Karuna Kumar Interview: A voice of the voiceless
Karuna Kumar is a storyteller whose heart lies in the rural belt of the Telugu states. When you watch his debut film Palasa 1978, he introduces you to the place with fondness through a song ‘Palasa maa ooru’ and consolidates on that vibe with a charm and a rawness that Telugu cinema has always diluted in the name of sophistication. He becomes the voice of the oppressed – neither glorifying nor painting a sorry picture of their lives, but rather reflects upon it with a social charge. He has strong opinions about the political system and is rather unabashed in conveying his thoughts through the visual medium. Palasa 1978 made a mark at the box office during its brief theatrical run and is continuing to earn applause on the digital medium. LetsOTT.com offers you an insight into his craft in his chat...
Naming a film after a particular region (Palasa) gives you an added responsibility of representing its quirks and distinctness right. What made you choose the backdrop for a story about suppression?
Discrimination, regardless of the region, exists in various forms. It has existed ever since the human race came into being. The exposure to incidents of discrimination has been wider in the last few years due to the focus that media has given it, but it’s something that I grew up observing. That’s when I penned a fictional story around caste-based discrimination. Though certain histrionics and behaviour of the characters had a few real-life references, the story was completely fictional. I knew that the film could be told in the backdrop of any region, but I felt Telugu cinema hasn’t had many stories told amid a village setup lately.
Even though films are set in places like Vijayawada, Rayalaseema or Visakhapatnam, it’s been long since our stories had a strong regional identity (unlike Hindi or Malayalam cinema). Karamchedu or any village in Rayalaseema were my initial choices, but I thought it would a better idea to base my story in a place (Palasa) I grew up amidst. Frankly, I didn’t expect this to be my first film and thought to choose a relatively lightweight subject to begin my career. I wanted to give the producer enough confidence to back a film like Palasa 1978 later. But Tammareddy Bharadwaj garu and my producer after listening to the story felt it was worth the risk to take up this project first.
How was the response to the film at Palasa (who would have essentially been the toughest audience to please)?
It was a house full show at Palasa even the night before the lockdown was announced. The reception was unanimous, people from many towns nearby had come to the theatres to watch it. Many ‘shavukars’ in Palasa had gone onto appreciate it too. The people could relate to it because they were witness to similar instances of rowdy-ism, violence committed in the name of power greed. The realistic exterior to a fictional setting worked well with them. The lockdown had come just when the film was picking up in many nearby districts. Nevertheless, the OTT release of the film too has ensured a wave of positive responses.
Why do you think caste-politics is a rarely explored subject in Telugu cinema, unlike Tamil and Malayalam films where stories naturally take a political tone?
This comes from our very notion of not trying to displease any section of the society and sugarcoat an issue with pointless fights, item songs. For instance, CBFC had ordered 25 cuts for the movie, forced us to take an adult certificate and even advised us to avoid the name of a character completely in the film. We don’t give the respect that an art form deserves and authorities like the CBFC here aren’t as open-minded in the other regions. The industry has tried to play by the success formula, perceiving this is what the audience wants. Thankfully, the situation has been changing lately and a new wave of films like Pelli Choopulu, Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, Rangasthalam, C/O Kancharapalem have validated the same.
When it comes to star films, there are certain limitations around which the director has to tell the story. A rookie like me doing a film entirely with newcomers and the audience subsequently accepting it should hopefully give a voice to many new-age storytellers. However, I’m particular that I tell my story in a rural setting, be it a thriller, love story or a dark comedy. It’s an opportunity for a viewer to experience life in a new region, relieving them from the monotony of seeing Tankbund, Charminar, Necklace Road and the many malls in a city time and again.
Barring a few actors, Palasa 1978 features a host of promising newcomers. Did you choose them so that they wouldn’t intrude into your creative freedom?
The main reason behind choosing newcomers is to have a team that could spend at least 35-40 days with me for the shoot. This may not have been possible with established actors – both in terms of time and expenses. It wasn’t easy to work with a new crop of actors though, we had to organise several workshops before we went to set. It’s an added advantage that they remain focused always. Choosing theatre artists was of great help because they could memorise lengthy dialogues without much difficulty.
Composer Raghu Kunche’s being cast in the role of ‘Chinna Shavukar’ was unconventional and impactful at the same time…
I had enacted and showed him how the character is expected to behave and also gave him the freedom to improvise it. However, I was particular about his tone – I didn’t want any element of exaggeration. I had chosen him for the shock effect he could create and catch the audience off guard. The actor who played ‘pedda shavukar’ is an industrialist in real life. Similarly, I had cast Jabardasth Trinadh, a regular comedian in the role of a lawyer. These casting decisions brought a newness to the film – it’s a case of anti-stereotyping.
Your visual imagery was one of your greatest strengths in Palasa 1978. The way you used a piece of stone, a dog and even a fish to represent the deeper layers in your story stays with a viewer long after the film…
Thank you! I thought these elements could add another interesting layer to the storytelling. The ‘Bairagi rock’ was a device to make Mohan Rao realise his worth. The brother asks him ‘When you could lift a rock named after him, why can’t you uproot the man himself?’ It was a dialogue through which I wanted to convey the importance of power for survival and that it’s high time that Mohan Rao reflects it in the form of his actions. Another dialogue ‘Balamunnodiki kulamundadhu’ (A powerful man has no caste) too suggests something similar – it doesn’t matter if a rich person or a highly educated man or an IAS/IPS officer or anyone in a powerful position is Dalit or not. The visual references of a fish fighting for its life in the scene leading to the ‘shavukar’s’ murder, the sequence where the shavukars’ equate the status of a pet dog to a Dalit, extend that thought. In terms of the narrative, Citizen Kane was a film that also inspired me. Mohan Rao’s various phases in lives are narrated by three different persons, it helped show three different facets of a person – his love life, crime-life and the phase of transformation.
Mohan Rao and Sebastian are two characters who belong to a backward community, choose contrasting paths in life to deal with casteism and yet prove unsuccessful. It’s just that Mohan Rao took the rogue-route and Sebastian opted for a righteous path. The results, however, are the same…
Sebastian was someone who hoped for the upliftment of his community by choosing a righteous path and becoming a police officer but couldn’t succeed owing to the limitations within the system and the vicious battle with those in power. Only when someone from a backward community is given an opportunity and a position to usher in change, there shall be a balance in the society. This is a rarity even today. Neither Mohan Rao nor Sebastian could get to the place they had desired to. Chinna Shavukar refers to cops as ‘belt unna kukkalu’ (dogs that wear a belt) as he continues to retain power. Even as we speak, many atrocities are being committed in the name of caste. Mohan Rao’s transformation by the end of the film is a sign of hope. He’s an indication that equality is a genuine hope in the 100 years to come. The fight shall continue till then.
Mohan Rao was essentially a singer and sways away from his path only when he forgets he’s a musician. Couldn’t music have become a tool for his protest?
I didn’t view it that way. Music is something that runs within their blood, a legacy that has been passed over to them across generations. However, it’s also a tradition that went onto be ridiculed and subsequently destroyed in the era of globalisation. There are thousands of legendary folk artistes within the country who’ve been left penniless and had to resort to begging for survival. A goldsmith or a barber or even a tailor has little or no identity today because of the so-called market. A darji in a village is non-existent today. If given a chance, I could probably make a sequel to Palasa… where Mohan Rao uses music as a tool to create awareness and becomes a leader of the masses.
The conflict in the film builds when a woman is insulted by the son of the Shavukar…
An attack on the dignity of a woman is a cause of every notable revolution and here I blended the issue to also discuss the atrocities committed on Dalits. That’s the reason Ranga Rao says, ‘We’re (Dalits) good enough to sleep with you but not to enter your houses’. It’s a dialogue that sums up the film’s essence in a single line.
The final act of the film that reflects the transformation of Mohan Rao looked like a job done in a hurry…
I agree with the fact that the transformation of the protagonist was rather hurried. It would have been nicer if the film was made in two parts – just like Gangs of Wasseypur. The first part should have ideally ended with the sound of Sebastian’s gunshot as he arrests Mohan Rao. The second part could have been about Mohan Rao coming-of-age and his quest for an identity. The film would have been more effective across four hours but I still have no regrets of telling the story in 130 minutes.
Did the current political climate (where the suppression of voices is rather apparent) influence the timing of the film?
We had finished the scripting of the film when something like Asuran didn’t even get made. I wanted to capture the beauty of a small-town and was inspired by the many rustic narratives in Hindi films. Sometimes, a story runs within you for years and it erupts someday and that’s when you’re compelled to tell it. The beauty of the issue that the film deals with, will remain universal and be relevant in any timeline – be it the 70s or the 2010s. Technology may have changed, newer borders may have emerged, EVMs have come into existence, but the core of India has barely changed over the 70 years since Independence. The Indian political system still thrives with the idea of suppression of a particular sect. Madras, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumaal have been other examples conveying a similar idea in a different context.
Why didn’t you choose a story set in the current timeline then? Why only 1978?
I wanted to tell a story that spans across four decades (anything more than that wouldn’t have been possible). I chose 1978 because I am a 70s born kid. By the mid-80s, I could completely comprehend what’s going around me and I left my town by 1990. There were a lot of experiences that shaped my life till then and I wanted to capture the atmosphere around me – the political situations, the kind of dresses we wore, the conversations we had. The story is about a youngster at 20 and ends when he’s in his 60s – there’s a varied graph to a character when he experiences life in its entirety. It’s also important that there’s authenticity in representing a particular timeline on the screen. The joke is that storytellers these days barely know the era they portray – there’s a great misrepresentation of the 70s with the bell-bottom pants, shirts with huge collars. This was a trend that ended by 1972. The least a filmmaker could do is to watch the films made in the particular year he/she wants to represent.
What did you learn from your struggles within the industry?
I decided to enter the industry in 2016, completed the pre-production of my first film by 2018 and started my film by 2019. I thankfully didn’t face much rejection and I was very clear on whom to meet in the industry and what I had to discuss with them. I owned a travel agency before, have been a ghost-writer for many films, many didn’t pay me or lift my calls – these were more of life lessons that made me more aware and knew how I had to treat the people around me. A major production house has already given me an advance to direct a film for them. Struggle and insults are inevitable before any success.
You’ve made your first film at an age (44) when most filmmakers reach a peak in their careers. However, was it an advantage by any means?
A bulk of filmmakers today finish their graduation, grab some knowledge about the technicalities of filmmaking and think they’re ready to make a film. Many of them either keep telling the same story again or remain one film wonders. Making a film in your 40s gives you a matured outlook of the craft and a story and you’re enriched with many life-experiences. Being an avid reader was of great help. A novel introduces you to 10 characters and their lives, it’s like living their lives through the book. The more you read, the more lives that you experience. Paakudu Rallu, Neela, Saptabhumi, Veyi Padagalu have been great influences and brought more clarity to my craft. I have 14 scripts ready already, which should hopefully keep me busy for the next two decades.