Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam: There is no space for elitism in cinema

From being hailed as the poster boy of new age Telugu cinema to understanding the business of cinema, writer-director-actor Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam discusses his roller coaster journey. He also offers a glimpse into his new film ‘Keedaa Cola’?

May 16, 2023 11:33 am | Updated 12:39 pm IST

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam in the anthology ‘Anger Tales’

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam in the anthology ‘Anger Tales’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The rom-com Pelli Choopulu came in as a breath of fresh air for Telugu cinema in 2016 and became a rage, hailed for its relatable urban family drama, relationships and comedy, capped with feel-good music. With it, debut director Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam became a sensation, transitioning from short films to blockbuster feature films. But did you know that prior to its release, Pelli Choopulu was written off by insiders in the Telugu film industry? In this conversation at ITC Kohenur Hyderabad, the director opens up on his journey and shares his insights into the cinema business.??

Directors’ Take
This series of interviews shines the spotlight on the newer crop of directors who made their mark in Telugu cinema in recent years. The series is an attempt to discuss how the larger-than-life Telugu films that capture nationwide attention co-exist with refreshing small and medium budget films.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Soon after Pelli Choopulu(2016), you were considered the poster boy of new age Telugu cinema. Your success story gave hope to aspiring directors. What were the dreams with which you entered the industry?

I had no big dreams, no goals. That was scary. I just wanted Pelli Choopulu to be released. My father had passed away and a lot of black-and-white drama was happening at home. There was financial instability. It was a roller coaster of emotions. I had hit rock bottom and received so much rejection from the industry. I believed their word that Pelli Choopulu would be a disaster. So when it became a huge success, I did not know how to take it. With success came new responsibility. I was not prepared to be the flag bearer of a new age Telugu cinema.?

Vijay Deverakonda and Ritu Varma in ‘Pelli Choopulu’

Vijay Deverakonda and Ritu Varma in ‘Pelli Choopulu’

We, in the media, got to know about the film before its release thanks to the good word-of-mouth publicity from a few private screenings.

The credit goes to producer Suresh Babu Daggubati (who presented the film). Even then, a lot of people kept mocking me and said who would watch the film in theatres if we hosted these free screenings. But Suresh garu was insistent. At that time, I too doubted if it was the right thing to do. I thought no one is going to like the film anyway, so let him do whatever he wants to. I thought the film was dead and we were just garlanding it with those screenings.

Just before the release of your second film Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (ENE), you stated that the tag of ‘Pelli Choopulu director’ weighed heavily on you…

It did. I felt Pelli Choopulu was overrated in how it was blown out of proportion. I just tried to make a nice rom-com like some of the Hollywood films I enjoyed watching. I hadn’t intended to do anything path-breaking. The mention of ‘new age’ in the trailer was only for marketing. I liked what Srinivas Avasarala sir had done with Oohalu Gusagusalade and Ravikanth Perepu’s Kshanam also won appreciation.?

In the industry, people spoke about how we had made Pelli Choopulu in ?63 lakhs and it went on to mint a lot more at the box office. They wondered how much I could make if I were given a budget of, say, two crores. The fascination was about the numbers. That’s not how I wanted to work. It was weird but I thought if I failed with ENE, that pressure would go away and I can get back my freedom. ENE was a buddy comedy and came from a place of honesty.

A poster of the buddy comedy ‘Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi’

A poster of the buddy comedy ‘Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi’

A few A-list stars also showed interest to work with you, but you were firm that unless a story warrants a star, you don’t take up such a project. What made you step back?

I’ve seen people take a loan and put everything at stake, including their self-respect and their freedom. My parents instilled a sense of freedom in me. Even after 1947, many of us are slaves. I didn’t want to be one. I was offered hefty amounts of advance and I rejected them. The moment you take the cheque, they expect you to dance to certain tunes. All this happens subtly; they are not conscious of it and they are not bad people. Fan clubs of stars work like football clubs. There’s madness to the entire aura. I didn’t want to be this guy who came in and made a disaster with a star.?

Tharun Bhascker in ‘Sita Ramam’

Tharun Bhascker in ‘Sita Ramam’

You then took up acting assignments, collaborated with other directors and wrote dialogues, and also hosted talk shows. How did all this help you evolve?

I wanted to understand the industry and did not let go of any opportunity. Earlier I was doing short films, corporate videos, ad films and poster design work. It helped me be creative. I was amazed at the way the technicians worked during talk shows, doing live editing. I got wiser about how I looked at television shows such as Jabardasth.?

I worked with other directors for films because I loved their work. I wasn’t conscious about my career graph.

The acting bug had bitten me as a child. I had done stage plays. Becoming an actor made me more empathetic towards my actors; I understood why they need the perks of a caravan to block out the noise.?

Acting made you a household name. Will that also help you in the initial stages to market your third directorial film Keedaa Cola?

It will definitely help; building my name as an actor was a conscious effort. I was often told that no one will know me since I am always behind the camera. And who will watch my film if I work with newcomers again? I discovered that being a judge on Jabardasth made me more famous than Pelli Choopulu getting two National Awards (for best screenplay and best Telugu feature film).?

If you have a market at the box office, you know how much you can experiment. There is no pressure because you know your pre-release sales are done and there’s money waiting for you after you finish.?

Brahmanandam in ‘Keedaa Cola’

Brahmanandam in ‘Keedaa Cola’

You said you will be presenting Brahmanandam like never before in Keedaa Cola. What else can you share about the film?

It is a wacky crime comedy with no space for interpersonal relationships and about people chasing money. What mesmerised me about Pelli Choopulu’s success was the social experience of watching people laugh. Making people laugh makes you feel you are in power. I want to create that again with Keedaa Cola. Let’s see if people erupt in laughter or just stay silent. We are introducing a 23-year-old cinematographer A J Aran, a new production designer named Ashish and technically it is a better project than my earlier films.?

As for Brahmanandam sir, I cannot claim that I will be presenting a new version of him after what he has done in Rangamarthanda. I wanted to show him in a subtle, realistic space with situational humour. Even though he is not catering massively to the plot, you will admire him.?

You directed the short story Ramula for the Netflix anthology Pitta Kathalu. Are there other projects for the digital space??

Ramula gave me the confidence to take the digital route. I was inspired by the Coen brothers, tried to study their style and do split editing… There are so many techniques in Ramula that I am proud of but somehow people didn’t receive it as much as I thought they would.

We are working on a big series with three seasons. It is a rural story in the space of?Gangs of Wasseypur meets The Godfather. We have set up a writers’ room to make it a collaborative space with writers Ramya, Pranay and Chandan. I set it up during the pandemic and every day we discussed themes, plot and how we can create escapism and still deal with societal themes with honesty.

What do you think of this phase in the Telugu film industry where big films that capture nationwide attention and small indie-spirited films co-exist? And where does your work fit in?

I am still trying to get a hang of this. Recently Suresh Babu garu told me that he has a blank notebook and a pen, and now he is rewriting everything. Every Friday the dynamics changes and we learn about the psyche of our audience. The verdict of a film is out soon after the morning show. People are consuming a lot of content.

Every film, be it a Kantara or a Balagam, is teaching us something about the way we are as a society. It is important for a filmmaker to be hyper realistic about what is happening around us because, ultimately, we are a service industry that is providing entertainment to people. There is no space for elitism. The challenge is to combine good cinema and provide wholesome entertainment.??

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