It is the most prestigious time to be a technician in Indian television made for the internet. Some of the best shows that we are consuming online today are bolstered by fantastic showrunners, writers, cinematographers, producers and musicians, who are not only responsible for the change and variety in genres and content style, but also the vast improvement in how TV looks so good with the right lighting and contrast, and impeccable production design.
Chadarangam, Zee5’s recent Telugu offering, is not only a welcome addition to the political thriller roster of web shows but is testament to how technique in both writing and visuals plays a key role in bringing out the raw and gritty reality of its intriguing world. Inspired by true events in the life of cultural icon and political leader NTR Sr but set in 2016 Andhra Pradesh, Chadarangam is bold in concept and look, but is still a human story told with a mass-y aesthetic. We spoke to the show’s creator-writer Raj Anantha (RA)and cinematographer Runal Hattimattur (RH) about the origin and notoriety of the concept, and how their collaborative approach helped bring the human and inhuman side of politics to the fore.
Q. Where did the idea for a re-telling of NTR Sr.’s life come from?
RA: I always wanted to be a filmmaker and such story ideas have been germinating in my mind ever since I was exposed to cinema and television from a young age. When I started creating Chadarangam, it came out as a series on paper. In the ‘90s and early 00s, I would watch American political thrillers and crime dramas like The Sopranos, and elements of that ingrained into my psyche. I find it fascinating that in a series, I can pick the story and then spend a considerable period of time defining characters, adding layers, creating more sub-plots and providing a more wholesome definition to my idea. There are multiple arcs and acts and they should all come together seamlessly. Chadarangam has so many elements, only a Web Series show can do justice to that. And NTR’s life was just a base for it.
Q. What makes NTR Sr. such an intriguing figure to make him that starting point?
RA: He’s always been interesting. And there have been attempts to showcase his story in the past. The whole intention was to ‘bring NTR to the smartphone generation.’ During his political heydays, a lot of what I have taken the liberty to show didn’t actually happen. I think the USP of the show is to take an existing story and place it into a different timeline - one with a different political climate, and with more forms of media and communication like internet etc. at its disposal. What I really had before I started was one interesting character, many entities who made his story more intriguing. Everything else was built around it keeping the reality of politics in our mind. The idea is to strike a balance, where nothing looks unrealistic, but it is still entertaining from a fictional perspective.
Q. Interesting that you mention ‘existing story’ but ‘fictional perspective.’ Many real-life people and events, the reality of now divided Andhra Pradesh, have been eliminated from the script entirely...
RA: I understand where that concern comes from, and it can warrant criticism. From my perspective, I have understood NTR and his politics to a certain extent. To put someone with his character choc-a-block in the middle of what is happening in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, not to mention the division of the two states, would make little sense. We have made this show for the united states of Andhra Pradesh.
It’s not self-censorship. At the end of the day, this is a political story and even the smallest thing can hurt the sentiments of any individual or group. I have only borrowed elements from politics as the story is really about this one individual, and now it is up to the viewer to attain perspective. By adding many members from the current ruling party, the intensity of the main story will get watered down and the narrative will become confusing.
Having said that, I needn’t self-censor when platforms will be soon doing it themselves. The govt. has given OTT platforms just a few weeks to finalise on a code of conduct. It seems even here, ‘winter is coming.’
Q. And what about censorship when it comes to showing taboo topics. Your characters have a real dark side to them...
RA: I think the reason why my show has struck a chord is that it’s clean. I have complete confidence that I could release Chadarangam through any medium and there would be no questioning. Even the so-called taboo themes covered like the consumption of narcotics is done in a way where the repercussions of such an act are emotionally and physically affecting the character and that is a part of the story. Her pain and her symptoms are shown with sensitivity and nuance.
Q. At one end, it feels real and then at the other, the treatment also embraces histrionics. A ‘masala’ element, if you will.
RA: The kind of films I like and the kind of treatment that was expected, is a bit different. So that’s where it’s imperative to strike a balance. There is a mass appeal to Chadarangam - the music has a high crescendo, the characters are loud and the dialogues are written to evoke extreme reactions. Of course, this is keeping in mind the sensibility of the language’s audience. But if you compare it to an average Telugu film, it’s far more subtle. It’s not raw but will still feel real.
Q. What was the kind of visual texture you were going for? Was it clear before you started shooting?
RH: Raj is a very visual director. I guess it helps because he has been a cinematographer himself. He knew that the visual texture of the show will be very simple and was really thorough in explaining exactly what he wanted. Of course, it was really easy to collaborate on Chadarangam because we both speak to each other in technical terms all the time, so that helps in being really precise. But if you take the familiarity-of-skill element out of it, I think it’s all about preparation. Raj’s preparation is that when we started discussing the show, we didn’t just discuss key scenes or tone, we discussed plot points that affect the narrative, how characters’ motives change, what is the intent behind what the scene is conveying.
Q. So, no conflicts on set then?
RA: We’ve known each before this project. Runal’s sensibility matches mine and we are great at communicating our thoughts to each other.
RH: We’ve had debates. It’s not like we always agree. But at the end of the day, the project is his baby and I’m just here to execute an element. But if there was ever the situation where we don’t agree, we would just talk it out.
RA: Let’s be honest, a lot of changes happen between pre-production to shooting. The two of us are like two oxen pulling the same cart. If one goes the other way, the cart will not move and everything falls apart. This is my understanding of cinematography and direction. Runal challenges me and I’ve gone with his instinct a lot. We oxen need to stay together.
RH: I guess his biggest strength is the clarity in his vision.
RA: And his is clarity of perception.
Q. But Runal, you’ve really shown an array of techniques with the look of the show.
RH: The basic rule is to look at the scale and secrecy of the scene. How much do I want to reveal, and how many people am I connecting to? Conversational scenes are handled with nuance but rally scenes are more lavish and rich. I’ve also tried to understand where the scene comes in in the story flow and the intensity of the scene is what determined ratio, exposure, and lighting.
Lighting is my biggest tool in extracting drama and grunge from any scene. I have a background in theatre. When I was studying engineering, I would write for the theatre on the side and on stage, it would be the most fascinating thing for me to observe how lighting set the mood for the scene. It made me wonder how can I adapt that skill to filmmaking when I started studying cinematography later. It’s really this kind of writing that lets me play with that interest, a human drama with so many twists and transitions.
Q. What are your stylistic inspirations in your craft?
RH: I am deeply influenced by the technique of ‘chiaroscuro,’ which was the art of using light and dark contrasts by Renaissance painters to affect the mood and feel of the composition. I use a lot of painting traditions in my visual aesthetic. There are so many great cinematographers working in India and abroad these days. Perhaps some of what I watch around me gets mixed with my own training.
RA: I wouldn’t say that any specific film or filmmaker has been an inspiration. But I have been influenced mostly by the people around me and how they interact. Of course, it is easy to draw parallels from existing Indian neo-noir films but you will not see any direct influences. I love films like Kshana Kshanam and Money by Ram Gopal Varma and international filmmakers like the style of Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese. But those are just my personal favourites.
Q. OTT platforms are changing the way we produce and consume entertainment. What has Zee5’s role been in elevating Chadarangam and bringing it to the right audience?
RA: OTT has changed the game completely. But this is especially significant for regional entertainment. If I have to talk about in transitional terms, Telugu films specifically have always been divided into very big productions and small films. Over the last few years, the saleability of the small film has diminished significantly. Some great conceptual work hasn’t even seen a release, if not a proper one, even if we knew that it would have an audience. That’s the harsh truth that we have been dealing with.
With all these streaming platforms, suddenly production companies have been re-installed with confidence to back up unique ideas. But if as a maker, I don’t have access to these companies, I can go to the platform directly. For instance, my idea for this show was initially pitched to Zee5. They were so impressed that they not only commissioned the show but even helped me find the right producers - the right ones, who would understand the material. And they helped all the technicians, such as Runal, on board.
Movies are still easier to make. Even with a unique story idea, I can add some formulaic elements that will help my movie recover its cost. But for a web series, good execution and originality are all we have to work with.