Telugu filmmaker Prakash Kovelamudi was preoccupied with the idea of looking at the world through a dysfunctional mind for nearly two years. The director made his debut in Hindi cinema with the Kangana Ranaut and Rajkummar Rao-starrer Judgementall Hai Kya (JHK). When we meet Kovelamudi, 44, in Mumbai, his film has already opened to rave reviews. Amid the buzz of praise for lead actors and the prediction of the film’s strong opening at the box-office, he appears calm, almost Zen-like, fresh off a yoga session.
The film, a quirky black comedy, is narrated as a whodunit and the lead characters, played by Ranaut and Rao, are the suspects. Shot as a thriller, the film addresses the issue of violence against women. It shows how, over centuries, women who question the set order of things find the going tough. Bobby (Ranaut), the protagonist, suffers from psychosis because of childhood trauma. “I wanted to present the worldview of someone with a broken mind,” says the filmmaker. When he discussed this idea with Kanika Dhillon, the writer of the film, she was intrigued by the premise. “Bobby has her own broken reality; you cannot deny her the truth of that reality. The film, in the end, is her journey to accept her fractured reality and she uses her wounds to heal herself,” he says.
Kovelamudi says that the film is an attempt to portray how women have been subjugated for long. “Whenever women try to rise, they are questioned. Even today, a strong, opinionated woman is called a rabble-rouser and a hard taskmaster, whereas a man would be celebrated for these attributes,” he says.
The film also draws on Indian mythology, including Ramayana. “Sita’s agnipariksha is the testament needed for her truth to be believed. In the film, Bobby is always questioned about her truth. Why? Because she is quirky, and has traits that don’t fall in the larger ‘accepted’ spectrum of society,” he says.
Ranaut’s Bobby is juxtaposed with Keshav/Shravan played by Rao. They both cross paths when Rao rents a part of Bobby’s bungalow in Mumbai. While on the surface he appears to be an easy-going man, completely in love with his wife (Amyra Dastur), there are many things that don’t add up. “Rao, who is the troubled person, a psychopath, is able to make everyone believe and see his truth. Why? Because he is high-functioning and a man. The so-called larger disorder is in the society that refuses to see beyond the obvious and is willing to brush things aside just because they are uncomfortable and make them awkward,” he says.
One of the biggest takeaways of JHK is the vulnerability of Bobby and her childlike pursuit of a thing that she believes in. Children-related themes have been a big part of Kovelamudi’s storytelling. Bommalata, an arthouse children’s film in Telugu, his debut film as a director, won the National Award for the best Telugu film in 2005. Anaganaga O Dheerudu (2011), a fantasy-adventure film, was his debut commercial venture in Telugu. The film, starring Shruti Hassan and Siddhartha, is about an evil sorceress whose soul is imprisoned in a locket and her granddaughter, nine-year-old Moksha, unlocks it after ages. “We don’t have enough stories and entertainment for children even though we have a lot of content around them. I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha, Enid Blyton, Tinkle, etc. They all shaped my vision and my value system,” he says.
Kovelamudi was born and brought up in Chennai in a family of filmmakers. His father, K Raghavendra Rao, is a Tollywood director and producer. His grandfather, Kovelamudi Surya Prakash Rao, was a filmmaker and cinematographer. Kovelamudi says he had a non-starry upbringing and there were no film stars traipsing around his Chennai home. “Growing up, I never wanted to be a filmmaker. However, I would watch Chitrahaar on TV every Friday,” says Kovelamudi. In Chennai, while in school, he would get books on rent. “Sadly, today, all of children’s content is inspired from the West,” he says.
It was while studying engineering in Bengaluru in the late Nineties that Kovelamudi realised his love for storytelling. “I had a lot of friends who were involved in theatre and then I started working under Mahesh Dattani. He mentored me. It was at his insistence that I went to Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in California where I graduated from in 2001,” says Kovelamudi, who came back to India after the 9/11 attacks and made his acting debut with Telugu film Neetho (2002). He then worked with Dattani in Morning Raga (2004) as an assistant director.
Kovelamudi’s other works include Daanav Hunters (2014), a fantasy show for Epic Channel that blended mythology and folklore to depict the fight between good and evil. The show “freed him from the pressures of the box office” and he was able to tell the narratives he wanted to. He also made a Tamil film, Size Zero (2015), starring Anushka Shetty, which delved into body shaming. Both these films didn’t work at the box office.
“My storytelling is very much rooted in theatre, folk arts and mythology,” he says. For Bommalata, a film about a street kid wanting to go to school, he used the device of a puppet who tells the story from his perspective. “It was my homage to Gabriel García Márquez and magic realism, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988). I draw a lot on our myths and folklore,” says the director.
Working with the stars of Hindi cinema, says Kovelamudi, had its own rewards. “If an actor constantly engages with me with questions about the script and the character, I am okay with that. There are certain advantages with stars being on board,” he says, adding that stars could be difficult to deal with, as are some technicians and other department heads. “They are all creative people, who enrich the film with their craft. But they, too, can be difficult. But I think all of this is not relevant. Only the film is relevant. And it’s out,” he says.
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