Director Ramesh Raparthi Interview - 'OTT enables creative freedom to storytellers’

Srivathsan Nadadhur -

Director Ramesh Raparthi Interview - 'OTT enables creative freedom to storytellers’

The scenario of two protagonists getting trapped in an elevator is a genre in itself in Hollywood, but in this part of the world, this is an idea that has been mostly been utilised for comic effect and to play up the romance element in the film. And why not? Who can forget the playfulness of Mahesh Babu as he flirts with Ileana as the lift malfunctions in Pokiri? Or the terrific chemistry between Pandiarajan and Khushboo as they spend a night at the office lift in (the Tamil film) Gopala Gopala?

In the form of Ramesh Raparthi, Telugu cinema finally has a filmmaker who promises to give a riveting twist to this genre, with Thank You Brother. Starring Viraj Ashwin, Anasuya Bharadwaj in pivotal roles, Thank You Brother is a story that puts together two polar opposite characters under one roof - a hot-headed, arrogant youngster and a vulnerable pregnant woman and how they need to mend their differences to tide over a crisis. In conversation with, director Ramesh Raparthi tells us what to expect from the film, that released on aha this May 7.

Is the timing of Thank You Brother's release a bitter-sweet moment of sorts? Your film is seeing the light of the day even as the pandemic is wreaking havoc in the nation.

Yes, I do have mixed feelings about it. Our lives and those of the near and dear have a direct/indirect link to the pandemic and on the other end, I can't deny the happiness of my film having a release. This is a film we had shot after the pandemic in 2020 and yet, it's unfortunate that its release has to coincide with the current situation that India is going through. I guess that's what life is about. One must learn to move on, regardless of how hard it is.

What inspired you to enter films?

My life has been intertwined with the film industry from the very beginning. My father Raghava Raparthi has been a prominent makeup artist since the 80s – he has been with actor Venkatesh (garu) from the very first day he’d donned the greasepaint. I was attracted to the profession, more so from a technical perspective. Dad had given me the freedom to pursue my passions and encouraged me that a strong technical understanding of the craft would lay a strong foundation for my career. After pursuing a cinematography course in Chennai, I made a career in the Nigerian film industry and worked at many levels – as a cinematographer and a director – for many TV shows, advertisements, corporate films and features. The industry is very huge.

What’s the biggest takeaway from your experiences as a cinematographer?

The foremost job of a cinematographer is to resonate with the creative vision of the filmmaker and tell the story through his/her eyes. A DoP is the eye of the story. Films are an audio-visual medium, the dialogues must come into play only when the visuals or the sound design can’t communicate your idea. The technical aspects of the craft are crucial to the result. During my stint as a cinematographer, beyond my eye for visuals, I felt I had many stories to tell and that’s when I wanted to become a director.

What’s the most important quality that a filmmaker ought to have?

Though I can’t generalise this answer, I think it’s the ability to understand human beings and life from a psychological perspective. One must be able to look at situations through the other person’s eyes and have the knack for absorbing stories from their immediate surroundings. I like to write/visualise characters that are real, relatable and don’t belong to any La La Land. The technical aspects can be worked on later, but a director needs to get the human element in the storytelling right first.

Pregnancy is often painted as a colourful phase for women in Telugu cinema and the portrayal doesn’t even do lip service to the trauma they may go through on the cusp of motherhood. How does Thank You Brother differ on that count?

I think Telugu cinema has moved on from the phase where we show that the woman is pregnant and the next sequence immediately shifts to the hospital for her delivery. Thank You Brother looks at the trials and tribulations of a pregnant woman in great depth without any cinematic liberties. Audiences are now exposed to films and content from all corners of the world and we need to respect their intelligence. We’ve had several interactions with gynaecologists to get the nuances right.

In Thank You Brother, an indifferent youngster having to give company to a pregnant woman in an elevator sounds like a scary proposition.

That’s precisely our idea too – the film is about the transformation of a heartless, arrogant 20s something man into an empathetic human being over two hours in the lift. It takes a crisis to bring about a change in him. The two characters have nothing in common but they need to hang on to one another to get through a potentially life-threatening situation. Getting the screenplay of a story with the right balance of thrills and emotions was challenging. I hope we got it right, at least from what we heard in the early previews.

The premise sounds like an idea born out of a typical interview question thrown at celebrities – ‘what would you do if you were stuck in a lift with…..?’

It was during the lockdown that I wanted to do a film that could be made with a limited set of actors, locations and crew. The story was initially about the youngster and the pregnant woman in the lift, but we worked it around the COVID-19 situation to add another layer of conflict in the story. I didn’t want to make a regular film with songs, fights and other commercial elements and I was lucky to find a producer who had an eye for offbeat stories.

The unconventional casting of Viraj Ashwin and Anasuya has created an additional element of interest…

I was very clear about not approaching stars for the film. Star presence would mean that the audiences would expect them to do something heroic and this wouldn’t help the story. I happened to notice Viraj Ashwin on a magazine cover in a mall – he looked dapper and apt to play the spoilt brat in the film. I knew he fit the part like a T while he was walking towards me in our very first interaction. I only had two actors in mind to play the pregnant woman – Anasuya and Priyamani. We preferred the former because she speaks Telugu fluently, can understand the character better (being a mother to two kids herself).

A significant part of the film is set amid the elevator. Was there a worry that would make the film visually repetitive/redundant?

Not quite. Luckily, the cinematographer for the film, Suresh Ragutu, thinks a lot like me. He would do everything to contribute to the detailing, elevate the impact of the visuals but also doesn’t overstate the obvious. We had to create a lift set for the film and Suresh did everything to add authenticity to the setting. Once you watch the film, you’ll realise the performances are enough to keep you hooked to the proceedings.

After all, from what you say, an OTT release only seems fitting for the film. There’s no better medium for solid content to get its due.

We had a similar opinion for some time but certain big names from the industry were curious to watch the film after the trailer release. After the screening, they opined it had all the ingredients to provide a fulfilling theatrical viewing experience and we immediately had distributors who expressed interest in releasing it. The second wave of the pandemic hit us hard and here we are going with an OTT release. It wouldn’t have been practical for a small-budget film like ours to have waited any longer for our turn at the theatres.

Would you be switching between your roles as a director and a cinematographer for your upcoming films?

I won’t deny that I prefer the director’s chair more currently. The cinematographer in me will always come in handy, enrich my films and lend a cutting edge to my craft. I believe my strength lies in making slick thrillers and dramas that provide an adrenaline rush. I want to make smartly packaged films under compact budgets rather than big-budget extravaganzas. I want to surprise audiences with novel plots. The tide is changing, audiences now want more realism and are tired of song routines in international locations. They see foreign locales across YouTube videos, travel extensively across the globe and read travel blogs now – they no longer need films to do the same. Besides films, I would also want to do more OTT content and enjoy the liberty of telling stories with enough creative freedom.

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