Writing Became My Coping Mechanism: Venkatesh Maha

Writer-director Venkatesh Maha and collaborator Puja Kolluru open up about ‘Write Right Club’ their new startup to create a writer’s club, how Covid affected their writing process and the general lack of fairness when it comes to giving a writer due credit.
Writing Became My Coping Mechanism: Venkatesh Maha

At first, the purpose of this interview was to help writer-director Venkatesh Maha (C/O Kancharapalem, Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya) and his new team spread the word to invite applicants to a new programme they've started called 'Write Right Club'. By whittling down the number of applicants to a small set of talented writers, they want to create a writer's team of five who can help with research and generate ideas, while also working on their own original screenplays.

But Puja Kolluru, herself a writer-director, says the response has been overwhelming, adding that they have already started their first process of filtering. They are not just looking for applicants: What they want to do by creating this group has the potential to change the Telugu film industry. Edited excerpts from an interview with Vishal Menon about what this holds for the future… 

Covid seems to have had two opposite reactions among filmmakers and writers. One set talks about how difficult the period has been for them to work on new ideas, while there's another group that feels it has been super productive. How has it been for the both of you?

Venkatesh Maha: The first month or so last year was very tough. I needed time to just get used to being stuck at home. I struggled to get anything down on paper and I also had to deal with a personal tragedy; so, it was really a tough time. But by July of 2020, things started to change. Because of my state of mind there was a switch and writing became my coping mechanism. From struggling to write, I managed to finish an entire screenplay in weeks. It was like…diarrhoea. 

And by December, I developed two treatments. It was around this time that I met Puja. We even started working on a film but it didn't materialise. The cases started to increase again and things started looking bad. Puja too had to go through a lot. She lost her mother. So we were dealing with our emotional trauma but it was getting channelised into writing. A little later, we were able to finish another treatment within 20 days and we even got takers for that. And last month, a top production house gave us a book to adapt and within three days we made an outline for 13 episodes for the first season. It's like all the love I had for writing is finally coming out now. 

What about dealing with the general atmosphere all around? Was it daunting?

Puja Kolluru: It was certainly affecting us. But when you sit down in front of the computer to write, the process makes us think less about what is happening around. COVID is something you can escape. Everyone has to confront it, especially because of the lockdowns and the distancing. When my mother's incident happened, I had to process it right then because it's not like life could go back to normal. There was no other way but to deal with it.  

What about the actual creative process? Because of the nature of the pandemic, do you find yourself being forced to include elements from this period in the scripts? 

Venkatesh Maha: So far, we have not added anything regarding COVID in these new scripts. It's a thing we still don't understand and we didn't work on something that was set during lockdowns. As I see it, stories have the power to last longer. It's not that everything that was written during the 20's was only about the Spanish Flu. But I understand what you're saying. A contemporary script set post 2020 needs to include fixtures like sanitisers and masks into the setting. 

Let's talk about your new initiative you are calling 'Write Right Club'. From my understanding, it's to create a 'writers' room' like how they do in Hollywood. Is that right?

Venkatesh Maha: The idea to start something like this was always in my head but I didn't have the determination to go about it until now. It was during last year's writing 'spree' that I told Puja that we should start a writer's group. But it's not the same model as what they have in Hollywood. I don't want this to be a thing where we give the group an idea to make everyone write their versions to finally make the final product a mix of the best versions. It needs to be more than that. In our industry, almost every film has the 'written and directed by' credit going to one person. Earlier we had many writers getting their own credit but now it's not so. We need some of that credit to go back to writers. 

Puja Kolluru
Puja Kolluru

What was the inspiration behind it? 

Venkatesh Maha: Back when I was in the US, I attended a 10-week writing course that helped me a lot. But more than the course, there was this space in the lobby where teachers, screenwriters and aspirants would all just sit and exchange ideas. It was like a brain-storming session and it was not even that every meeting had an agenda. More than the result, it was about a certain creative spirit and that's what I was missing here. We are selecting five people and we also want them to develop their own screenplays. Writing is something where you have to work on your own time and money so we want to help by giving them a stipend. Using that, they can focus on their own screenplays. 

In the future, it needn't even be limited to screenplays. They can write books, mini series or anything they want. But in the meantime, they will actually be working on films I or any of the other directors by contributing to the research and development that goes into screenplays or explore any portals in the OTT space. Because we are already a part of the industry, we would be able to provide guidance and any kind of help they would need to take their own assignments forward when it is ready. 

Can you give an example of how they can help? 

Venkatesh Maha:I have a story in mind that I have narrated to a producer and they were instantly interested. But I'm making another film so I can't sit and work on it at the moment. So what I can now do is take my idea and give them the research work on the significant parts. They will then come up with ideas and we can work together on it once we complete that project. The best part is that the writing credits will be based on contributions. We will work out a system for that too without one person being given all the credit. At some point, we want this to develop like what Independent Film Project of New York, or Media Centre in Brooklyn. 

What are you looking forward to the most about finding these new writers?

Puja Kolluru: It's how unadulterated their thoughts and ideas will be. Having worked within the industry, we often find our ideas being limited to the practical difficulties of it. But with these minds, they will not be weighed down by the limitations. It will be really exciting to work with them. 

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