Karthik Dandu, fresh from the success of his latest Telugu horror film Virupaksha, calls horror his favourite genre. The fascination traces back to an accident that occurred when he was studying in eighth grade. Karthik fractured his leg and was confined to bed for six weeks, and to keep his spirits unstirred, Karthik’s mother, a "great fan" of Ram Gopal Varma and Mani Ratnam, brought home a VCR collection of their works. Karthik spent the next six weeks bingeing on classics, and the idea to become a filmmaker was suddenly clear, way before his leg healed. “Ratri (1992) and Kshana Kshanam (1991), attracted me to these kinds of films and made me curious to see international films. And when I watched M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), I was blown away with how he moulded the screenplay around such a simple point,” Karthik says over a call.
In a scenario that’s straight out of comic capers, Karthik’s phone got stolen during one of his visits to a packed theatre screening Virupaksha. “I couldn’t absorb all the overwhelming response to the film because I lost my phone. But of course, it’s great to know that the response to the film has been extremely positive. I think the failure of my first film, Bham Bolenath (2015), motivated me to get every aspect of Virupaksha — from every single frame to sound — right this time. I’m filled with joy and feel I have a bigger responsibility now.”
The filmmaker opens up about the process of crafting a horror film without cheap thrills, his takeaways from his collaboration with writer Sukumar, and more. Excerpts:
The most striking quality of Virupaksha is its effective utility of sound. How particular were you about cracking the soundscape?
I was particular about not just the visuals, but also for the sound to communicate the story. I wrote down how the film should sound along with the script. For instance, when two characters are tied to a tree in the opening scene of the film, we chose to reveal the visual by emphasising the sound of the rope being tied first because the viewer doesn’t have an idea that they will be tied to a tree until that point. We tried to plant many ideas using sound; for instance, a high-pitched ringing was added during Parvathakka’s intro, alluding to her ear pain. Rajakrishnan MR, who did the sound mixing, brought so many wonderful ideas to the table. He’s half the reason why the sound of the film is being appreciated.
Were you inspired by any true events to write Virupaksha in any way, even if it might not be as shocking as the horrors depicted in the film?
After Bham Bolenath, I firmly decided to make an impactful horror film and that’s when I came across a news article about residents of a North Indian village stoning a widow to death over suspicion about her black magic practices. The incident shocked me on multiple levels: the probability that black magic is still being practised and an entire village killing someone just because of a suspicion without even verifying if it’s true or informing the matter to police. And it isn’t an individual’s mistake; the entire village is complicit. That’s where the idea emerged from. What if she was really practising black magic? The whole village might have been cursed.
There’s also a science vs blind faith layer in the film. The Sarpanch, played by Rajeev Kanakala, is uneducated. And the entire village blindly follows the priest, played by Sai Chand. Even towards the end, Surya (Sai Dharam Tej) tells the villagers to build a school.
The school dialogue in the end bookends the story neatly. It is a conscious decision. If you see, the villagers follow the words of the priest and Sarpanch throughout the film, but in the opening scene, even those two couldn’t control the rage of the villagers. In the end, there’s a deleted dialogue by the priest, admitting that the actions of the villagers in the opening scene have led to grave consequences. But Sukumar felt we were spoon-feeding the theme and advised me to do away with it.
The film has its share of gruesome deaths and is fittingly rated with an 'A' certificate. Did you have ideas that were too gory that you had to leave out during the writing stage?
Yes. There were a couple (laughs). Sukumar sir told me that my imagination was too creepy and advised me not to push the gore beyond a certain level while designing the deaths. It’s the creepiness of these deaths that lends a strong horror vibe to the film.
Can you share what was the most violent death that didn’t make it to the final draft?
(laughs) I cannot because I would love to use it in my next.
The beauty of Virupaksha’s approach to horror is that it focuses on the mood and tension, instead of opting for jumpscares.
There are a couple of jumpscares like the crow hitting the windshield early in the film, but I didn’t want to go for cheap thrills. In the scene where Paravathakka follows the sound of Pala Suri weeping in the forest and puts her hand on his shoulder, I could see the audience in the theatre shouting constantly because they were waiting for the jump scare to land. But there’s no jumpscare. He stands up, stares at her, and does something else that the audience isn’t prepared for. When that happened, the audience became uneasy. It was all intended. I genuinely wanted people to appreciate me for making a good horror film without cheap thrills.
What are your takeaways from Sukumar on the writing front?
While discussing the screenplay with him, we had six to seven versions for every scene. He’d encourage me to come up with better versions and he kept writing too. And then, he’d ask me to choose the best one from all the options available and we’d further debate why it’s the best one! This style of working is a first for me and this is what I missed in Bham Bolenath. I fell short as a writer on my first film and I feel I made up for those shortcomings in Virupaksha. Sukumar sir extracted my writing capabilities like one would extract juice from a sugar cane.
The whole world-building of Rudra Vanam village is beautiful. How did you achieve that?
It’s a mix of sets and real locations. The exteriors and the streets of the village were shot in and around Araku and Paderu. The haunted house and Sarpanch’s house were sets built in Hyderabad. DoP Shamdat, art director Sri Nagendra Tangala and I were pretty clear about the village layout. The temple, a positive energy, is located near the entrance whereas the abandoned house, the negative energy, is located on the other end of the village.
And when seen from the top angle, the water bodies in the village look like eyes. Since eye contact plays a crucial role in the story, we wanted to represent it metaphorically. It was Shamdat garu's idea to add the second waterbody and integrate the ‘eyes’ symbolism. Even in the abandoned house, two windows are made to appear like eyes. In the opening scene too, when the tantric pooja is being performed on the dead body of a kid, when we establish the design on the floor, it looks like a pair of eyes. Likewise, we decided on an earthy colour palette, and our colourist Vivek did a fantastic job. Generally, colourists don’t ask for stories. But Vivek asked about the story and accordingly graded the frames keeping the mood intact.
Virupaksha is a major technical accomplishment in that sense.
True. Every technician proved their excellency with the film. Every person in the team gave their best. Another instance is our editor Naveen Nooli’s suggestion to remove the ‘Kallalo’ song just three days before the release. He told us that the film would become a bigger hit if we edited out the song. And Sukumar sir immediately agreed. It makes me extremely happy to see everyone in the team, even colorists—who are usually not acknowledged by an average moviegoer—get appreciated for their work. It’s a pure collaborative effort.