Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy director Surender on making his first period film epic, and working with Chiranjeevi
'We had to strike a balance between the grandeur and realism required to make Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy,' says director Surender Reddy.
In December 2016, filmmaker Surender Reddy was in the US promoting Dhruva, along with Ram Charan, when the actor asked him what his future projects were. Back then, he had not thought about what to do next. Out of nowhere, Charan asked him if he would be interested in doing a film with his father Chiranjeevi.
“I didn’t have to think twice before saying yes to the offer. Getting a chance to work with someone like Chiranjeevi garu is a huge privilege,” Surender says, recalling the incident which sowed the seeds for his latest period drama Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy. “Back then, Khaidi No 150 was yet to release, and I was hoping to make a stylish action film with Chiranjeevi garu. When I met him after a few days, he told me the story of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, and asked me if I would like to direct a feature film based on this character. I asked him to give me some time because I wanted to convince myself, mentally and emotionally, that I could take up the project because I had never done a period drama prior to that.”
The story of Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy was originally written by Paruchuri brothers. However, once Surender came on board as the director, he wanted to get back to the basics to understand more about Narasimha Reddy’s life. The stories about him exist in the form of literature, written by local historians from the Rayalaseema region, official gazettes, and Burrakatha, an oral storytelling tradition prevalent in rural areas of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. On the periphery, Narasimha Reddy was known to be a Polygar from Uyyalawada area in Kurnool region, who led an uprising against the East India Company in 1840s. However, Surender says he saw Narasimha as a freedom fighter who inspired the people around him to unite for a common cause, and fight against the Britishers. This approach was crucial for him to portray Narasimha as one of the unsung freedom fighters from South India, much before the first war of Independence in 1857.
“Prior to Narasimha Reddy, several other rulers and Polygars, like Veerapandya Kattabomman, Sangolli Rayanna, Pazhassi Raja, and several others, led an uprising against the British forces at different points of time. However, each one of them had the backing of their own army, whereas Narasimha Reddy’s battle was more about people rising up against the atrocities of the British East India Company. This is precisely why I felt that what Narasimha Reddy did was so different from the other rebellions predating him, and for me, it was a form of freedom struggle. This film is not a biopic on him. I was more fascinated with certain incidents in his life, and that inspired us to make the film,” Surender explains.
In one of the gazettes that Surender referred to, Narasimha is addressed as a bandipotu and a donga (dacoit and a thief), which, the director says, was a common practice to brand anyone who revolts against the East India Company. “What fascinated me the most was that in the same gazette, it’s mentioned that he fought two battles against the Britishers, and that 9,000 people from the region were part of this rebellion. Later on, when he was hanged to death, orders were issued to leave his body hanging for 30 years, and 250 of his close associates were banished, and sent to jail in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. I kept thinking what would have inspired thousands of people to join hands with Narasimha Reddy to fight against the Britishers, and what could have happened to him during that phase in his life. He died at the age of around 37, and in the absence of a leader amidst them, society too crumbled eventually because there was no one to address the issues of the common people,” Surender confesses, adding, “This incident set the tone of the film for me, and I worked backwards to weave a convincing story about how he reached that stage in his life.”
The grandeur shown in the film is also his take on how rich the region was before it fell prey to the British empire. “Rayalaseema region today might be arid and dry, but once upon a time, people were rich. We wanted to showcase the culture and flourishing economy of the early 19th century in the area through this film.”
Ask him about the experience of working with Chiranjeevi, Surender says, “He has 150 films to his credit, and his experience was of huge help while making this film. Making a period drama is a challenging task, and unless all the actors and technicians believe in what you are doing, you can’t pull it off. There were numerous instances when Chiranjeevi garu would ask me the reason behind why a scene is conceptualised in a certain manner, but he won’t force his opinions on anyone. We had a set of writers who would bounce off ideas, and once they reach a consensus, we would go with the flow. Actors like Chiranjeevi, Amitabh Bachchan, Sudeep, Vijay Sethupathi, Nayanthara, and Tamannaah come with vast experience, and they are all extremely professional and dedicated to their craft. They understand the value of cinema. As a director, I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Considering Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy is his first period drama, Surender says his biggest challenge was to create an immersive experience to take the audience back to the 19th century, when they watch the film. For that, he had a team of accomplished technicians to design the sets and shoot the film. “Beyond that, the emotions in the film are pretty much the same that we see in today’s time. I feel that we should get to know more about the freedom fighters from our region, and Sye Raa... is one such film which could inspire more filmmakers to narrate stories of unsung heroes from our history,” he adds.
For the first six months, after he came on board, Surender recalls working closely with production designer Rajeevan to design the world of Sye Raa..., and the team spent plenty of time to visualise every aspect of the film in great detail. “Planning is really tough for a film like this. We had to pre-visualise a lot of sequences, and then strike a balance between the grandeur and realism required to make the film. The war sequences alone took a lot of time for us to design and execute. In fact, I think we spent more than 100 days shooting the battle sequences alone. It just drains you out physically and mentally."
One of the major war sequences was shot in Georgia. A team of close to 250 people flew to Georgia from India, which, Surender says, is by far the biggest Indian crew to shoot abroad. “One of the major reasons why we wanted to shoot in Georgia was the availability of foreign technicians, especially stunt team, equipment, and trained horses for the war sequence. It’s a nightmare to work with animals. The horses need at least three days to acclimatise themselves to the surroundings, and on any given day, you can shoot with them only for an hour, but that too is dependent on whether the horse is in the right frame of mind to follow the instructions. And you just don’t know how the horse is going to react when so many people, cameras are in front of its eyes. You just can’t do anything about it. Thankfully, the horses that we used in Georgia were already trained for such scenarios. It was a memorable experience,” he reveals.
The film boasts of a budget of around Rs 250 crores, but Surender says his team did not let him come under immense pressure of handling such a big-scale production. “The whole credit goes to Ram Charan. He was extremely supportive right from the beginning, and he’s a wonderful human being. To give you an example of what he did to make all of us feel comfortable, he built a big settlement for all of us to stay while shooting in Georgia. The location, where we had to shoot, was around 60 km from the nearest city, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s so dusty that sometimes, it’s difficult to shoot there. But Ram Charan didn’t think twice before spending a bomb to ensure that we all had a comfortable stay despite the rough climatic conditions around us. I hope to work with him soon,” Surender signs off.
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