How To Make A Successful ‘NRI film’? The Team Behind Amazon Prime Video’s Gatham Answers

It’s not often that an indie film grabs eyeballs the way Gatham has. The team, which lives all over the US, does a deep dive into the process of filmmaking, how it managed pre-production, handled finances and straddled work and passion.
How To Make A Successful ‘NRI film’? The Team Behind Amazon Prime Video’s Gatham Answers

Gatham is that indie miracle that has charmed both the critics and viewers. In an extended conversation with Vishal Menon, writer and director Kiran Kondamadugula (Reddy), actor Bhargava Poludasu and producer Srujan Yarabolu speak about how this project was made possible, and making a 'TollywoodU' movie. Excerpts. 

I read how you guys had to shoot in the snow for 15 to 16 days.  Now that the film is finally out, what's your mindset like?

Bhargavi Poludasu: This is beyond my wildest dreams. When we started the project, I didn't have an iota of doubt as to which direction the film will go in, or the kind of quality or output we will get. It was just a question of execution at that point. I've known Kiran for five years, so I had the confidence he would execute it. Along the way came Srujan. He's been a great backbone, supporting us. The majority of success goes to him and Kiran. We're getting really good reviews, and it's just so overwhelming I can't put it into words.

 I've always had this question for Telugu filmmakers, especially those who have really good jobs in the US. What happens to your career? What happens to your mindset? Five or 10 years after moving there, so many get  bitten by the cinema bug, starting from Nagesh Kukunoor…

Srujan Yarabolu: There are a lot of people in the US who want to make movies. Once they get to the US, they get a secure job and save, and it's easy. They start thinking, why  can't we make a movie. We don't have enough resources back in the US to make an indie film, and you have a lot of limitations here because you don't have too many Indian actors here. We did not know if the cast could come from India and do a movie here, or whether everyone would support us. So, we decided to make a movie, and then show it to people. We wanted to show we could make movies here with different concepts and also promote new filmmakers. 

Kiran Reddy: Once we moved to the US, we saved our extra dollars and invested them in something we are really passionate about. Plus, your life is, well, I'll not call it mundane, but it is pretty much mechanical, and you don't have any external influences or factors that disturb your day-to-day routine.

Once we settle down here, that is when people start thinking — hey, we have this passion and now we have time as well, so why don't we explore that? What we did differently this time is the production, filming, pre- and post-production, everything was in the US. We did not quit our professions, we tried to manage both boats without rocking them. That didn't happen overnight; we had to build it over the course of eight years. 

We started doing short films in 2012, the main crew being myself and my associate Harsha with one camera and one actor. We did all the 24 crafts, well I did just 23,  I did not act. That is how we gained experience. In 2018, we realised we have the experience to start something indie. We knew what to do. 

Yes, when it comes to execution, there will always be logistical challenges, but we had a clear understanding of how this is going to shape up, and we knew where to shoot in the US.

Bhargava Poludasu: I think there's a fundamental answer to your question here. Also, it's not 10 years. I think Telugu people have more of a cinema bug than others. Tollywood, by far, is the craziest cinema-producing industry. There's a reason, because, growing up, you would see even the hardest working person, say a rickshaw puller, come back exhausted at midnight, watch a movie and only then go to sleep.

So, we're crazy about movies, and that bug is always there, and takes flight once an avenue opens up.

What kind of jobs do you guys have in the US, and where are you based? 

Srujan Yarabolu: We are spread across the country. Bhargava and I live in Bay Area, Kiran lives in Arizona, Harsha lives in Delaware, Rakesh lives in Houston. I worked for Facebook for three years and am right now working for a startup. Bhargava works for Google, I guess?

Bhargava Poludasu: Yeah, I build products, that's my passion. I had a short stint with Facebook too.  

Kiran Reddy: There is a common factor we bring to the table, program and project management. In spite of us being in different locations, we still have to coordinate on a daily basis. So, we have daily standups to share updates of the movie. And, how we manage time is pretty important, it's critical in executing indie movies like these. So, we have to be pretty solid on the execution part, and that comes from solid pre-production and planning. We bring all our tech expertise to the table. 

Bhargava Poludasu: The IT and program management expertise we have helped. We incorporated that into our production, looking at it with a digital matrix. We were able to save so much money and time because of that. 

Logistically speaking, what was your investment in terms of time, before getting started with this project? Of course, writing can happen on the side. Did you think of taking or take a sabbatical? What are the things you had to consider before getting into Gatham?

Bhargava Poludasu: The crux here is pre-planning. Other than our daily stand up call, as we approached a schedule, we would get into details, and have these one-hour slots — what scene and shots are we going to cover. We used to break it down that way, so it helped us keep track. Even the actors knew. So, if we are supposed to be at Scene 23, Shot 3 and are not, we knew we had to make up. 

Kiran Reddy: The plan for the first schedule, before Srujan sprung into action, was the lengthiest — 17 days, and we knew we wanted to shoot it in a winter backdrop. But I could not ask people to take a 17-day sabbatical. I could ask two or three people, not 20. So, when we wrote the story, we were cognizant of these facts. We knew we had to be practical in our script and screenplay. 

Most scenes take place inside the cabin, with minimalistic setup and minimalistic actors. That was the approach I had, and it made our jobs easier. We don't want to overshoot our budget in terms of days, because time is again money.

What I understand is that a lot of you are friends or people who have direct gain from the film doing well. How many cast and crew members did you have to hire from outside, people you barely knew, but people you needed to hire for their expertise? And what did you spend money on in the film?

Srujan Yarabolu: We spent 10 per cent of our budget on music. We spent money on the cinematographer; he was in the US at that time. Post-production work was done in the US, by people who have done Hollywood films. This is where we used our budget. We just had about nine or 10 people on set. Whoever had to act would shoot the scene, come back and become a behind-the-scene person working with the director or cinematographer. The crew is very small but we spent a bit on the quality as we didn't want to compromise. 

Bhargava Poludasu: My role was a dual one. I'm also one of the producers. You asked a good question regarding motivation. Everybody who has to gain will gain and they're obviously motivated. We put in tremendous hard work. The kind of work that Kiran and Harsha (Pratap, actor-producer) put in is humanly impossible. These guys slept barely one-and-a-half to two hours a day, and they were the most creative. Acting itself is a different thing, but not acting and to be the ones who do the other stuff, take care of things, that's hard. But I had to help with the motivation part just to egg people on. At the end of the day, any technician who put his name on this film is also motivated. If the film comes out well, that means more than a repayment for them. 

What about getting shooting permission?

Kiran Reddy: I don't know if I can disclose that, but if someone chases after me, Vishal you are responsible. 

(everyone laughs) 

Seriously, most of the film happened guerilla-style. There were a couple of sensitive locations where we had to take permission to shoot. Thanks to the minimalistic setup, we were able to pull off guerilla-style filming. Having said that, we never bothered people except 30 or 40 times (laughs). We did not know what to do apart from making that happen. 

Let's go a bit deeper into the financial part of filmmaking, because that's the most fascinating thing, comparing the kind of films made in India and what you guys do. In terms of creative satisfaction and how it helped you out, how much more can you reveal about this?

Bhargava  Poludasu: There's a weird arc to the financial bit. Kiran and I have been conversing, we're close friends and we did a lot of short films together. He understands my capability. I totally trust his end judgement and his capabilities. I'm 350 per cent sure we're introducing a new director to the industry. You've seen this genre, see what he does with comedy. 

In 2018, we decided it was time to move to the next level and do an indie film. Then, we started a banner and company, but not that we had money. It's just pure bull headedness with Kiran and Harsha. They touched base with all their friends and did their groundwork. In this film's end credits, you see over a 100 people, there's a reason. They gave us 50, 100, 500 dollars. Kiran and Harsha poured huge amounts of money into it, and they got the first schedule going. Then, I jumped in and took it to one-and-a-half schedules. We were lucky to get Srujan, he saw the teaser and loved it. I spoke to him, and he was like "Let's do it". He became our backbone. We got everything we asked for. 

You guys put in personal savings into this for the second and third schedule, the money you could have used for your future. So, in case Amazon hadn't bought it, or you don't get a theatrical release, would you have made peace with the fact that this money is gone or that it's stuck?

Srujan Yarabolu: It would obviously be stuck. We initially thought of a theatrical release and OTT, theatrical if Corona is restricted only in China. We stay in the US, so we tried to approach OTT platforms. There'd be thousands of movies in India with no cash or no crew, so we wanted to get noticed by these people. So we approached Netflix, Amazon, Aha… Later, Amazon came back and said they saw the movie. We are happy with what we got. 

Bhargava Poludasu: Kiran and Harsha put everything they had, and Harsha and 150 people put in whatever they could afford. I put a lot of money in and, at that point in time, we didn't have any doubt. We were 250 per cent convinced that the quality of the product is such that it will entice somebody to help us. That first somebody was Srujan. We have to credit him because he's extremely resourceful. Finally, he got us in front of Amazon and the rest is history. None of us is a known face, and the actors are not known faces, but content is key. 

Your work with the film starts before anybody else and ends after everybody else. So, you are managing a full-fledged career along with the pressures of writing the screenplay and dialogues, finding actors and money, and promoting the film after its release. Can you describe what kind of a toll it takes on your work and personal life?

Kiran Reddy: It's definitely a tough job to manage it all — work life, personal life and the movie. How we can achieve what we dream about is with really good support from the family. My wife [they've been married for three years] is my backbone. The icing on the cake is she is also a part of the production. She understands when to give me enough space to focus on my screenwriting or pre-production planning.

That's a crucial factor for me as she knows I'll make it big one day. But still, you have got to sacrifice some things. We have to switch off our office brain after office is done at 5 pm and turn on the movie brain, and then that's your goal, if you want a parallel career. You have to be really focussed on two things, instead of being a Jack of all trades and not succeeding in any of those. 

The example that we try to set is that you can achieve your dream in filmmaking with proper time management and enough support from family and friends. 

What do you guys call Telugu films made in the US?

Bhargava Poludasu: I would say TollywoodU.  

(everyone laughs)

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