Directed by Praveen Kandregula, Cinema Bandi highlights the true spirit of independent filmmaking practices in India. The 2021 Netflix film in the Telugu language follows an auto rickshaw driver who finds an expensive DSLR camera and decides to make a feature film with the help of enthusiastic villagers. I recently spoke with Kandregula about his journey and his thought process while making Cinema Bandi.
Dipankar Sarkar: How did you get involved with filmmaking?
Praveen Kandregula: I was interested in filmmaking since I was a kid. When I was studying in my seventh standard in school, my father got a digital camera to shoot weddings. So, I got hold of this camera and, along with my cousins, started shooting short films. We were not bothered about the content. The situation was similar to what happens in Cinema Bandi where the protagonist, Veerababu [Vikas Vasistha], finds the camera and begins shooting a film. From there, I started to understand what filmmaking is all about. I used to apply different techniques with the camera. As I started growing up, my interest in cinema also started to develop more and more. I started watching films, and the cinema of Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam influenced me a lot to take my career in filmmaking seriously. After college, I went to a film institute and was exposed to world cinema. I was deeply touched by the Iranian and European films. Gradually, I developed this strong urge to tell stories through the medium of cinema, and I went ahead and made my first feature film.
DS: Which film institute did you study at?
PK: I went to study at Whistling Woods International but dropped out after six months of studying.
DS: So, what did you do next?
PK: I joined the Telugu film industry and started working as a cinematographer, shooting feature films, documentaries and advertisements for the last four years. I was well aware of the technical aspects of cinematography and had shot two full-length feature films. I did cinematography to earn a livelihood, but deep within my heart, I always wanted to become a film director.
DS: Why did you not shoot your film as a cinematographer?
PK: Firstly, I do not want to be a cinematographer. Secondly, while directing the film, I did not want to do the cinematography. Thirdly, I do not believe in doing everything, so I assembled a team of a writer, cinematographer, sound recordist, editor, music director, and shot the film.
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DS: How did the idea of the screenplay for the film originate?
PK: The idea of the film is like a personal story. When my father had brought this digital camera, I started making films just like the protagonist of Cinema Bandi. So, the film is very personal to me in that way. Two films had also inspired me to make my first full-length feature film — Supermen of Malegaon, a Hindi documentary film written and directed by Faiza Ahmad Khan, and the other one Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), a Marathi feature film written and directed by Paresh Mokashi. Harishchandrachi Factory is about Dadasaheb Phalke, who made the first Indian feature film, Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra.
DS: Veera wants to earn money by making the film, and with that money, he not only wants a better life for his family but also wants the welfare of his village. What were the traits you kept in mind while shaping his character?
PK: Veera is the kind of person who cares about his village, and that [is] evident from the first scene of the film. He has this ambition to do something good for his village. An auto driver, in general, cannot make a film easily in reality, and at the same time, Veera is not passionate about cinema. But when he finds the DSLR camera, he decides to make a film only to make money out of it. And with that money, he wanted to [do] good for his family and village. But after watching the film he had shot on a big projector screen, at the end of the film, maybe he will develop more interest in cinema and wants to become a director. So, in that way, we made a graph of his character.
DS: The female characters Divya (Trishara) and Manga (Uma Yaluvalli Gopalappa) have contrasting personalities. Could you talk about their characterizations?
PK: Divya is a young college-going girl, and she likes people when they appreciate her beautiful looks. She is awed by the fact that she is going to play the role of the heroine and not at all concerned about what is being shot. Whereas, Manga is a kind of woman who is rebellious and brave enough to do anything she feels is righteous. She balances her work as a vegetable seller and acting in the film with aplomb. While the shooting is in progress and one of the villagers interrupts the shoot, it is Manga who rebukes the troublemaking villager. In another scene from the film in which they are shooting, Manga is the one who beats up the hooligans instead of the stereotypical hero of the film. So, she is not only a strong person but also an inspiring character for any woman.
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DS: In the camera battery-charging scene, Veera explains to his wife, Ganga, how important it is for him to shoot the film. She listens, understands the situation and reacts silently without speaking a single word. Could you discuss the scene?
PK: In any village across India, husband and wife do not speak too much. They express themselves through emotions. There is also another scene in the film where Ganga gives her clothes to Divya during the shooting, which happens without any dialogue. So, through these scenes, we wanted to show the emotions between both of them. Rather than speaking to one another, they do things that are necessary. They do not shout at each other but rather act silently, and that expresses the deep understanding shared between the married couple. I think any husband and wife living in a village will relate to these characters.
DS: When Veera and Gaana watch the video clip of Sindhu (Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy) and her friends enjoying the rain dance, they discuss amongst themselves the harsh reality of the scarcity of water in their village. Did you intend to depict the sharp disparity in the rural-urban divide through this scene?
PK: Absolutely. The whole idea is to show the difference between the two worlds. But I did not want it to be told right in the face. I wanted it to express with a lighter note. When Veera and Gaana watch the clip, they do not criticize their dance activity. Veera does not say why these people are wasting water. Instead, he replies that if we make them dance for an hour, then all the lakes in our village will be filled. So, I wanted to join the two different worlds at every point in the film.
PK: I wanted his character to act like a satire, a situation similar to the presence of a writer in our shoots where they do not speak. Narasimha might have written the scenes and dialogues of the script, but during the shooting of the film, he does not have much to say. So, I was trying to make a funny statement with the character of the old man, Narasimha Murty. Even though the character never speaks in the film until the end, we do not get the doubt that he is mute. It was very challenging to have a character like him in the film because the viewer might question the purpose of this character in the film. But when he responses at the end of the film, it becomes like a closure for the character. Now the viewers will think [about] who has written the story, where did Veera find the book, etc.
DS: Why does Sindhu empathize with Veera and Gaana, even though they were responsible for damaging her expensive DSLR camera?
PK: The film had already established the fact that Sindhu has worked as a freelancer for five years and brought the camera. This implies how passionate she is towards the medium of cinema. So, when she goes through the video clips on the memory card, she realizes that the people of the village without knowing anything have shot a film. This is nothing less than an achievement. Sindhu realizes that now she has to do something to make the villagers watch their work on a big screen. As a filmmaker, we enter into the world of filmmaking by watching films on a big screen. I believe that if there were no theatre, nobody would have joined the film industry. Film theatres made us realize that films are an extraordinary universe inhabited by larger-than-life characters. So, Sindhu wanted the villagers to go through the same experience by making them watch their films on a big projector screen.
DS: At what stage did the filmmaking duo Raj and DK come on board?
PK: I met Raj and DK at the NFDC Film Bazaar, Goa in 2018. I was carrying the pitch of the film in the form of a comic book [comprised] of 10 pages. We sat in a restaurant, and I shared the idea of the film with him. They liked it and asked me to make a demo film. Raj shared his contact number and the interaction was over. After the brief meeting, I took it very seriously — six months later, I made a short film of 40 minutes and some shots from it are also there in the feature film. My writer Vasanth Maringanti and I traveled to Mumbai and showed the short film to Raj, and he was surprised because he was expecting a 10-minute short film from us. At that moment, they became a part of the project.
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DS: And how did their involvement facilitate the project?
PK: After the project was greenlit, my two writers — Vasanth Maringanti and Krishna Prathyusha — and I, along with Raj and DK, discussed every scene and dialogue of the script, and had done lots of research. We shared ideas amongst ourselves, and after the script was finalized, we started the shooting. Raj came on the first day of the shoot and DK came on the last day of the shoot. They did not get much involved in the process of shooting, as they had full confidence that my team and I [would] make a good film. After the shoot was over, we sat on the edit of the film for more than one year, but they never compelled me to make any changes in the edit. As both of them are filmmakers, they respected my creative differences with them. So, I would like to say that as producers, they were more like a mentor than financiers. I learned a lot from them.
DS: Cinema Bandi is currently streaming on Netflix and has been watched by people around the globe. So, do you think that such platforms are beneficial for the distribution and exhibition of independent and low-budget films in India?
PK: Yes, it is benificial for sure. Today, people around the world are watching Cinema Bandi on one platform. I believe that if the content of the film is good, people are going to watch and like it, even if it is not star-driven. If the film had released in theatres, it would have pulled very few crowds. So, a platform like Netflix is helping filmmakers like us globally.
DS: Lastly, how would you like to define the film?
PK: If I have to sum [it] up in one sentence, then Cinema Bandi is a proper love letter to all the filmmakers around the world. At the same time, the film also talks about hope. Veera [hopes] to make a film, Sindhu [hopes] to find the camera, Maridesh Babu (Rag Mayur) [hopes] to become a hero and the villagers are hopeful that their village will develop in due course of time. So, that is how I would like to define the film.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.