Rakshit Shetty on the new wave of Kannada cinema, making Avane Srimannarayana, and why his career is a work in progress
Actor, writer, and director Rakshit Shetty shot to fame with 2014's Ulidavaru Kandanthe.
Kannada cinema has witnessed a sea change in recent years with the rise of a new wave of filmmakers like Pawan Kumar, Hemanth Rao, Raam Reddy, Rishab Shetty, Rakshit Shetty, Anup Bhandari, and Prashanth Neel to name a few.
Starting from Pawan’s Lucia to Hemanth’s recent acclaimed film Kavaludaari, quite a few Kannada films have piqued the interest of cinephiles. In a role reversal of sorts, several Kannada features are now being remade in Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi. Samantha recently starred in the Telugu and Tamil remake of Pawan’s U-Turn, Rakshit’s Kirik Party was remade in Telugu, and Akshay Kumar is said to be starring in the Hindi remake of Bell Bottom.
Actor, writer, and director Rakshit, who shot to fame with Ulidavaru Kandanthe, has had acclaimed films like Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu and Kirik Party to his credit. A year after KGF: Chapter 1 released, Rakshit's next is the Sachin Ravi-directed Avane Srimannarayana. He acknowledges that the success of KGF has boosted his confidence that the time is right to take Kannada cinema to newer markets on a bigger scale.
In a conversation with Firstpost, Rakshit spoke about trying to break cultural and linguistic barriers, how Ulidavaru Kandanthe changed his life, and how the success of Kirik Party opened new doors for him.
Excerpts from the interview:
You made your acting and directorial debut when the new wave of Kannada Cinema was still in its early stage. You have worked with the likes of Pawan Kumar and Hemanth Rao who are part of this movement to change the perception about Kannada cinema. What was that initial phase of your career like?
I was already directing my first film, Ulidavaru Kandanthe, when Pawan Kumar’s Lucia, one of the first Kannada films this decade which changed people’s perception about Kannada cinema, released. It’s not like we pre-planned what to do, but both of us believed in the kind of films we wanted to do. When he made Lucia, Pawan knew that there’s not a huge market for this kind of cinema right now, but he took the first step. On a similar note, I too believed in the film I was making and had a gut feeling that there’s an audience for it. Honestly, I had stopped watching Kannada films for a while because the industry wasn’t catering to a film enthusiast like me. They were making only one kind of cinema, which I did enjoy watching, but there wasn’t much for a niche audience.
Few years after I made my debut, Hemanth Rao and I worked together for Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, and we share a good rapport. Both of us want to collaborate for more films, and we are quite passionate about taking Kannada films to other languages too. I believe that if 10-15 filmmakers come up with at least 10 good films in a year, then there will be a steady growth in the audience for parallel cinema. And at the same time, commercial cinema should thrive because that’s also how the industry grows.
In hindsight, I think Ulidavaru Kandanthe was the result of my innocence that people will come to watch it in theatres. But things didn’t happen overnight and you can’t expect the audience to turn up in droves to support your film just because it’s different. I’m happy that I made that film. We almost recovered our money, but it became more popular after its pirated copies came out. I’m okay with it because people have at least watched my film. Unlike today, there was no Netflix or Amazon Prime back then in India.
Piracy was a big thing back then and it worked for us. Whatever I’m today is because of Ulidavaru Kandanthe, and it gave me an identity in Kannada cinema. After that, Kirik Party became a blockbuster, a lot of people watched Ulidavaru. I always say that Ulidavaru was my innocence, Kirik Party was my need, and Avane Srimannarayana is more of my learning.
Kannada cinema has a glorious history with the likes of Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, Shankar Nag and Upendra ruling the roost for several decades. And after a long time, if I may say so, it’s only now that people from other states are showing a lot more interest in what’s happening in Kannada. What happened after the ‘90s when the industry was overshadowed by its peers in South India?
The problem with Kannada cinema, over the years, has been that when someone like Shankar Nag was making different films, only he was following that path. Upendra sir was one of the very few people who was thinking out of the box in his time, while others were making regular cinema.
I’m totally game for commercial cinema and support it because there’s a huge section of the audience which wants it. But at any given point of time, there have to be at least 10 directors and actors who should be doing parallel cinema so that the audience has something unique to look forward to at least once a month. Until the early ‘90s, there were good writers in Kannada and after that, writers weren’t encouraged as much.
We started making more remakes which is why our industry never grew beyond Karnataka. We didn’t have a scope to increase our market. Only in recent times, we have started encouraging new writers and audiences have played a huge part in this change because, nowadays, people don’t want to watch remakes. One reason is that they themselves have started films in the original language because of OTTs and straight release in theatres. They want to feel proud of their culture and industry too, and that can only happen when more such content-oriented films are made.
This is the right time when we can start expanding our market too, and the fastest way to do this is to dub our films in other languages. For Avane Srimannarayana (ASN), we have taken care that the lip sync is good for other languages too, and in a way, we realised that all South Indian languages are similar to each other. The pauses, when the actors use while delivering their dialogues, sound as good in other languages as it does in Kannada. Similarly, the humour works too. Only thing is that we have to put extra effort to ensure that the dialogues sound right in other languages too while dubbing them.
Now that you’ve spoken about wanting to expand the market for Kannada cinema, is that why you want to take Avane Srimannarayana (ASN) to other languages or did it already have a universality to it which can cut across cultural and linguistic barriers?
I think it’s a bit of both. After Kirik Party, we wanted to make sure that our next film is better than the previous one. Since Kirik Party was a huge hit, we had a good budget for ASN, but at the same time, we didn’t go too native with the film because we wanted to release it in other languages too.
So, we created a fictional town, which could be anywhere in South India. And we are calling it a Southern-odd fiction because it’s hard to define what genre it falls under. It has a spaghetti western feel to it, and lots of elements of action, adventure, rom-com, humour, and philosophy from ancient literature. In terms of music, we have used Carnatic music in a modern way which, in recent times, no one has done it.
The trailer doesn't reveal much, but your character, Srimannarayana, has an attitude reminds me a bit of Salman Khan from the original Dabangg. What was your inspiration behind creating this character of a cop?
To be frank, when you watch the film, you’ll realise that you haven’t seen a cop like this till now. He’s different from any filmy cop. Srimannarayana is a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Jack Sparrow. He takes risks and comes up with a solution to complex problems like Jack Sparrow. At the same time, he’s intelligent, witty, and quirky. I don’t think there’s been a character like this. There’s a tinge of Lakhan from the film Ram Lakhan. Most films in recent times have only portrayed cops as being either really sincere or corrupt. But this character in ASN is not corrupt, because he’s not cheating anyone.
Is there a story behind how you came up with the idea behind ASN and the lead character?
I think I’ve held on to this idea for almost seven years now. Long before my acting debut, while I was still making short films like Confessions of A Dustbin, music director Ajaneesh was working on a musical piece, which was more like Dubsmash. He had used dialogues from old films, and one of the dialogues was from an old Kannada film, Bhakta Prahalada, starring Rajkumar as Hiranyakashyapa, and Puneet Rajkumar played the young Prahalada. There comes a point when Rajkumar asks who’s he (while referring to God) and Puneet says, ‘Avare Srimannaryana’.
When I heard it, I was so inspired that I came up with the intro scene of a hero in a very commercial way. I was confident that the scene is going to rock when the audience watches the film, and I even planned how the title - Avane Srimannarayana - is going to appear. We were supposed to do this film before Kirik Party, and wrote an entire draft of the script. Kirik Party was my need, and I wanted a big hit very badly in my career, because I knew that as an actor, I can experiment with other films only after I scored a huge hit.
When I wrote ASN, my team realised that it was going beyond our budget. Right from the beginning, we decided to produce the film ourselves. Initially, we thought the film needed at least Rs 5-6 crores, which was beyond my market at that point of time. Kirik Party was made on a low budget, and when it became a hit, we decided to revisit ASN. Since I wanted to experiment as a filmmaker, I completely rewrote the whole script with a new plot, but retained some characters from the original script. We wanted to keep it commercial and not sacrifice the content. It took us more than a year to write the script, the shoot went on for 200 days which took almost another year of my time, and the post production took another 7-8 months because it has a lot of VFX. We have our own VFX company and we didn’t even think twice about coming up with another VFX shot. Although the film was made with a budget of Rs 20-24 crores, it will look like a Rs 40-50 crores budget film.
Did you retain the intro scene in the final version?
Yes! But that’s the only scene which we retained (laughs). I have held on to this idea for about 7-8 years, and then, another 3 years of making it. I’m very excited and confident about the film. It’s definitely a good film and I’ll be proud of this film even after
People have seen a very different side of you as an actor in Kirik Party. With ASN, are you trying to change your image?
I think I’ve been trying to do that with every film I’ve done so far. I got my first break with Simple Agi Ondh Love Story (2013), in which I played a fun-loving character, and then I played a mass character in Ulidavaru Kandanthe, and then a few years later, Kirik Party happened. In Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, I portrayed a very subtle character, who’s very serious about his life and doesn’t care about anything. And ASN has me in a very different character. I don’t want to play the same character in my films and I don’t want people to think that Rakshit can only do so and so characters well. I don’t want them to guess what I’ll do next.
You became hugely popular after Kirik Party’s success. Are you under pressure to deliver a bigger hit this time?
I don’t think I under any pressure of that sort. I love everything about cinema, be it writing, acting, or directing. I could have done about five films after Kirik Party, but I stuck to one film because I was very passionate about it. I don’t mind waiting for another two years for my next film because I’m not into the number game. As long as every film of mine gives me bigger support to make my next film, it’s good enough for me. I believe in enjoying life and I enjoy my life making films. I’m completely satisfied with what I’m doing.
Is your career always a work-in-progress?
My acting career is just an icing on the cake for me and it’s the process of filmmaking which keeps me going. Sometimes, I just want to be an actor, do my part well, and go back home. I do get involved once the script is written and I give my inputs. I might be directing my own films films, but I know where to step back in films where I am just an actor. I don’t want to push my ideas onto someone else. But, if I’m writing the film, then I get involved in every aspect of the process.
You’ve invested quite a lot of time for this film. What scares you the most now that the film is up for release?
I’m happy that I’ve made the film which I wanted to make in the budget that I had. I just hope that ASN becomes a huge hit because it’ll give me a lot of strength to direct my next film, Punya Kot, and it’s 10 times more ambitious than ASN. I’m someone who takes life as it comes. So whatever result I get from ASN, I’ll direct Punya Koti keeping that mind.
It’s been a year since KGF released, and that film changed the perception that people have on Kannada cinema, especially in Telugu and Hindi. Has KGF’s success changed anything for you now that you are going for a pan-Indian release for ASN?
Absolutely! I was very confident that I’ll be releasing ASN in five languages even while writing the script three years ago. But KGF’s success gave us confidence that we can spend more. I was hoping for at least a multiplex release in other states so that people will recognise me as an actor now, and in turn, it would help my future films. And KGF’s success has given us the push to do our best and promote the film in other languages aggressively, and release the film in a big way.
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