Prabhas and Deepika Padukone film, and it’s big in every possible way. You tweeted: ‘We’ve already cracked pan India and now let’s crack pan world and we’re going to do that’. On the other hand, there’s this Netflix short that you’re doing. Do you face some realignment adjustment? Or, is there both an indie filmmaker and a commercial, theatrical guy inside you?

It’s just a story really, to be honest. If a story feels like it can be told in a way that somebody in South Africa will understand it just as well as somebody in Vizag, then you should go all out and try to tell that story. With some stories, you can’t expect to have some sort of reach, so this has been a long journey for everyone here. All the three shorts were done before I came on board. So they finished shooting and I was going to shoot last year before the lockdown. I don’t see a difference in approach, be it a commercial film or an indie. I think all films need to be told honestly.

When you’re thinking and doing a theatrical, commercial thing, there are some boxes that you deliberately don’t check, right?

Nag Ashwin: So the actual relevant answer to this would be OTT. Usually, when you make a film for OTT, and I keep hearing this a lot where they see a script and say ‘Yeah this is good enough for OTT.’ I don’t understand that. What does it mean, like is there a different audience watching it on the web or something? No, it’s all the same audience, and most of our web space is filled with gangster dramas or something very rural or very raw or the ‘love’ genre. We’re pretty much roaming around those genres and what I consciously want to do is that same pan-india, pan-world thing, and make it as big as we can and see if you can push it. Maybe two or three people will get an idea that ‘This guy did something, so let’s try something new.’

With Lust Stories in Hindi and Paava Kadhaigal in Tamil, people tend to rank it, saying they liked this story the best. Are you guys prepared for that ranking?

Tharun Bhascker: I am excited to see everyone’s, because I honestly feel we’re all part of the same team. But yeah, a set of people would like one of our works more, for sure.

After this release, do all of you see yourselves shuttling between theatrical and OTT? Because, right now, whenever we talk about OTT, it’s in such a nascent stage that one cannot look forward and say, “I can pace my career on that.” Tharun, you’re no longer in the happy rom-com space, you said your next one is a crime drama. Would you say this film is also not in that space?

Tharun Bhascker: Yeah, definitely, especially this particular film. I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers and I love Fargo and I love the dark comedy that comes in; it hits you in the right spot and also makes you think about characters and themes. They’re all complex characters, so I really wanted to try that because I’ve done a rom-com and a buddy comedy, but I came into the film industry with the love for crime. I studied the films of Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino, and I’m just getting warmed up with that. What happens is that people generally judge you on the basis of your films, but  they don’t know what’s going on in your mind.

So, I constantly want to surprise myself and get out of the comfort zone. It was a painful process for me to write this crime drama, as it was with Pelli Choopulu. But now, if I do another rom-com, I’ll be stuck in that comfort zone and start doubting myself. As long as it’s relevant and it sells, I’m happy. Otherwise, I’ll go back to my comfort zone (laughs). Now, I’m happy that this space exists and experiments are happening, and I’ll do it as long as I can.

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"Baradwaj Rangan: Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic. He has authored Conversations with Mani Ratnam and Dispatches From the Wall Corner. His long-form story on Vikram was featured in The Caravan Book of Profiles, as one of their “twelve definitive profiles.” His short story, The Call, was published in The Indian Quarterly. He has written screenplays and works for theatre. He teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.."
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