Prashant Varma on how the pandemic influenced the script of Zombie Reddy, Telugu cinema's first zombie film
Zombie Reddy is the first zombie film in Telugu cinema, and the film’s director and lead actors are confident that they have an exciting story to tell about zombies wreaking havoc in the hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh.
Prasanth Varma, the director of Awe! and Kalki, had been toying with the idea of making a Telugu zombie film for almost six years now. But every time he approached the topic, he was told the concept might not work for a Telugu audience. This lack of interest in the industry prompted him to put the idea on a back burner and move on to other projects.
Few years later, he pitched another zombie-themed project to an actor. However, the idea never took off due to budget constraints. Prasanth revisited the idea in 2019, because he believed he could finish filming another feature. “I had a gap of about 6-7 months between two projects and I wanted to do something at that time. That’s how I went back to developing the story of Zombie Reddy."
Prasanth wrote nearly 200-300 scenes, encompassing some of the most common cliches found in Telugu films, weaving a story with zombies in the landscape. Teja Sajja, Anandhi, and Daksha Nagarkar star in lead roles. The concept of two rival villages in Rayalaseema, Andhra Pradesh and a hero forging peace between the two factions has been a tried-and-tested formula in Telugu films. Rayalaseema, a region struck with bloodshed and violence in the past is central to the story, having even inspired several films over the years.
“There’s a lot of gore in zombie films, and that’s one of the reasons why the story is set in Rayalaseema, which has been the backdrop in many action films like Samarasimha Reddy, Aadi, and Indra in the past. Zombie Reddy is an action comedy, and the fun part is adding zombies to this milieu. Even if you are clueless about zombies, because they are so alien to our culture, you’ll still be able to relate to the revenge drama in the story. Unlike my previous films, we didn’t have a bound script for this one, and we kept improvising it on the go and during the shoot,” the director says, adding, “In the initial draft of the story, we were ideating about an unknown virus which would trigger this mayhem in Rayalaseema. But once reports about COVID-19 began trickling from China in late 2019, we decided to use it as an important element in the story.”
One of the biggest challenges for the team was getting the right look for the characters, especially the zombies. Under the aegis of make-up artist Basha, a handful of YouTube tutorials and inspiration from foreign films like Train To Busan and Shawn Of The Dead, they were eventually able to achieve Prasanth's vision.
“For some scenes, we required nearly 500 people to be dressed up as zombies and Basha’s team grew quite efficient as the shoot progressed. Every day, several junior artists would practice how to walk like zombies. If one had a beard, then applying makeup on them was even more challenging. The toughest part for them was manoeuvring in the frame while shooting in the night. The low visibility, dust, and the lenses that they had to use would impair their vision," explains the director.
For Teja Sajja and Daksha, it's been a long wait before they worked with Prashant after being in talks with him for the past five years for other projects. Teja, who was last seen in Samantha-starrer Oh! Baby, says, “When he pitched the idea of a zombie film, I felt it was quite a risky move and I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off. But once he developed the story, we were all quite confident. What really clinched the deal for me was the way they got the make-up right for the zombies, and it was really scary at times.” Ask him if he considers a film like Zombie Reddy too experimental, he laughs it off saying, “I don’t think people will be convinced if I punch 10 goons on screen. But then, they will root for me when I hit a zombie. It’s all about survival.”
On the other hand Daksha is chuffed that the film portrays her in a new avatar. But when she first auditioned for the role, Prasanth almost did not get her onboard. “He thought I was too pretty for the role,” Daksha laughs, adding, “The role was so interesting that I didn’t want to let it go and I nailed it in the second look test. I missed a chance of working with Prasanth and both his films so far, but I am glad we did this one. I’ve always imagined myself in an action-packed role, and to be honest, we don’t get such roles so often. Actresses are often stereotyped based on their looks, and I knew that I wouldn’t probably do something like this two or three years later. I’ve always believed that no matter what the length of the character is, you’ve to be able to make an impact. There’s no romantic angle in the story and I’m confident that my character will stand out.”
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world, it not only went on to reshape life as we knew it but also Zombie Reddy's story and how it was filmed. Barely 13 days into the shoot in early 2020, a nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the virus, leaving the country's film industry in a lurch. Ironically, this period of uncertainty and anxiety in people’s lives, and how everyone was trying to cope up with it, gave Zombie Reddy a new direction, so to speak. “The pandemic and lockdown made Zombie Reddy all the more relevant in the sense that we were able to capture the moment. I think we made the film at the right time. I am so glad that I was able to work with a producer like Raja Shekar Varma who had so much faith in me. He didn't think twice before backing me for this project even though it's a new genre for Telugu audiences. This film wouldn’t have been possible without his unflinching vision and the support of the cast and crew,” Prasanth adds.
In the story, a bunch of friends, who work at a gaming company, go to Rayalaseema for a wedding, in the middle of a pandemic, and so, several characters in the film are shown wearing masks. Explaining more about how they got lucky in more ways than one, Prasanth says, “We were the first unit in Telugu film industry to resume shooting and we had to adhere to strict guidelines about social distancing and minimal crew. But every time we planned to do something, it happened without a glitch. Initially, night shoots weren’t allowed, but when we were planning for one, the government relaxed some of those restrictions. Another time, we had to showcase a character transform physically over a span of 25 years in the story. Little did I know that that actor would end up losing 15 kilograms during the lockdown! Later, when we were wondering whether to release the film on OTT or cinema halls, the latter opened up with 50 percent occupancy. For a while, I was hoping that cinema halls would run at 100 percent occupancy by the time our film is up for release! We got really lucky on that front.”
Zombie Reddy releases in cinemas on 5 February.
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