Nithya Menen On Co-Producing Skylab, ‘Packaged Cinema’ And The Future She Wants To Create

“Just hearing the narration of Skylab gave me hope. I felt that in a world where there are stories like this, I will be fine,” says the actor.

Eleven years ago, Nithya Menen debuted in Telugu with Nandini Reddy’s Ala Modalaindi. In the last decade, she’s worked with the who’s who of Telugu cinema, playing mostly similar roles as the cute heroine or the coy lover, perhaps except Awe. Just as she was getting more and more disinterested in the movies, her next venture, Skylab, came along. In no time, she found herself deeper into the cinema she had always wanted to get out of.

In this interview with Ranjani Krishnakumar, she discusses her journey in Telugu cinema, how Skylab changed her and what we can expect from her in the future.

How and why did you turn producer?

Unfortunately, it’s rare for me to see a real filmmaker talk about a real film. Most of what I am pitched is ‘packaged cinema’. So, there are always some compromises or other.

But when Vishwak Khanderao, the writer and director of the film, narrated Skylab to me, I thought it was spectacular. His vision gave me hope. Just hearing the narration — whether I was doing the film or not — gave the artist in me the feeling that in the world where there are stories like this, I will be fine. That reaction came from the heart.

I wasn’t thinking about money or success. I found myself thinking, ‘this film is absolute gold. How do I protect it?’

Is that why you had to produce it? To protect it from compromises?

Today, it is hard to make a good film. There are so many parameters. The way the system works is narrow-minded. People want to fit every idea into pre-existing boxes. So unless you’re making that kind of a film, it is an upstream journey.

Even in Skylab, the protagonist Gauri is not your average writer. She wants to write and thinks she’s a really good writer. She imagines herself to be the creme de la creme, doing important things. But, in reality, she is just a pampered dora bidda. I love Gauri’s character — she is hilarious, very disillusioned. One always gets one-dimensional characters. They want you to be sweet, look nice. Even when they write a strong woman, it’s one-dimensional. Gauri is not bland like that. She has depth.

So, when a film like Skylab comes along, I feel the natural urge to give it the space it needs. When actors get into production, it’s not because they want to make money. It is often a response to the question, “if I don’t do it, who will?”

Then, of course, there are parts of the film like how to sell it or how to market it that can be quite depressing.

What makes you endure those depressing bits and produce a film anyway?

I believe that talent is given for a reason. You know, to me, talent is like a loan or mortgage. I should use it for something. In a way, I feel responsible. When I complain about how things work, I should obviously do something about it when I get the chance. I suppose this is my idealistic approach to cinema, trying to see it as the art form that it is.

What is it like to be a producer?

Every time I’ve been on a set, I’ve always wished I was on the other side. As an actress, I have never fully enjoyed the filmmaking process. I have often looked at production and thought that I’d be good at it. I am good at organisation, crisis management and stuff like that. So, something about it felt attractive.

But now that I am a producer, I think what I love is the ownership of the film. I was emotionally invested as an actor, but I walked away when the film was done. As a producer, there is ownership. It matters when the film does well.

With Skylab, it was especially great because the three of us — Vishwak, the producer Prthivi and I — are a team. I’ve seen in many films where the director is on one team and the producer is on another. There is always a clash or something that you have to deal with.

For the first time in my life, I’m seeing a team that’s all on the same side. If he (director) says we need this, we (producers) agree. When we were talking about marketing/selling the film, our only focus was to treat the film the way it deserves to be treated. I’ve never in my life heard people say, “it’s okay if we lose money, but let’s do what’s right for the film.” In my mind that’s ideal.

Is that why you chose to go for theatrical release instead of OTT?

Oh, it will come on OTT. But, it is a theatrical film. Like the cinematographer, Aditya Javvadi was saying, we wanted to give an experience of Broadway on cinema. Skylab is not in the ‘realistic film’ zone. It’s cinematic. Vishwak wanted it to be a theatre film. We said why not.

People these days say, “this is a theatre film” or “this is an OTT film.” How did you decide Skylab is a theatre film?

There is no such thing. I don’t think any film is a “theatre only film”. This again is one of those unnecessary boxes that people try to fit cinema into. We took this to theatrical release because Vishwak wanted it to be. You know it’s his first film, his dream. He wanted it to be seen on the big screen. That doesn’t mean it won’t be enjoyable on laptops and TVs.

What does your future look like?

For the last decade, I’ve done a lot of work. Even though people think it’s a great body of work, to me, it feels mediocre. Now, I’ve finally started doing what I always wanted to do. I’ve figured out what I want to do. It is films like Skylab that give me joy and I’m asserting that. So, I’m also happy to meet people like Vishwak who are bringing new thought processes. I’m going closer to the kind of stuff that makes me happy.

I aspire to continue producing. I want to create an environment for writers, actors and directors to find space to tell real stories. I am passionate about having space for good writers. I think they are the soul of cinema. Unfortunately, they’re given the least due. I find that appalling. So, I want to create a space where they feel safe.

Skylab is releasing in theatres on December 04.

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"Ranjani Krishnakumar: Ranjani is a writer living in Chennai. She graduated in film studies and began writing about Tamil cinema because she once naively believed that we, as an industry, can and should do better. A dozen years later, she still precariously hangs on to her naive idealism.."
  
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