Director Sekhar Kammula on addressing caste and gender discrimination in his new Telugu film ‘Love Story’, starring Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi
Following the second wave of COVID-19, no other Telugu film has managed to generate as much anticipation for its theatrical release (on September 24) as director Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story. It brings back the hit combination of Kammula and Sai Pallavi after Fidaa (2017), accompanied by Naga Chaitanya. A day after the glitzy pre-release function in the presence of Chiranjeevi and Aamir Khan, the director settles down for a chat at the Asian Cinemas corporate office in Hyderabad, to discuss the film and his own journey that hasn’t been conventionally mainstream. Excerpts from the interview:
You recently stated that Love Story addresses gender and caste issues. Did the story emerge from social observations over time?
Incidents of caste and gender discrimination have become a constant. Leader (2010) was about a crusade against corruption but I also touched upon caste. Arjun Prasad (Rana Daggubati) hates the casteist approach of his father’s older brother. I have been wanting to discuss caste and gender and Love Story gave me the scope to do it.
When there’s an incident such as Nirbhaya, Disha or the recent case of a six-year-old girl in Hyderabad, we react emotionally. Then life goes on. After Nirbhaya, I started the ‘I care, I react’ campaign. I visited colleges and talked about the need to respect women — no catcalls for girl students, say no to dowry, don’t comment on what women wear, etc. Then I realised that unless I continue to make films and stay popular, no one will listen to me. Through Love Story, I intended to focus on a few conflicts in society. I am no expert, but my intention is honest.
Naga Chaitanya plays a character who hails from an oppressed community. What went into making him look realistic for that part?
It helped that I have a team that questions me. We watched earlier films of Chaitanya and Nagarjuna, studied their mannerisms to undo the starry part of it. Chaitanya submitted himself to be moulded for the character. We also coached him on the Telangana dialect. We worked on his demeanour and made him wear shirts costing a few hundred rupees. His character does everything a star doesn’t normally do on screen, like sweeping the floor. He plays a guy who comes from Armoor in Telangana. It also helped that Easwari Rao played his mother; she comes up with a realistic portrayal.
Sai Pallavi is probably the only female lead you have repeated in consecutive films, after Kamalinee Mukherjee in Anand and Godavari. Was there a noticeable evolution in her from Fidaa to Love Story?
She had the same professional approach. The work atmosphere was almost the same; things have changed only for viewers since they have seen her in many films now. We worked on Pallavi to remove the hangover of her character Bhanumathi in Fidaa. Mounica, her role in Love Story, is complex with internal conflicts. Looking back, I think Varun Tej’s part was tougher in Fidaa. Bhanu was more vocal, which is comparatively easier to deal with.
Love Story is also about small town aspirations. How does it address issues faced by those who migrate to cities?
Those who are new to the city experience insecurities in the way they dress, their language and economic strata. We talk about all this subtly and how they stand up for themselves. I don’t know how much of this people will infer from the film.
Talking of what people infer from your work, Fidaa had the woman choosing to live in her hometown, with her family, after marriage. Have you had people sharing their thoughts on this?
When people tell me they liked Fidaa, I wait to see if they go beyond mentioning the music, Sai Pallavi’s dance and the romantic portions. A few told me they liked how Bhanu, hailing from a village, refuses to do errands in the US. She isn’t the submissive small town cliche. Three parents told me they liked the idea of daughters choosing to live in their hometowns. I find that men become more respectful of women’s choices when they have daughters; I am tempted to ask if they accord the same respect to their wife. Maybe certain things don’t change; it’s a male phenomenon and I am no exception. But when people discuss issues I raise in my films, it is as though all my writing madness at midnight has paid off. When I write, I am conscious that the film has to be entertaining and profitable for the producer. But my social consciousness also comes in naturally during the process.
You mentioned that the team questions you; you also have a few women in your team. Does all this help to improve the script?
I can’t claim to have always been ideologically perfect; I have evolved and continue to do so. I consciously look to take people from different backgrounds and have a fair gender representation. The writing process is mine; I am a dreamer and romantic at heart. The script then gets discussed and debated. It’s a fun process and I listen. If something is politically incorrect, it gets changed. I worked in the US, studied filmmaking and I am drawn to people who studied filmmaking. But I also look for others because I need different perspectives.
When you held a press conference prior to the release of Anand (2004), barely a few people turned up. You stated that once the film is out, your voice will be heard. Today, as a director whose films are eagerly looked forward to, do you feel vindicated?
I had forgotten this incident until you reminded me. Even during Dollar Dreams (1999; the film won him the National Award for best debut director) I used to say that I am waiting for the day when people eagerly buy tickets to watch my film. I narrated the story of Anand to more than 15 producers and they rejected it; subsequently we did it ourselves. It has been a good journey (laughs). I feel happy, but I won’t say vindicated. I make a film, retreat to my space (Secunderabad residence and office) and write my next project.
What can you tell us about your next film with Dhanush?
It’s a socio-political thriller. I am looking forward to it, but before that, I need some time off. I feel drained with the making and promotion of Love Story. The pandemic has been tough; I hope people take precautions when they come to the theatres to watch movies.