Interview with Mohan Krishna Indraganti about Sammohanam by Maya Nelluri
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19 June 2018

Director Mohan Krishna Indraganti has a hatrick on his hands with the success of Sammohanam. Over the years, he has made some magnificent films, some which were ahead of their times, but all of which were appreciated. Now that the times seem to have caught up, this director looks to be on an upward career trail. We caught up with the man of the moment to gauge his take on the hit film.

What are your thoughts on the success of Sammohanam?
In all humility I have to say that we were expecting it because when I saw Sammohanam during the post production stage I was happy with how it was shaping up. I felt that it has to work but of course one can't be a 100% sure until the movie gets in front of audiences. I was definitely hoping it would work. Our hunch was based on the fact that it had many elements that I strongly felt would connect with various strata like teens, middle-aged people and so forth. The success is all thanks to the audience and also the media who’ve carried the film on their shoulders quite passionately.

Sammohanam, like a lot of your films, is a conversational film. Would you say that’s your style of filmmaking?
In a way it is my style because I’m deeply influenced by European film makers like the French Truffaut, the Scandinavian Bergman, and also Woody Allen who have a very conversational style themselves. I don’t try to write dialogues with a capital d but more day-to-day conversations which almost seem banal, they convey emotions through a subtext which is a lot more difficult to write compared to loaded conversations. In Sammohanam I ended up writing five or six long conversations which I felt were central to the film; I was concerned about how people will take it but I’m thrilled with the way that people have lapped it up.

Content films weren't so popular when you started directing, but now they are. What do you feel has brought about this change?
The majority of audiences earlier weren’t familiar with the style in which I made some of my films. For example I still feel like Golconda High School is one of the best sporting films in terms of its authenticity. The way it was shot and the issues that were discussed like the lack of sporting opportunities, lack of playgrounds for children and how the coaching centres are killing children’s creativity because of their schedules are relevant even today. Take Anthaka Mundu Aa Tarvatha, which focuses on live-in relationships. These films weren’t blockbusters but they did fairly well and they made a dent. But now the times have changed, thanks largely to foreign cinema, Netflix, Amazon, Malayalam and Tamil films. Now there is an awareness in audiences that cinema should be about life and our people rather than fantasy figures. But the rule always remains that you have to make a good film because people now have a lot of options, they can just switch to laptops. Audiences have a better yardsticks of excellence through which to judge. So there is that much more pressure on filmmakers to bring audiences into theatres. It is a great time and it is also a challenging time.

In this film you’ve discussed the stigma associated with the film industry and actresses. Did you feel you needed to give a message with what’s currently going on in the news?
I never want to give a message through a film. I feel that film is an art; it is not a medium to give social messages. Of course you can't make a film without an underlying message, even the most commercial films have that, but it can't be in the foreground. I wrote the story in 2012, and it developed into a full-fledged screenplay by the end of 2016. All these insights came to me during my conversations with the actresses and others I worked with and I wanted to use them in a story but you can’t just use it in any story. When Sammohanam came to mind I thought it would be perfect to showcase the issues rather than pushing the issue to the foreground. I wanted to incorporate it into an odd situation so it happens in a romantic conversation where there is no lecturing. The guy already has prejudices so she asks him what he thinks of her in a way to test him. I'm always trying to sub textually convey my message. The job of a filmmaker or artist is to share their perspective but not to give the audiences messages and take them to task. For that there are other platforms like colleges, television, news papers. Dance, music and cinema encapsulate our times so they are not best used to sermonise.

How did the idea come about for Sammohanam?
When I was filming Golconda High School in a house in 2010-11 I was fascinated by how the family that gave us the house reacted to us. They were talking to us, watching from different corners, they were fascinated by it. For them, filmmaking was demystified in this process. They understood that the intimacy shown on screen between the actors is done in an environment with hundreds of people watching. I always thought what if I flip the conversation and see it through their eyes so that's how the germ came about. What happens when the world of cinema comes into the house of the protagonist? First Mr. Naresh’s character came to mind, then the others. It took about six to seven years for the film to take shape.

That’s a long time!
Stories are organic and you can't force them into a shape. They are like children who have to acquire their own features. It takes time for some but some develop in months. It was actually the second half of this film that took me time. I felt that until the middle it was great but then I had many versions of how they would get back together. The initial versions of the second half became very dark. I've interacted with women who've been through a lot, they’ve gone through hell. There are a lot of women who've I’ve seen been through it so there was a very depressing version but I wanted to make a film that is heart-warming and celebrates life, love and the women in the industry. There are many women here without family support who’ve made it and are making it; but there r a lot of prejudices within the industry and outside about their lives. I dint want a sermon or an ideological piece. That took me a lot of time to carve it. Some said that the part about the flashback is familiar but we needed it there because about 90% of women in the industry that I’ve met have had similar situations where the boyfriends or managers become parasites or the co-stars have been harassing them. The same story has to be told until that story doesn't have to be told.

How did the Notting Hill story line inspire you?
It's definitely an aesthetic inspiration. My film starts with a dedication to the writer and director of Notting Hill and My Week with Marilyn. They have been seminal influences to Sammohanam but there are no plot similarities. Sammohanam echoes the spirit of these films. In particular there is a line in Notting Hill, “I maybe a star but I'm also a normal girl seeking a boy’s love”. I thought that is a great line and a point of departure for me to write the story of an actress. Except that the film is about a star and a normal boy, there is no other plot similarity. I’ve also been inspired by Guddi by Hrishikesh Mukherji, Sunset Boulevard by Willy Wilder, and Sitara in Telugu.

How did you go about the casting?
Initially Sudheer wasn’t in my radar because I was looking for a boy-next-door and from watching Bhaghi etc he came across very muscular. I wanted someone very tender, vulnerable, artistic; but when I saw Shamantakamani I thought Sudheer was very good in it, there was a vulnerability which he really brought out. Coming to the actress, I wanted someone who wasn’t totally familiar to Telugu audiences but who could carry a star image. If I cast any local star their image would have overshadowed it. When I saw Cheliya I was sure that Aditi was it and she was very excited. Then of course there is Naresh garu and Pavitra Lokesh who usually plays the morose mother roles but she is a very beautiful vibrant woman. Harshini is a great discovery as a sister. The most interesting part for me was that I had worked with a group of actors I'd never worked with before. It was a novel feeling because I’ve always worked with people who I’m comfortable with. That was new, exciting, kept me on my toes and it’s made me so happy.

Will you look at working with bigger names now?
I never worked like that. I usually write and then look for the actors but I definitely want to work with our stars because all the Telugu stars right now are wonderful actors. But if I propose something to them I want it to be something that will really excite them and be novel/ unheard of before. When I come up with that, then I’ll definitely approach them. I also can't write with stars in my mind because their image will start influencing the story.

What’s next?
I'm exhausted because from 2016-18 I made three films which never happened in my life. I definitely don't want to make the same type of film next. I’ll explore action or thriller genres which I’ve always been interested in but I will take a month off and then start writing. I’ll probably be shooting around the end of year.

- Maya Nelluri

vijay jeedigunta

About Maya Nelluri: Writer, Artist, and Make-up & Hair Professional; but first and foremost - Telugu Cinema Addict! Previous work experience includes Styling for films and photo shoots featuring Shriya Saran, Rana, Saina Nehwal, Nani and many more. Also worked as Associate Editor for SouthScope and Copy Editor for Channel 6 among others.
Twitter: @mayanelluri

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