1-Nenokkadine, directed by Sukumar, is still one of the most talked about films in Mahesh Babu’s career. At the time of the film’s release in 2014, the reaction towards the film was anything but positive; however, over the years, a lot more people have warmed up to it. In an exclusive interview with Hemanth Kumar C R, Sukumar spoke in length about the making of the film, how he writes his scripts, and working with Mahesh Babu. This interview was originally published on January 20, 2014 and it is being republished on this blog.
Mahesh Babu, Kriti Sanon starrer 1-Nenokkadine is easily one of the most talked about films in recent few months. Reactions, from the audience and critics, to the film have been extreme, right from the day of its release. While a large section has criticised the film for being complex, there’s another chunk of audience who believe that it’s one of the best films they have seen in a long time. Amidst all this, Sukumar, the director of the film, is under the spotlight for various reasons. Some have called him a genius, whereas others continue to argue that he lost a golden opportunity to make a gripping film. The following conversation isn’t about why the film has opened to mixed reactions or about its box-office prospects, but if you one among those who liked the film for what it is, Sukumar explains his way of writing, making of 1-Nenokkadine, working with Mahesh Babu and a lot more. Read on…
There is a general perception that a film has to be simple and easy to understand; however, you seem to have had very high expectations from people when one goes through your filmography so far. And it’s all the more apparent in your latest film 1-Nenokkadine. So, on a scale of 1-10, how crazy are you to take such a decision? Or would you call it innocence?
It’s not about having high expectations from people, I never underestimate the audience. There’s nothing more to it. For that matter, every director or writer tries to match his (or her) frequency with that of the audience. Everyone strives to achieve that. You feel that you have achieved it, but sometimes it may not work. When I made Arya, there is a scene where the hero smashes every object around him without hitting the goons and a lot of people thought that it might not work. But, then everyone liked it when they saw the film in theatres. Even in 1-Nenokkadine’s case, I don’t think I underestimated the audience. Filmmakers might go wrong, but the audience is always right.
What is the origin of the story?
The basis of the story was an idea about a kid, whose parents are killed right in front of his eyes, and what happens to him when everyone bluffs him that it never happened. I wanted to explore what sort of emotions that kid would grow up with and how he deals with it. And then we chanced upon the concept of psychological disorder.
After watching the film, a lot of people, especially those who liked the film, were curious to know what did you narrate to Mahesh Babu when you met him for the first time?
I’ve never tried to narrate a single line to anyone so far to get an approval. I try to make it a point to narrate the entire story. I think I narrated the entire first half when I met him for the first time. And then I narrated the whole story the next time I met him.
Take us through your writing process? What was your approach like while writing the script?
There are no boundaries to the creative process. Sometimes a bunch of scenes are enough to write the entire story and at times, even a single line will inspire you to write the script. Sometimes it’s just a character which drives the entire story forward. I love taking up challenges while writing a script. I don’t know how a story is going to unfold when I start writing. I think I have found the knack of getting the scenic order right. In the case of 1-Nenokkadine, the initial scenic order is exactly what you saw on screen — showing a younger Gautam running in the forest and then suddenly, the scene shifts to the present where you find Mahesh Babu waking up in the middle of the night all of a sudden. Once Kriti Sanon asks the doctor if such people, whom Mahesh Babu has been hallucinating about, really exist, my challenge is to introduce those characters at that point of time in the story. I began to think about what I can do next after that. That’s my process of writing.
I think I wrote 25 versions for this film. When I chanced upon the idea of the rhyme, it was a challenge to decide where to include that scene because it could have been anywhere. We gave it a lot of thought and then decided to include it in the end. It’s interesting, because till that point one would tend to believe that the hero has absolutely no way of finding his past. After the villain dies, there’s no one to tell him about his past. It’s just the plain instinct of the hero which drives the hero to recollect his past in the end.
Are you in control of the characters or do you let them take a life of their own when you write a script?
Be it scenes or characters, you know it while writing the script if they are overstaying their welcome. I believe that more than the actual duration of the film, it’s more important to understand how they impact you on a psychological level. Take a film like “Once upon a time in America” for example. It’s more than 3.5 hours long and the Director’s Cut is almost 4.5 hours long, yet you watch the film with great interest. As long as you can make the audience sit and watch the film, the duration of the film shouldn’t matter. While writing the script of 1-Nenokkadine, there were times where I had a hunch that I was going beyond what was necessary. For example, I had to include the yacht scene first because it has a connection to another scene where Mahesh Babu saves Kriti. Ideally, it would have been sufficient to narrate just the shack scene and the carnival scene, but I would have missed the link had I not opened that sequence in the yacht. It’s a choice which I had to make.
The opening shot of the film has Gautam running away from a few people and then it cuts to another scene, 20 years later, where Mahesh Babu wakes up. And almost immediately, he’s singing a song and then he ends up chasing Kelly Dorjee. There’s so much happening in the first 15 minutes. It seems a tad too fast and doesn’t give the audience enough time to let everything sink in. Did you consider giving it a context before setting up the story?
I wanted to give the narration a different spin. If I had given a context and took some time to show more about Gautam’s past and what’s his daily routine like after he becomes a rockstar, then maybe it would have been quite mundane. I think it’s this sort of screenplay which is the differentiating factor about this film and people who liked it are watching it again for this reason. Take any well made thriller, you would want to see it again and again because you find a connection or a clue which you might have been searching for. I felt that this film had some of those elements. I’m not saying that it’s the best film ever made, but despite knowing the twist or the suspense, there’s something in it which makes you want to watch it again.
Apart from the screenplay, was there anything else that you wanted to do differently while making the film?
I don’t think I’m trying to do anything differently. Obviously, every time we make a big action film like this, we want it to be a hit at the box-office. On a personal level, I find a thrill in at least making an attempt to narrate the story in a different manner and I hope that the audience would also feel the same thrill. There’s nothing more to it. I don’t think I’m trying to break any rules of filmmaking. I do watch a lot of films and maybe they would have influenced me on a subconscious level. I can’t make a film without learning all aspects about filmmaking. It’s just the way I’m…I’m not trying desperately to do anything different.
Most of the stories we tell or the themes we address in our films have some sort of connection to our mythology. Good Vs Evil is one of the primary themes which filmmakers often use to derive the central conflict in the film. However, in your films, almost all your heroes go through an internal struggle in the process of reaching their goal. What is your primary source of inspiration while creating such characters?
I’m intrigued by human psychology and what compels them to do or say things. I keep thinking about that every time I read something or interact with people. Frankly, I haven’t been reading as much as I used to before I made Aarya in 2004 and I hardly find time to watch movies when I’ve a film to work on. You could say I’m always tense about my work and what I’m supposed to do the next day on the sets. So, I keep observing people around me and they are my biggest source of inspiration.
What’s your daily schedule like while writing?
I’m kind of slow when it comes to writing. It took me 8 months to finish the script of 1-Nenokkadine. Sometimes we end up writing a lot of scenes within four days; however, we end up spending a lot of time conceiving those scenes. I’ve the habit of writing on paper and I still use an ink pen. There are days where I tell my team that I’m going to write, but once I’m inside my room, I can’t get myself to write anything. There were days where I didn’t write anything, but I had to pretend that I wrote a lot when I walked out of the room (laughs). On a serious note, it’s something I’m constantly working on and to improve the pace at which I write. I don’t set a time frame to write the script, but that’s a luxury I cannot afford when I’m on the sets because I’ve deadlines to meet.
How serious are you on the sets? Are you a tough director to please?
I’m always tense. I think I’ve gotten used to it and it’s not intentional. Maybe I end up thinking a lot more and it keeps me on my toes.
Do you have the habit of Improvising scenes and dialogues on the sets? Since most of the scenes carry a certain logic, does this impromptu change impact the flow of the narration?
Logic is always constant, but when I try to improvise something on the spur of the moment, it’s the elements around that logic (behind the scene) that might change. If I could draw an analogy, logic is like a thread and the rest of the stuff are flowers. I do struggle to stay focused, but even when I improvise the dialogues, I have to be convinced first before I lock it. So, I’m not really deviating or missing much. It’s really difficult to make a film exactly the way you write it. In that sense, I’m quite satisfied with how 1-Nenokkadine has shaped up in the end.
You said that you were striving to thrill the audience while narrating the story. As a director, is there a larger goal that you wanted to attain? What compelled you to make this film?
The main motivation behind making this film was Mahesh Babu himself. I wanted to see him on a large canvas. I visualised him on an island, on the sea, and in a city like London. Mahesh inspired me to write the story. He’s a superstar and it’s this image that I had in my mind while writing the story.
In one of the interviews, Mahesh Babu confessed that he got really emotional during the climax scene the moment he spotted that Gautam himself had written the diary which he finds in the box. Apart from that scene, did you do anything which caught people off-guard?
There was this particular shot where Mahesh and Kriti Sanon had to kiss. I didn’t tell them beforehand and that caught them off-guard. “Meelo intha kutra undha (I didn’t know you were so guile),” …that’s what Mahesh Babu said in a lighter vein, when I finally told him about the scene (Laughs). He’s a director’s actor. If he gets convinced about a scene and why it’s important, he’ll do anything for that.
I think some people have observed the film quite keenly and there are plenty of blogs, Facebook posts and tweets where people have figured out some interesting things in several scenes. I’m sure there are plenty of other subtle touches which people might have missed. Any comments on those?
Oh! There are plenty of those elements which many people might not even notice. I’ll probably reveal everything in couple of weeks, but if you insist, here are some of the things :
1) Mahesh Babu spots a car on the hoarding before Kelly Dorjee vrooms past him right after the first song.
2) When Mahesh Babu is chasing Kelly Dorjee, you’ll find the car in different locations inside the tunnel in the same shot. We did that to suggest that the hero is hallucinating.
3) You’ll find a sticker of the Rubik’s cube on the car. It was another motif that we used in the film because the Rubik’s cube is a window to his past.
4) In another scene at the police station, when Mahesh Babu imagines that he has killed Nazar, the latter has a cap. In fact, while shooting that shot, Nazar sir was so surprised that he asked me why he had to wear the cap. I told him that it’s important because that’s the only reference Mahesh Babu has of one of his killers.
There are quite a few scenes where Mahesh Babu cannot differentiate whether he’s hallucinating or not. How did you show the difference between the two?
Oh yeah. We did a lot of things to show a subtle difference between his hallucination and reality. In the beginning, the lights keep flickering during the fight sequence when he’s hallucinating, but when the scene is repeated, the lights are normal. In the yacht scene, the first time he meets Kriti Sanon, the editing pattern is slightly different. The first time she enters the yacht, you’ll find mostly over-the-shoulder shots and the next time she comes there, first we have a wide angle shot to establish the location and then there are over-the-shoulder shots. He still keeps seeing the images from the previous scene. I don’t expect people to keenly observe all this, it’s just that I’m trying to add something to the scene.
Usually, most of our films are very brightly lit. In this film, the colour pattern is kind of grey in most of the scenes. Was there a specific reason why you chose to do that?
Right from the beginning days of my career, I’ve become dependent on choosing these colour patterns. Now, obviously the mood of the scene dictates the colour. Even though I choose few things, there are a lot of factors when I go to the set which might change the original plan. Sometimes, the costume someone wears in the background or even the set, for that matter, might dictate what colour scheme to use in that scene. In this film, grey is more apparent because the hero is always thinking about his past. It’s like a shadow which keeps haunting him. Hence, most of the colours are very morose.
After Arya and Jagadam, this is your third film with Ratnavelu (cinematographer). What are your discussions like with Ratnavelu while you discuss the script?
I narrate the whole script to him and he gets an idea. He deals with the psychological aspect of cinematography. He defines the scene with his vision…be it the tone or the colours. He’s really good at what he does and we have a great rapport. Even if I tell him 10% of what I’ve in my mind, he delivers 100%.
In this film, you were working with Mahesh Babu who is extremely good when it comes to emoting a scene. And I presume that in the process of capturing that emotion, you might be tempted to take plenty of close up shots. How do you resist that temptation?
Like I said on several occasions, Mahesh Babu is like a sculpture (shilpam) and I wanted to show him completely. We used extreme close up shots only in the emotional scenes. Interestingly, I couldn’t say ‘cut’ while he was emoting in several scenes because I never felt like taking my eyes off him. He’s so good at it. If I said ‘cut’, I was afraid that I might miss an expression in his eyes which might be useful in the next shot.
Coming back to the actors in the film, were there any instances where the actors surprised you while shooting the film?
It has to be the final confrontation scene between Mahesh Babu and Nazar. I was thrilled when Mahesh Babu performed the scene, because the dialogues look very disjointed on paper. However, that scene worked out quite well and it was purely because of Mahesh Babu’s performance. He brought out the emotional connection to that scene. He gives a pause between dialogues, which I think is really really good. You can’t think all this while writing the script and it has to come from the actor himself. In the same scene, I wanted him to shoot Nazar continuously in the end, but he shoots him only once and gives a subtle expression. That was a treat to watch.
This is your first film where you moved on to digital filmmaking and I believe Ratnavelu used a RED Epic camera. Are you excited about the new medium?
More than being excited, I’m overwhelmed with digital cinema because it opens up a lot of possibilities and opportunities while making the film. Unlike earlier days where we used film reels to shoot the scene, I don’t have to bother about how many reels I’m exposing. Back then, even though a producer might not ask you about it, there’s always a worry that directors were shooting way too much footage. Directors were always tense because it’s so expensive to shoot on film. Now, with the advent of digital filmmaking, all that is a thing of the past. I can shoot more scenes on high speed frame rates.
In terms of screenwriting, what was the most difficult scene to write in the film?
I would pick the scenes we shot in Goa, where Kriti comes to meet Mahesh Babu and then the following scene where he meets her at a shack. Those dialogues between Kriti and Mahesh might seem very easy and in fact, you might even think that she’s just changing clothes, but it was difficult for me to write those scenes convincingly. Unless you believe that the first interaction is real, you won’t like the conversation which ensues between the two in the shack. Moreover, she’s playing mind games with him where she keeps prodding him to repeat what she had said. When you think of a scene like that, there are hundreds of combinations which seem plausible and then the bigger challenge is picking the best possible dialogues out of them.
As a director, when you are shooting a scene, what are you trying to capture? Does every scene in the film have to say something, which might not seem obvious but it’s necessary for you as a director?
Initially, I was looking forward to imbibing some sort of philosophy in every scene, in terms of what am I trying to convey through these dialogues or the way the colours are used in that frame, among many other things. Now it’s become more common sense. I sort of know what would suit the scene, be it the camera angles or what lens to use or colour of their clothes. It all comes with experience, I suppose. If you know everything, it’s the scene which dictates what we are supposed to do. It does seem complicated in the beginning, but then you get used to it after a point. At times, you are very specific about what you want. Take the scene which is set in the shack for example. Initially, I didn’t want to use a wide shot to depict Mahesh Babu entering the shack, but then I had to do it because I wanted to make people believe that was happening for real. Once he meets the girl, from then onwards there are more over the shoulder shots (suggestion shots). Now, in that scene, I shouldn’t move to a two shot because that would mean showing the two characters from a third person’s perspective, which would in a way suggest that it’s not imaginary.
Some cities, like Mumbai, London or even Hong Kong, have a character of their own and at times they can overpower your story and characters. Was there a specific reason why you chose to shoot the film in London and Belfast, considering how intense the film is?
The main reason why we chose London is because a lot of buildings in the city are at least 200 years old and people there are very particular about their heritage. When a building is in a bad condition, they do everything they can to restore it. It’s almost like going back to the past as if you were in a time machine. Since the hero is in search of his past, it suits the mood of the character. It had to be Europe because they are very careful about preserving their past. Hong Kong was never an option because of its concrete buildings, I couldn’t imagine setting the story there.
Is your approach to filmmaking different while working with such a big star?
I was thinking a lot about that before the shooting, but once we started shooting, Mahesh Babu was completely in control of what he had to do. It was a treat to watch him perform. I must also say that Kriti was fabulous throughout the film. I think she did quite well to complement Mahesh Babu’s performance. What we tried to do differently in this film, since it’s a psychological thriller, is to create a certain mood. There’s a rhythm throughout the film on a psychological level. It’s not the background score, but it has more to do with the visual language which the film has. You’ll have to feel it, especially in terms of the pace and the editing style. You’ll probably feel it, if you observe everything keenly.
The reaction from the audience, critics and several people from the film industry must have come as a big surprise for you soon after the film’s release. What surprised you the most?
I’ve never got so many calls where people were so excited to talk about the film. Especially from my peers in the industry, when they spoke to me, there was a lot of excitement in their voice and they advised me to not give up, no matter what happens. I’m very happy with that.
Here are some of the questions which people on Twitter wanted me to ask Sukumar :
In the pre-interval episode: When Gautam is outside Sameera’s house waiting for her to talk to him, her friends come to the house to greet her for her birthday . The background music used here was ominous indicating that it might be Gautam’s point of view as he is expecting that there are people who might kill her. Don’t you think using a music that is more neutral would have presented the “confusion” or the state of Gautam ‘s mind more apparent?
Sukumar: The background score is always from the hero’s point of view. That’s a practice we followed for most part of the film.
Why was the sound mixing so loud? I felt there was too much background score.
This is a personal story and hence it was important to follow the character’s emotions. Hence, we had to use a lot of background score to convey those emotions.
Do you make films to entertain the audience or to prove your intelligence?
Sukumar: (Laughs) I don’t know what to say. Maybe, I’m trying to prove the audience’s intelligence. It’s just the way I make my films. There’s nothing more to it.
Will you make a love story with Mahesh Babu and Kriti Sanon in lead roles?
Sukumar: I would love to make a love story with Mahesh Babu, if I get a chance to work with him again. I don’t know if Kriti Sanon will have time by then (because she might be quite busy with other projects).
Why do you complicate everything so much?
Sukumar: Cinema is fun. It’s also an art form. I believe in the stories I make, so I’m doing my best to do a good job.
What did Krishna garu say after watching the film? Did you receive any compliments?
Sukumar: He’s very honest about his opinions. He makes it a point to meet the press if he loves a film and he did this on very few occasions. We are glad that he did that for this film and I think that was a huge compliment.
There is a scene in the film where Mahesh Babu says, “Prema kanna bhayam goppadhi (Fear is stronger than Love)” . Was that the basis of this story?
Sukumar: I think we remember our enemies more than our friends. That’s a human trait. I felt it was apt for this film and hence, we added this dialogue.
(1-Nenokkadine, starring Mahesh Babu and Kriti Sanon, is currently streaming on Sun Nxt And Jio)