When actor-turned-director Rahul Ravindran looks back at life and ferrets out moments from his memory bank, it almost seems that everything was in preparation for Chi La Sow, his debut directorial in Telugu starring Sushanth and Ruhani Sharma, which releases on August 3.
Be it watching movies as a child with his mother Vasumathi Ravindran, who also passed on her love for languages to Rahul, taking part in theatre in school and college, doing commercials in Mumbai, pursuing film studies in MICA, dubbing for cartoon characters or even acting, where he tasted success with films such as Andala Raksashi and Ala Ela. But, direction was where his passion lay, and Chi La Sow took germ in his mind more than a decade ago. “Every time I decided I wanted to make a movie, an acting opportunity would come up, and this dream would get pushed by some more years. This time, I decided I had to do it. And, things fell in place,” he says.
And, even in the midst of hectic promotions for the film, presented by Nagarjuna’s Annapurna Studios, Rahul likes to talk about his film at a leisurely pace. But, that’s what has defined him over the years. His blogs, the rare film review he puts up… all of them reveal a thinking mind, and also a creative one.
“I know how many people out there struggle to enter the industry; I got in by chance. I was chosen over about 600 boys with six-pack abs for a commercial for Marico Industries, shot by Dibakar Banerjee. From there, I moved on to dubbing for cartoons. Remember Jetix and its numerous shows? I lent my voice for the Tamil dubbed version of Power Rangers; I was Red Ranger. It was fun, and helped me with pocket money. It also prepped me for dubbing when acting was not even on my radar. Then, I wanted to become an assistant director and quit my job, only to realise I was chosen as lead actor (for cinematographer Ravi Varman’s directorial debut Moscowin Kaveri, with a salary of Rs. 10,000). Life has led me to unexpected places,” he reminisces.
Every film he’s worked on, says Rahul, has been a learning experience, with the terrible ones being better teachers. But, his learning began early, when a young Rahul moved cities with family — Kolkata and Thiruvananthapuram, before arriving in Chennai and settling there. “My school, Vidya Mandir, shaped me immensely. I was there from Class 4, and my batchmates are still my best friends.” Sometime in between school, he watched Nayakan, when he was 12 or 13 years old. “It was nearly a decade after its release, and I did not know anything theoretical about cinema till then, but I knew that this was different and that it spoke to me in a way no the other movie did.” He was familiar with movies, because his mother ensured he watched Veerapaandiya Kattambomman, Thiruvilayaadal and other classics. And then, there was Rafi. “I remember songs of Mohammed Rafi filling our home and hearts. That was also how I picked up Hindi despite not living in the North.”
When at MICA, Rahul would bunk his classes and sit in Professor Mathew’s film studies class. “He let me stay. He opened my eyes to cinema, and I would have long discussions about the medium. I told him that, someday, I would make a film. He’s now at IIM Kozhikode and I would love for him to watch Chi La Sow.”
Speaking about his film, Rahul is as excited as he was when he decided to make it. “I’ve made exactly what was in my head for about 10 years. I’m lucky I got to do it that way. I’m nervous at many levels. Will people like it? If they don’t, then what will I do, because this is what I’ve always wanted?”
He remembers a conversation with actor and friend Vennela Kishore (who also stars in Chi La Sow), who wanted him to think the decision through, because if it did not work, it would hurt his acting and directing careers. “But, I had to take a call,” says Rahul, whose film releases along with another friend Adivi Sesh’s Goodachari. “Our generation of actors is pretty chilled out and encouraging of each other. There’s a lovely camaraderie,” he says. In fact, Samantha Akkineni, his co-star from Moscowin Kaveri, helped bring Annapurna Studios on board for the film. He’s also been signed up by them to direct another film.
Rahul has been speaking fluent Telugu for some years now, and has written the dialogues for Chi La Sow too. “I can’t thank my amma enough for this ability to pick up languages. In the few years in Kolkata, she picked up Bengali, after Thiruvananthapuram, she writes poetry in Malayalam… I have to thank my genes for this.” The actor speaks six languages, including Gujarati and Malayalam. “I worked hard on my Telugu. You are satisfied as an actor only if you dub for yourself. I would go to bed listening to Telugu songs. I would watch soaps — where they would have an expression for every word. It helped me understand the language better.”
From the trailer, it is evident that Chi La Sow is about two protagonists with a certain dignity about them. How easy was it for Rahul to stand to old-fashioned virtue versus new-age cool? “I did not set out to write a ‘samathu payyan’ character. At a certain stage, when I was 27-28 and marriage talk was on at home, and once the story started developing, the character of Arjun was becoming what I was in life at that point. He’s a lot like what I was, and Anu Hasan’s character is a lot like what my mother is. Some dialogues are a repeat of what my mother said in real life. The bit about increasing age and shrinking arranged marriage market was what my mother told me!” he laughs.
In between working on his directorial, another passion came calling – the FIFA World Cup in Russia. “I was finalising the script, when the ticket window opened. I originally planned a 21-day trip and booked my tickets, but that was before we decided to release Chi La Sow in August. I finally went there with my childhood friends, stayed for four days and watched the final live!” He even blogged about it.
With his first film all set to release, does it ever strike Rahul that he chose to take up direction when his acting career was still going strong? “The thought was there, but it did not bother me. And, I had to do it sometime. Four years ago, I pitched the film to a hero, but new-age Telugu films had not picked up steam then. Now, the time seems right. My family has been a huge support, with the condition from my mother and wife (singer Chinmayi) that I must not quit acting.” He’s not, and is part of murder mystery Drushti, and Pawan Kumar’s Tamil-Telugu remake of his Kannada super-hit U-Turn, where he teams up with Samantha again.
After this, Rahul will begin work on his next directorial. “Nag Sir gave me an advance for Annapurna Studios, and it’s such a privilege. To become a footnote in the list of directors who have worked for the studio with a legacy is great. And, it helps that I thoroughly enjoyed direction and want to do this more often. I loved the privilege of calling action and cut. At times, when you see your actors bring alive something that’s in your head, you get super excited. Often, I’d skip cut and shout out ‘200 million times okay’!” says the new director.
And, contrary to people’s perception of Rahul, Chi La Sow was the only love story he’s written. “I have about eight or nine properly fleshed-out story ideas across genres, some of them dark. My wife can’t take people suffering on screen; my mother loves putting herself through that. So, I have a mixed bag in hand. I am game working with other’s scripts too. Like I’ve said before, even a remake as long as it’s not a free-make (remakes without credit). Writing and directing are different skill sets and you don’t have to exercise both in every film you work on.”
Someday, he hopes to make a film in Tamizh, for the sake of his family. “Also, like my brother’s friend Ashwin said, you’ve not really come full circle until you’ve made a film in your mother tongue. Having said that, I’m not pushing for it. Telugu is my industry, Hyderabad is home and these are my people. It was natural to write my first film in Telugu.”
So, is he looking forward to watching the first show with the audience? “Not quite. I could not sit through the test screening itself. After five minutes, my heart was pounding wildly, and I felt uncomfortable. I stood outside the door, and ‘heard’ the film.”