Being the son of an illustrious figure from the entertainment industry like Gangaraju Gunnam and living upto his standards – especially when you are the filmmaker executing his script – isn’t a walk in the park. Sandeep Gunnam, despite having directed a few episodes of Amrutham in addition to a feature film-stint in the past, knew that his task was cut out with Amrutham Dhvitheeyam (that’s currently streaming on Zee5). Buoyed by the response to the three episodes of the show that released on March 25, the director discusses the challenges of impressing a newer set of audiences in the OTT space.
The widespread acclaim for LB Sriram’s portrayal of Anji (in the place of Gundu Hanumantha Rao) must have been a relief…
Indeed! The biggest challenge about finding a new Anji was not only about casting an actor who would be accepted by everyone, but also an actor who could bring his own brand of innocence and stupidity. It was a very long process and we had finalised LB Sriram only a month before going to shoot. He was very excited about it because it has been a long time since a filmmaker has offered him something in the comedy space. He jokingly told that he was tired of being cast in roles where the character or his beloved were always destined to die. The energy that he brought to the role was great for us.
As a director, was your idea to retain the original flavour of Amrutham or give it a new twist (or perhaps do a bit of both)?
We wanted to keep the storytelling similar and didn’t want to fiddle with the structure of the episodes. I was clear about giving Amrutham a visual fillip and match its execution with today’s filmmaking standards. We can’t obviously do it the same way a serial was shot in 2001-02. To put it simply, the first bunch of the original Amrutham was shot on a Betacam and not digital video. However, we are shooting with Red Dragon and Helium cameras that are capable of going up to 8K. Our audience has subconsciously/consciously been exposed to a visual style with the vast variety of content they’ve been exposed to. While we didn’t want to tinker with the screenplay structure of the original, we were sure about upgrading the look of Amrutham in its second season – the way we frame the sequences, use colours and tools of filmmaking.
The biggest USP of Amrutham back then was its clean humour with an uncanny innocence and simplicity, that made it universal to all age groups. Was it tough to create a similar effect this time around?
Luckily, my father carried the major burden of writing it. I had to do my part in updating the show with its cultural context while not compromising on its simplicity. For instance, the second episode of the original Amrutham was all about the installation of a landline phone – it’s not something many would relate to now while a handful of them may feel slightly nostalgic about it. The middle class-ness in the previous setting may have been charming, but it’s important to acknowledge that the world has moved on from there. The characters have however remained as grounded, simplistic and stupid as ever. However, instead of them starting a garden restaurant in someone’s house, they now launch a drive-in now. The flavour is the same but the story is happening in today’s age. It’s not a period film after all.
What was your way of stepping into the Amrutham universe as a director? Did you re-watch the 300-odd episodes of the original to understand its vibe all over again?
While I kept watching a few episodes of the original every now and then over the years (when there was no intention for a second season), my focus was on the early episodes and character-introduction sequences this time around. Because I had directed the last bunch of episodes for Amrutham back then (which marked my foray in direction), it was easy stepping into the zone. We were conscious of the fact that at least an episode and a half would go in introducing the characters to the audiences of the second season. It was important to fill in the gaps and discuss the whereabouts of the characters these 10 years and provide a basis to their new venture.
The introduction sequences in the second season too exude a similar flavour a.l.a the original and it was intentional. Anji’s alarm ticks along on a smartphone instead of a clock while his wife is insisting he better get ready for work. Amrutham enters through a gate in the original on the bike, while he sneaks into Anji’s house secretly this time around. It was a cheeky recreation for the fans of Amrutham to enjoy.
Be it Shivanarayan, Vasu Inturi, Raagini or Harshavardhan – the cast for the second season has more or less remained the same as the original. Did you want these actors to approach the characters any differently?
Frankly, I didn’t have to do a lot. The major amount of time that I spent for the first four episodes was with LB Sriram garu. The other actors had done this for so long that the characters live inside them now. The changes were very minor – like how I would want an actor to tweak the performance by a note, be it underplaying or exaggerating it. I never had to explain much to the actors though. Harsha (Vardhan) is a writer himself, had directed a few episodes of Amrutham before he became the title character. Vasu (Inturi) has played an active role as a writer ever since the inception of Amrutham. More than anyone else, I never had to even communicate what Shivaranarayan garu had to do as Appaji. My direction team was very excited to have him on the sets – he’s so effortless and is great at improvising his lines and surprising the director.
From 2007 to 2020, the tastes of audiences, what they perceive as humour and what they don’t, have considerably changed. Did Amrutham Dhvitheeyam had to undergo (m)any changes on that front?
I sincerely believe Amrutham’s humour should remain what it has always been. Just because Jabardasth is a successful show, you can’t try to incorporate that brand of humour into Amrutham. Say, on a day when I am not in a great mood or am bored, I’ll still randomly fire up a Jandhyala film. You may be watching the film after 40 years but you’ll still fall out of the chair laughing. My six-year-old daughter is a big fan of Chantabbai. I would have played it for her once and I come home to see her rolling on the floor every time she sees it – and mind you, she has very little idea of who Chiranjeevi or a Jandhyala is. You can’t exactly replicate what Amrutham did many years ago but your tone of storytelling must remain the same. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been spared by Amrutham’s loyal fans by now.
How is it like to have a writer like your dad? What were his inputs for the second instalment?
My dad is probably the worst taskmaster you could get, especially while you are filming Amrutham. It’s so close to his heart. He’s very particular that no one even alters the script of the episodes by a single word. Even when it boils down to the final edit and he comes to know of any minor changes we would have made to a particular scene because of practical problems – because of an actor, location issues or minor compromises – we will still not be spared (laughs). It’s hard to satisfy him. There was no need for an input actually, his script pays great attention to detail and I and my team had to bring it alive visually no matter what.
Though the process may be hard on you sometimes while associating with a taskmaster, the better part is the fact that the quality isn’t compromised at all…
Exactly! Having someone like him can be so freeing and restrictive at the same time. It’s restrictive because I have to play within those lines. It frees me up because the script has it all – I needn’t try too hard, crack anything or find an extraordinary formula to shoot it. Just following the script (like a holy grail) would be enough.
Was the television-OTT shift challenging for a sit-com like Amrutham? Was the process any/more collaborative in the digital medium?
The advantage of Amrutham back in the day was the fact that its significant audience was youngsters and wasn’t catered to the homemaker demographic. Luckily, even with the OTTs, the target group of audience is relatively the same. We may have lost out on the family audiences of Amrutham but the younger lot still was a majority of an OTT-show audience. Zee5’s major help came in from its regional creative head, Nimmakayala Prasad, who has truly been a confidence booster.
It was 2007 that we had aired Amrutham last and people have been asking us to re-start the show ever since. Creatively, the writers were drained out and the second season was the last thing on our minds. Prasad was clear about the fact that he wouldn’t take no for an answer (about the second season) and gave us a freehand in its making. That’s when we thought of airing one episode every two weeks – to give enough time for writing the episodes as well. The project was designed as per the creative needs of my father. The trust the brand (Zee5) has placed in us has been immense. Our rapport with Gemini TV was more like a one-way conversation than a dialogue. Here it is a true partnership – Prasad continues to be there to guide me at every possible step. If not for Zee5 or him, Amrutham Dhvitheeyam wouldn’t have happened.