Pitta Kathalu: Nag Ashwin, Nandini Reddy, Tharun Bhascker, Sankalp Reddy open up on their upcoming Netflix Anthology

The four directors opened up about how their first Netflix anthology pushed them to step out of their comfort zone and how they explored power dynamics in relationships through their stories about women.

Hemanth Kumar February 17, 2021 08:24:39 IST
Pitta Kathalu: Nag Ashwin, Nandini Reddy, Tharun Bhascker, Sankalp Reddy open up on their upcoming Netflix Anthology

Pitta Kathalu, Netflix’s first Telugu anthology, explores the journey of four different women as they navigate relationships which oscillate between love and betrayal.

With a star-studded cast including Shruti Haasan, Amala Paul, Lakshmi Manchu, Eesha Rebba, Satyadev, Jagapathi Babu, Saanve Megghana, Sanjith Hegde, and Abhay among many others, the anthology brings together filmmakers like Nag Ashwin, Nandini Reddy, Tharun Bhascker, and Sankalp Reddy to weave a tapestry of stories which are bold, ambitious, and unique in their own way. The anthology film, which will release on 19 February, is also going to mark Netflix’s foray into making original content in Telugu; however, the four directors confess that they aren’t under too much pressure.

Putting it in perspective, director Tharun Bhascker says, “The shots have been fired and we just have to see where the bullet lands. That’s the spirit we are in. Unlike a theatrical release, the advantage which a platform like Netflix gives is that the content is there to see at any time, anywhere. We are all confident that people will watch it, at least for the sake of their curiosity.”

Excerpts from an interview:

Sankalp, you have made films like Ghazi, a war drama, and Antariksham, which is set in space. What was it like to shoot a normal film, which isn’t as ambitious as your previous work?

Sankalp: I felt this was more ambitious compared to my other films. It was an experimental challenge for me to think of something else and I had to leave my own mark. I enjoyed the process. My other films had huge set ups and both of them had a lot of visual effects. This was more about characters interacting with each other and how their relationships change over a period of time. And it has to be intense. There’s no sci-fi element here. Everyone has their own approach to storytelling...right? This was new for me.

Nandini, what drew you to the anthology? Your segment with Amala Paul and Jagapathi Babu is unlike anything you’ve done so far.

Nandini Reddy: What appealed to me the most was the platform, the format, and also that I would be one among these four directors to make the anthology. It’s a different space for me to be in and I have an opportunity to reinvent myself to see what else I can do. I remember filmmaker Trivikram Srinivas telling me, “Don’t repeat the stories you tell. Explore themes and stories which give you more space and freedom. We are kind of stuck with the films we make, but I hope you don’t fall into the same box.”

My directorial debut, Ala Modalaindi was a romcom. The reason a lot of filmmakers start out with romcoms is because they are cheapest to make. Sankalp was one of the brave ones to start out with a war film like Ghazi, and Nagi (Nag Ashwin) like a wild Sadhu went to the mountains to make Yevade Subramanyam and found the right producer to back his vision. It’s easier to find producers for romcoms, especially for debut directors, because they are simpler to make, and it’s the writing that really shines through. But then, when a format works, because of your own insecurity or other pressures, people tend to push you into that space again and again. This is more or less the norm in the film industry. Now, after gaining some experience, when a platform like Netflix wants to collaborate with you and give you the freedom to tell whatever stories you want, it really opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. You don’t have to bear the burden of star cast or whether a film will work or not at the box-office, and do something truly different. To make something like what I have done in Pitta Kathalu right after Oh! Baby was very liberating for me. I totally relished the experience.

Tharun and Nag Ashwin, was it a similar experience for you? Did the format push you to think something afresh which is different from your own style?

Nag Ashwin: I am a huge sucker for the theatrical experience. But the offer to make whatever you want to make in a given budget was too good to let go. I might have struggled if I didn’t have a story in mind. I had this idea, which dealt with technology and how it’s affecting our lives, which I could turn into a 30-35 mins story.

Tharun: I have always wanted to go back and make short films, even after making my debut in feature films. Along with feature-length scripts, I’m fascinated by incidents and events. Some characters need not have a full two-hour cinematic treatment. You don’t have to focus as much on the three-act structure. Long ago, when I took part in a 48-hour film making contest, there were a lot of limitations, pressure, and yet, you had to come up with something new. It forces you to rediscover your filmmaking style. That’s what happened while making Pitta Kathalu as well. It was extremely challenging but in a positive way. It changed something within.

Tharun, when you say challenging, what exactly are you referring to?

Tharun: I’ve always been a bookish person when it comes to writing structure, which is important while writing rom coms, where you are always trying to reach certain beats and narrate it in a certain manner. Suddenly, when there’s no one telling you how a story should be, especially in an anthology made for an OTT, you just learn a lot of things on your own. Inherently, probably there’s a structure for this story, but it evolved so organically.

Pitta Kathalu Nag Ashwin Nandini Reddy Tharun Bhascker Sankalp Reddy open up on their upcoming Netflix Anthology

A still from Pitta Kathalu

In most Telugu films, women tend to be demure or they are compared with goddesses, who can’t do anything wrong. But in each of your segments in Pitta Kathalu, there is a moral ambiguity to the actions of these women. They are a lot more human in the sense that you allow them to be flawed. Were there some cliches that you wanted to avoid?

Nandini: We didn’t have a list of don’ts. I just went with how it should be. We explored the backstories of these characters and tried to reason why they might have chosen a particular path. And then, it played out well on screen. I think all of us tried to keep the characters quite real. And the OTT format also gave us that head space to write these characters in a different way. There’s no unnecessary deification of the characters or portraying them as black and white characters, we kept them as grey, real, and warped as needed. It gave us courage to be very organic in our approach.

Nag, you have dealt with technology, virtual reality, and how it is affecting people’s lives. It seems quite relevant in times like these. Since you shot the film in September, 2020, did the lockdown affect the way you told the story? It also feels like a social commentary on our lives.

Nag Ashwin: I feel that the effect will definitely be more amplified. My story had more to do with our regular lives. We are obsessed with our phones. Everyone is in their own world. You are never here. Each one of our realities are different. I feel that power is being taken away from us...we are sort of manipulated to be consumers and do and think things a certain way. I didn’t want to mention the year that the story is set in, because it could happen anywhere. It is also a social commentary in a way. Though it’s a different fictional world, it’s still very relevant to our problems and power structures today. We have all been talking about privacy laws and wonder if our conversations are being recorded. That’s the space I wanted to explore.

At one point of time, there were rumours that you are going to remake Lust Stories in Telugu. How did you finalise this theme in the end?

Sankalp: When Ashi Dua, the producer of this anthology, first approached me, we had other themes in mind. But once we all sat down together to figure out what excited us more, we reached a consensus that power play in relationships was more exciting.

Nandini: All of us felt that we could tell stories about women and power dynamics in relationships in an interesting manner. How power structures change in romantic relationships over a period of time is captivating. But honestly, none of us knew what the other director was working on. Luckily, we were on the same wavelength.

Tharun, your story is set in the hinterlands of Telangana, and it’s filled with fiery women, who want different things from their lives. Did it demand a certain kind of sensitivity to portray them because it’s just a thin line to walk on?

Tharun: Such stories are quite common amidst us, even if we don’t talk about it. I was discussing with filmmaker Venu Udugula about what happens at the panchyats in our villages.. Suddenly, it felt like although these characters might be funny and simple, their intentions and desires are very complex. I’ve interacted with a lot of people in Vikarabad and Warangal over the years. The way they look at relationships is very different. In an urban setting, we have compartmentalized relationships. Dating and live-in relationships, and physical intimacy are no longer a taboo. But in villages, it’s still a sensitive topic and it can be misconstrued when taken out of context. How these characters react to that might feel alien to a lot of people in the cities. For me, that was quite an exciting place to start off with. The idea was what could happen if these relationship dynamics play out in a village and how it would be treated - Is it honour, prestige, lust, or pride? That was intriguing. I wasn’t conscious of creating strong female characters. I just wanted to keep them real.

It's been almost 14 months since some of you have shot this. And then, the pandemic struck in 2020. Were you anxious about when the anthology is going to come out and what was going through your mind during this phase?

Tarun: For Pellichoopulu, I used to have 2 hard disks and I would roam around the city to show it to people. It reminded me of that. This time, I had 1 USB and was showing it to people. I was my own touring talkies. I didn’t take any money from people, except for their blessings (laughs). By early 2020, Nandini, Sankalp, and I had finished our work, I was hoping that Nag Ashwin would begin his shoot soon. And then, COVID-19 happened.

Nandini: I was busy strangling everyone who was calling it Lust Stories and trying to guess which of the stories we were making in Telugu. It was so annoying. All I could do was clarify that it’s not Lust Stories or its remake.

Sankalp: I didn’t step out of my house last year. And my wife kept asking me when it was going to release because everyone at home was getting bored. We were desperately waiting for Nag to finish his project.

Nag: I definitely felt the pressure! (laughs) In my defence, all I can say is that we were almost ready to shoot in March and we were going to put up the set on March 21, but right then lockdown was imposed. To shoot my segment in Pitta Kathalu properly, it would have taken 9-10 days, but we didn’t have so much budget. The only way we could make it work within the budget we had was to wrap it up in 5 days when we went back to shoot in September with additional safety measures. It was challenging and a bitter-sweet experience since we shot it during the pandemic. I’m curious to see how people will react to our films.

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