LetsConnect: Director Praveen Sattaru on 11th Hour

Srivathsan Nadadhur -

LetsConnect: Director Praveen Sattaru on 11th Hour

A steep lane in Banjara Hills, some distance away from the bustling roads that the area is notorious for, leads to the office of filmmaker Praveen Sattaru. Located amid a sea of independent houses, there’s a sudden spurt of activity in the colourful workspace on a weekday morning. The walls indicate the breakneck pace at which he’s working – the busy glass boards are filled with details of his scripts, character arcs, shoot schedules, deadlines and meetings. Yet as you make a move towards his cabin, the filmmaker appears insulated from all the professional chaos.

Irrespective of success or failure, a remarkable feature in Praveen Sattaru’s decade-long career has been the trueness of his creative vision. He makes films at his own pace, hasn’t bowed down to stars or commercial diktats and has consistently strived to reinvent himself as a storyteller – some of these have also proved to be his undoing. A star-crazy, success-driven Telugu film industry took its time to discover the potential of the five-film old filmmaker, who has switched between genres effortlessly. As he makes his web series debut with the Tamannaah-starrer 11th Hour, a corporate drama on Aha, Praveen Sattaru tells LetsOTT.com why the switch to a new medium has been a catharsis of sorts.

Chandamama Kathalu, only your third feature film, went onto win the National Award. Did you see it as a validation of your credentials? Did the win lead to any stereotypes about you in the film industry?

I didn’t let that happen. Right when Chandamama Kathalu won a National Award, I made Guntur Talkies, an adult comedy. It’s the last film one expects from an award-winning filmmaker. I wanted to break the stereotype that such filmmakers only make arthouse films. Guntur Talkies was a film born out of my state of mind. I and (actor, writer) Siddhu Jonnalagadda were a frustrated lot, driving around the city when we conceived the idea.

The National Award, however, came at the right moment, like a message when I was close to giving up on my dream. It was a reminder that I probably had something in me; it boosted my confidence and helped me move forward. I still don’t wear the award on my sleeve or call myself a National Award-winning filmmaker. Partly because, when I look back at Chandamama Kathalu now, I think I should’ve done better. Going forward, hopefully, you’ll see maturity in my point of view, writing and direction.

Most of your films – LBW, Routine Love Story, Chandamama Kathalu or even PSV Garudavega – aren’t the usual run-of-the-mill fares and are strong character-driven stories. In that sense, did the web-series transition happen to you quite easily?

No, this took time, but it was a breath of fresh air. I felt I could express myself through my characters and even offer more freedom for actors in their performances. Web content provides the right scope for actors to perform. Great cinematography, lavishness in the storytelling may be essential to the craft but at the heart of it, it’s performances that get the viewers involved in a story. A story serves its purpose in the web space only if it commands the attention of the audiences.

Commercial cinema does not work on any streaming platform for the same reason. Web shows must grow on audiences because of the characters and not let the actor dominate them. I was happy that I could linger on the camera a little bit and avoid creative compromises. Yet, this is not to suggest that web shows are free from limitations – be it the budgets or the chain of people sitting and judging your content, it’s a part and parcel of the game.

Despite most of your films being character-driven, the feature film format limits the detailing of the characters to a certain extent. Did you enjoy that deep dive into your characters with your web show?

That’s the advantage of this show. It has been written by the producer himself (Pradeep), adapted from a novel, 8 Hours. Many parts of the book were changed in his version and when he brought the script to me, it was almost ready and had the right beginning, middle and ending for every episode. However, the challenge was writing it in Telugu. The words in English are easier to express and very specific for a particular context. Those English words sound very generic when translated in Telugu and often extend to many sentences.

We wanted to keep the dialogues to a bare minimum and let the visuals, expressions communicate to the audience. Say, instead of a dialogue like ‘I don’t want to do this’, you can simply stare at a person and walk away – a web series gives that liberty. The medium challenges the actor to perform, emote and also trusts the audiences to get the gist of a scene.

11th Hour is a metaphoric title in one sense. The decisions taken in the eleventh hour have the potential to be career-changing ones. What’s your most significant eleventh-hour decision?

To leave my job in the US and decide to make a career in films. It was an instinctive decision. I know for a fact that many people in the US want to come back to India. A lot of my friends and colleagues want to return but they never take that leap of faith and tend to think a lot. When you start thinking too much, calculations come in the way, so does your family. Everybody looks at their life in terms of financial stability and that’s why they never dare to leave their current position worrying that an alternative career may not work for them. Drastic decisions are always made in the 11th hour – it’s another fact that they may make or break your career.

Since times immemorial, Telugu shows/films have portrayed businesswomen in a vamp-like avatar with no sense of character-arc who are eventually tamed by the guy. What does 11th Hour do to change that perception?

It’s high time we portray women who’re powerful and equally vulnerable. When the series came to me and I was having initial discussions with Aha and Pradeep, I made it clear to them that the lead character is not a superwoman from the beginning and in fact, becomes one in the last frame. I saw her as a vulnerable woman who’s taken for granted, fighting her way through every roadblock or odd to achieve something that would’ve been very difficult for a man too.

I wanted to portray her struggles and still showcase her grit. You’ll fall in love with Aratrika Reddy in the series – she isn’t the typical headstrong boss dishing out orders. She’s a mother who reads a story to put her son to sleep, a daughter who’s struggling to win the approval of her father and a boss of a company stuck amid a financial crisis. Only a woman has the strength to bear that weight, multitask and when such a character emerges victorious, you will root for her.

11th Hour is the first project that you haven’t written but directed. How did the collaboration with the writer (Pradeep) come into being?

Fortunately, it was fun working with Pradeep. We think on similar lines as individuals, share similar sensibilities and react to a situation identically – it’s a liberty that I didn’t have to explain anything to him. It made life much easier and was a great creative collaboration. For the first time, I was working with a writer in a stress-free environment. We only had to rack our brains to translate the script in Telugu.

Thankfully, the web format enables liberal use of English. Moreover, with 11th Hour, you don’t want to have Arabs or Americans talking in Telugu. Language is also an important factor that defines the identity of the character – it adds authenticity to the setting. It was a creative call to let characters stay true to their identity and we’re glad that the platform respected the decision (when it would’ve been easy to say no with the excuse of ‘reach’). There’s maturity in the writing of 11th Hour and I believe I’ve grown as a filmmaker through the show. It’s distinct from anything I’ve done in the past.

You’re finally working with stars – Tamannaah in 11th Hour, Nagarjuna Akkineni for your next film.

I loved working with Tamannaah and we connected right away. I am someone who dives into the script right away. I want my characters to live upto what’s written (in the script). It is important that they are actors first and stars next. Only when you are an actor, you can step into the character and bring it alive – it’s the same process that helps a star grow in stature.

Tamannaah and I discussed the nuances of the character before the shoot and also focused on the pauses. Films don’t provide the luxury of pauses, but if someone enjoys acting, web shows are the perfect space to unleash their potential to the fullest. Tamannaah nailed it as a performer and I loved her screen presence as a viewer. The same goes with Nagarjuna (sir), I’m thoroughly enjoying working with him. He’s indeed an evergreen star.

It’s disappointing that it has taken Tamannaah a decade and a half to get author-backed roles.

Every actor evolves in different settings. This is certainly Tamannaah’s time – she’s achieved a lot, stayed on the top for long and even earned the label as a ‘milky beauty’ (on a lighter note). The stardom has given her all the reach and has given her the freedom to experiment with shows like 11th Hour – something that showcases her strengths, talents. This is one of the most ideal phases of her career – she can afford to choose her roles and has an assured audience who’ll support them.

Are you nervous/happy about the reach you’ll get after working on a project with an A-lister?

As a filmmaker, the biggest advantage of working with stars is the reach. The audiences may love it or hate it eventually, but it’s heartening that so many people will watch it. When you, as a filmmaker, have done everything to make a good product, you ultimately want it to be seen by a huge audience.

10 years in the entertainment industry and you’re only into your sixth project (11th Hour). What keeps you occupied between your projects?

I keep writing. I have a bunch of scripts but I keep building on ideas that come to me and later spend time with my family. I wrote the script of my film with Nagarjuna during the lockdown. I treat this like regular office work – I go to my workplace, write, shoot it and get back home. That’s how I disconnect from the industry, keep myself sane and be rooted.

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