Tuesday, October 8, 2019

in the business of making movies

I should've known this before I went. Maybe I did know but didn't want to acknowledge it. Because acknowledging it would've punctured the romance of the thing that's held my fascination for a very long time. Mainstream filmmaking is a business and like any business it is motivated by money. That is its primary consideration, sometimes the only consideration. That doesn't mean the industry is filled with people who're in it only for the money. Compared to other industries, and I'm conjecturing based on my experiences in only a few industries, it probably has a disproportionately large percentage of people wanting to do great work but rules of economics state that where there is an opportunity, albeit very thin, to get rich and famous, a very large number of people with only those motivations will be attracted to it.

Again, it's important for me not to forget the fact that I only spent about a month in one production house in the industry, and hadn't even stepped onto a film set, and that's a very interesting epistemological question. I know that my assumptions and opinions are based on very limited experience1 and yet I must make them to function in the world and make decisions. If 'one month and one production house and partial pre-production and maybe ten long conversations on the nature of the business' is too less to pass non-definitive statements on the industry as a whole, how much is enough? I worked with people there who spent 12, 16 and 22 years in the industry respectively and are still waiting for their first break. I heard stories of filmmakers who got an opportunity within 6 months and are now making their third or seventh mediocre movie. I'm not saying this is how it is. I'm just saying this is what I saw and heard and learnt and imagined2.

-Filmmaking is hard work. You might say what isn't but this seems harder than average. To make even a fuckall film, a lot of people have to be brought on board and made to do their part. And because the per day cost of production and the chance of losing it all are so high, tempers run high. Mind you I've seen instances of this even in pre-prod which is supposed to be the rosiest phase
-Logistics is 80% of the work3. I don't know how hard it is to act and shoot a scene but the behind-the-scenes work that needs to happen for a team to reach that stage is so much. I spent days just creating Google sheets for locations, actors, properties and then when there's a change in the script, all this has to be verified and edited manually. I was surprised with the amount of manual work of copying and reorganizing data people were doing when a basic web app could've made the organization easier but if the ulterior motive ("Wax on, wax off") is for the assistants to get very comfortable with the script, it works.
-Movies are made for an audience; A paying audience. And the producer never lets anyone forget that. This seems obvious especially if you ask, "Why are so many movies crap?" Over the years, I've been asking a few writer friends if they write for an audience. The answer is an unequivocal no. Maybe there are more mainstream writers (those who live off their publications) who consciously write for an audience but the few people I know write because they enjoy reading and writing, and publishing is almost like sharing with friends. Movies are stories specifically made for an audience. Which is probably why so many filmmakers and producers get it catastrophically wrong yet they continue doing it. Yes, you can't spend crores of rupees (on second thoughts, aren't you already?) making something you want to watch and hope the audience will pay money to watch it but who really knows what the audience wants especially if the audience doesn't know it until she sees it. I'm not saying artists must be elitist snobs who act as tastemakers (though a few do that) but isn't it also arrogance to assume you know what the "audience" wants?
-I write because I like the unspooling of my thoughts. Some write because they are enamoured by their imagination, by their ability to chart character journeys. After the first draft is over, it becomes hard to revisit it not just because of the loss of sheen4 but because now something more flashy has caught your attention. To make a film, and maybe to write a novel, demands perseverance and an almost pedantic ability to keep hanging onto and ironing the creass it until it's over. Maybe there is fulfillment in that and there are people who enjoy the process5 but it seemed like too much of a rote to me
-At some point, anyone who is serious about his work must sit by himself and face the blank screen. I've been trying to evade this all my life, jumping across boats in the hope that one of them will take me to the place where inspiration will use me as a scribe and I'll find fulfillment but it has been proved to be a vain hope again. Yes, I know that the journey is the reward and art is formed when perspiration meets inspiration and all that. Doesn't make it easier to be reminded once again that you can't run away from yourself6.

So yeah, how was my one month working in Tollywood? Now for the facts.

We were setup in First Frame Entertainments office- Krish's company. I saw Krish garu a few times, smiled and greeted and at one point even replied to his question by saying, "లేదు సర్, ఈరోజు శ్రీనీ సర్ రాలేదు". I had brief conversations with Srinivas Avasarala garu, who is quite funny and surprisingly approachable, a few times. I also met the actor Amit Tiwari and other lesser known actors who'd come to the office to meet with other teams. I also shook hands with Sweekar Agasthi but couldn't tell him that I thought C/o Kancharapalem's music was incredible because it seemed inappropriate then. I also lobbied hard (unsucessfully) to cast Abhinav Gomatam in a role and proposed Maanvi Gagroo8 when we were discussing prospective heroines and was given horrified looks after quick Google searches. I laughed uncontrollably at some of the production fiascoes when I spent hours listening to stories from the finance manager and assistant directors. Yes, film crew episodes make for phenomenal anecdotes by their nature though the effect is still amplified by the narrative talent and the personas of celebrities we have in our heads. I was aghast on learning of Balakrishna's behaviour during the shoot of Gautamiputra Shatakarni and asked why the industry still cast him if he was that difficult to manage on set. "He has a big market", was the answer. Sagar garu, the director, and I had a few conversations on foreign cinema and he gave me a long list of filmmakers he loves- Rohmer, Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Billy Wilder are the ones I can recall now. I listened to a one and half hour narration of the script Mahesh Anna has been trying to get produced and had a firsthand experience of how powerful movie narrations can be9.

I also saw firsthand how fast time flies when you're trying to get your break and how hard it becomes to go back to normal jobs after you've spent a few years in the industry. I heard a phenomenal short-film story by a Nanda Kishore Emani which he proposed for (sneak peak) Lust Stories in Telugu but  was rejected because it was deemed too scandalous for the Telugu audience. I also met a multi-hyphenate artist, Gautham Bhavaraju, who spent years in the US working on, wait for it, SAP Fiori, which apparently his brother created, and is now writing for a web series. Mealtimes, where quite tasty curry point made full meals was lunch, were a great time to listen to different conversations and make acquaintances. Seemingly, a surprisingly large amount of crew is selected based on reputations, and I was part of a couple of funny scenarios where we threw around names of films which had good 'art direction' and then tried to find the contact number of the art director/ production designer and could not.

It's been a good experience and I had a lot of fun listening to people talk. The work was monotonous especially since they thought I was good with 'Telugu DTP' but I'm also grateful for the fact that I had access to the work that I did, thanks to Bujjimama, because otherwise it'dve taken five years of scrapping around to be sitting where I was. Did I leave too early? Yes, I would've liked to stay till the end of the project but it was getting postponed indefinitely (which seems like the norm in the industry) and I wanted to be back with Sravani. The one month stint has calmed the demons in my head, the romance around the industry is gone and I've realised that even if I want to be making films, I would like to do it on my own terms. That would mean writing stories I wish made and finding a producer who is willing to take the risk. The only positive of working in/ around the industry is access to the network of cast and crew. Given a choice though, I wouldn't spend too much time there because of the nature of the work environment that is erratic, hierarchical and atrociously low-paying probably because the workforce supply to so high. More than that, spending too much time there would mean losing the ability to take outside influences to the stories we tell and the maps of reality we share. Unless you are staggeringly original, it is very easy to be bastardized by the rotating cast of a limited number of worldviews. I think this is true of any industry, just more visible here because they are in the business of creating art and entertainment. 

I've realised that not everyone there is a mad genius teeming with original ideas and like any other work, the percentage of pioneers and originals is little. I think I can be in the business in some capacity thanks to my English skills and non-Telugu Cinema references. I don't think I want to be in the business though. I want to write what interests me and when I am in the mood to write. Is it my loss? Probably is but from what little I've seen, the Telugu film industry is not where I want to work and so the search resumes.

1 What's funny is that my knowledge of my limited knowledge is also an assumption based on projecting the unknown unknowns based on the known unknowns
2 Why then should you listen to me if my stories are neither authoritative nor qualified? I've been posing this question to myself, and a few others who've been asking me to write more often, over the years. I don't have an answer yet and maybe I should not share my thoughts until I find the answer but what if I never find it, or an answer to those questions doesn't exist, or if I'll never escape those questions. Or maybe if I stopped writing now and thought about it, I'll get the answer. But how will I prove, to myself, its veracity. Which brings us back to the main discussion
3 "80% of success is showing-up"
4 "No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound" -William Goldman
5 "[Hitchcock] was often bored or distracted during the actual shooting of a film, because in his mind everything had already been done beforehand" - Jai Arjun Singh
6 "Remember, the entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you"7
7 Voila! Yet another faux coming-of-age blogpost with a quasi-insightful Rumi quote
8 Biswa's writing of the character and Gagroo's portrayal of Shreya have left such an indelible mark on me
9 Fun fact: Two people have remarked to me that, "బోయపాటి శ్రీనుగారి నరేషన్ మామూల్గా ఉండదు. నాలుగ్గంటలు చెప్తాడు. అది అయ్యే టయానికి  నీక్కూడా అనిపిస్తది, నీ అమ్మ ఫది కోట్లు అప్పు తెచ్చన్నా ఈనతో సినిమా తీయాలని" 

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