Sukumar Sir Encouraged Me To Quit My Job: Nagendra Kasi, The Dialogue Writer Of Hi Nanna

The writer discusses his journey into Telugu cinema, how Sukumar changed his life and the experience of penning dialogues for Hi Nanna
Sukumar Sir Encouraged Me To Quit My Job: Nagendra Kasi, The Dialogue Writer Of Hi Nanna

The past couple of weeks have been quite happening for Nagendra Kasi, with the release of Kotabommali PS and Hi Nanna, two films on which he served as a dialogue writer. While Kotabommali PS was met with positive critical reception, Hi Nanna turned the tables for Nagendra, with his work reaching the layman, thanks to the film’s success. “It feels surreal,” Nagendra tells me over the phone, as he returns from Ramoji Film City after finishing his work for the day on Pushpa 2: The Rule. The writer opens up about how he entered the maze called the Telugu film industry, the Hi Nanna experience, how Sukumar shaped his career, and a lot more in this conversation.

Excerpts from the interview:

You just said you had to go to Pushpa 2’s filming location today. Is a dialogue writer’s presence on the set mandatory?

Usually, it’s not needed because we tend to be involved in the scripting process for nearly 6-8 months before the filming begins. In the case of Hi Nanna, for example, Shoryuv and I worked on it for 6 months together and the dialogue version was locked before filming. Despite that, during the filming of key drama scenes, the director might need some assistance in ensuring the conversation flows well, without breaking the mood and uniformity of the character. The director has to handle numerous aspects on a film set and he cannot afford to think about minute nuances in that atmosphere. In those cases, he assigns the task to me to ensure that refining a line doesn’t have repercussions in other scenes. That’s about it. Normally, a dialogue writer’s presence might not be necessary. Coming to Pushpa 2, Sukumar sir’s style is completely different.

A still from Pushpa
A still from Pushpa

Sukumar is known for his improvisations, right?

Exactly. The lines keep changing swiftly. The context remains unchanged, but the punch and the drama keep getting enhanced. He is always open to adding new layers. Other filmmakers might have trouble judging an improvisation but Sukumar garu is a master on this front. Even when he has all the material in his arsenal, he always needs that one additional punch; he's always going the extra mile.

In what capacity are you involved in Pushpa 2?

I’m involved in the overall writing process. Sukumar sir explains the scene, its outcome, and how it’s connected to other scenes. We then have the total freedom to write it, and he filters what he wants to incorporate into the scene.

Going back in time, how did your journey into films happen?

I have been interested in literature since childhood and I will attribute it to the access I had to public libraries while growing up. From popular writers like Yandamuri Veerendranath to more serious ones like Chalam, KNY Patanjali, Adivi Baapiraj and Vamsi, I have read their works and this created a strong desire to express what’s happening in and around me. I realised I could tell the stories of people around me, and express my empathy towards them in my writings. If someone needs help, I might not be in a position to resolve their problems, but I could do it in my stories by making them a character. That’s what triggered me to write and as I started writing short stories, I realised that cinema is the biggest medium to tell your stories. But naturally, life happened and I had to build a career. So I ended up in Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, where I was designing the seats of aircraft. I worked in Bangalore, Chennai, Seattle, and then finally moved to Hyderabad. I met director Karuna Kumar through a writing community, and we ended up collaborating on Palasa 1978 (2020), on which I served as a co-writer and Sridevi Soda Center (2021), which was an adaptation of one of my short stories. I had a full-time job when I worked on those films.

Nagendra Kasi with Nani and Sukumar
Nagendra Kasi with Nani and Sukumar

The real change in my career graph was incited by Sukumar garu. He had read one of my short stories and asked me to join his writing team, but unfortunately, his message never reached me. When I met him after Sridevi Soda Center, he asked me to resign from my job and join his team. Back then, I was drawing around 1.75 lakhs per month and I was in a dilemma about career transition because I had a family to take care of. Although I didn’t quit my job, I would participate in writing discussions of Virupaksha on the weekends. Sukumar sir noticed me one day when I was in Trident Hotel to attend one of those discussions. He called me aside and asked me whether I had quit my job. I told him that I didn’t. Then he sat me down, patiently explained to me the perils of not focusing fully on writing, and ensured my financial security. He told me that we lack writers with strong literature background and gave me the confidence to jump in and give my everything to writing. And eventually, Kotabommali PS and Hi Nanna happened. And recently, on the sets of Pushpa 2, he was telling Allu Arjun garu about how he held me by my collar and brought me into films, and he was very happy to hear about my journey. I’ll be a part of Sukumar Writings’ upcoming projects too, including director Buchi Babu Sana’s next film with Ram Charan.

How did Hi Nanna happen?

With Hi Nanna, the script was complete and the team was searching for a dialogue writer. Gireesaaya, the director of Arjun Varma (2021) and Ranga Ranga Vaibhavanga (2022) had read my book, and he referred my name to Shouryuv, who was initially doubtful about me because I hadn’t handled an emotional subject until now. The doubts were put to rest in a single meeting. 

Nani in Hi Nanna
Nani in Hi Nanna

And then you would seek inputs from Souryuv?

Yes. After going through the entire script, I try to understand the characters and their entire ecological system because they are a product of everything around them. I would ask a lot of questions to Shouryuv, about the backstory of each character and why they behave the way they do. I would even ask him about the subtext he wanted to convey with each scene. Once you understand the character, it’s a cakewalk from there. It took me around three and a half months to complete the dialogue version of the film.

During the process, Shouryuv would always say that dialogue should never overpower the scene. He believes that if the dialogue is getting highlighted, that means the scene is falling short of something. We wanted everything to be organic and always refrained from explicitly bringing dialogues to the foreground. They had to sound like lines that people would normally talk. Viraj, for instance, tells Yashna in the second half how everyone told him that his daughter would only live for three years, but she is six now. “Aa adbhuthaniki ippudu aarellu (that miracle is 6 years old now),” he says, summarising the hope this father is living with in one dialogue but not making a big deal out of it. 

A still from Hi Nanna
A still from Hi Nanna

I loved the ‘Time’ dialogue Viraj delivers in the restaurant. I think it’s the best line in the film. How did you come up with that?

So Shouryuv gave me all the content needed for the scene; a mother who is trying to prove to her daughter that money is important for marriage and the protagonist had to counter her viewpoint. He had to sell a bigger hope than money at that point. We gave it a lot of thought and Shouryuv had the idea of measuring the difference between them in distance, and we immediately came up with the counter, measuring success with ‘time’. We felt immensely happy the day we cracked it.

Even the line Viraj delivers to the mother-in-law, about the truths they concealed from their respective daughters, is a great punch.

Shouryuv told me that if it was someone else, they might have written a half-page-long dialogue for that scenario. With Shouryuv, it’s all about brevity. We intend everything to just hit you right on the spot. 

What was the most memorable scene from the film for you?

It has to be the scene where Viraj asks his daughter, “Naa prema saripovatledha, Mahi? (Is my love not sufficient, Mahi).” I was standing by the pool as they shot it and right during that moment, I knew that this scene would make people teary-eyed in the thatres.

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