Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Gunasekhar and Neelima on ‘Shaakuntalam’: Samantha is the perfect choice to portray Shakuntala’s quiet inner strength

Dev Mohan and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in director Gunasekhar’s ‘Shaakuntalam’

Dev Mohan and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in director Gunasekhar’s ‘Shaakuntalam’
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A phrase that producer Neelima Guna and her father, director Gunasekha, use to describe the essence of their film Shaakuntalam, headlined by Samantha Ruth Prabhu, is ‘mythology for millennials’. In an hour-long conversation in their Hyderabad office, the father-daughter duo discuss how they strived to convey the essence of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit play Abhijnanasakuntalam while trying to make it appealing to a contemporary audience. The Telugu film will also release in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi on April 14.

Gunasekhar points out that one of the first screen adaptations of Abhijnanasakuntalam was the 1940 Tamil film Sakuntalai directed by Ellis R Dungan, with M S Subbulakshmi playing the title role. The latter adaptations included Shakuntala (1943) and Stree (1961) in Hindi by V Shantaram and a Telugu film Sakunthala (1966) starring NTR and Saroja Devi, directed by Kamalakara Kameswara Rao. “We haven’t witnessed many on-screen mythological dramas since the 1960s. Of late, people are again showing an interest in historical and mythological stories. The earlier adaptations of Shakuntala’s story had more drama and retained some of the Sanskrit poetry. We have toned down the melodrama for the younger generation.” Neelima agrees and adds that Shaakuntalam’s aesthetics — dialogues, performances, production design, costumes and the visual palette — are in line with this thought process.

Inner strength

Producer Neelima Guna was keen to witness a contemporary adaptation of Shakuntala’s story

Producer Neelima Guna was keen to witness a contemporary adaptation of Shakuntala’s story
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Neelima was particular that the actor playing Shakuntala had to be someone who is perceived as a role model. “Shakuntala’s journey depicts her quiet inner strength. The actor portraying this character has to look demure, delicate and showcase the strength of someone who will stand for truth. Samantha was the perfect fit.” Gunasekhar was convinced with this reasoning, “Samantha is a youth icon and if she took up this role, we knew that the reach would be good.”

Once Samantha came on board, she trained with Aruna Bhikshu, professor of dance at the University of Hyderabad, to get the required body language. Samantha tweaked her workouts and incorporated animal flow movements to look like the part of Shakuntala.

Dev Mohan was chosen to play King Dushyant after Neelima and Gunasekhar saw him in the Malayalam film Sufiyum Sujatayum. “He had that spark in his eyes and we found our prince charming,” says Neelima. A screen test followed. Then Dev Mohan trained in horse riding and sword fighting.

Shakuntala and Dushyant’s son, prince Bharata, required an expressive child actor. Neelima chanced upon Allu Arjun and his wife Sneha Reddy’s Instagram reels of their daughter Allu Arha. “Arha trained with us and it was a joy listening to her speak Telugu. She has been raised to speak her mother tongue and does not know English. She taught me that magnet is called ‘ice kantham’ (six-year-old Arha’s pronunciation of ayaskantham) in Telugu. Conversing with her, I grew confident that the viewers of Shaakuntalam will also take to some of the old-world Telugu words used in the film,” says Neelima.

Visual splendour

Director Gunasekhar

Director Gunasekhar
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The seven-act play written by Kalidasa, says Gunasekhar, had vivid descriptions. “His poetry is imaginative and you can visualise the spectacle while reading it.” Extensive research and development preceded the making of the film. “The pre-production took nearly a year. We filmed Shaakuntalam in five months since we had every detail planned. The post-production and visual effects took two years. We had no reference for a contemporary adaptation of Shakuntala’s story. For filmmakers in the near future, we wanted our film to be a reference and put in a lot of effort.”

The crew filmed in Uttarakhand and Kashmir for the portions that depict the vicinity of Kanvaashram and Kashyapa’s ashram. The original footage was enhanced with CGI. Animation and visual effects studio Phantom helped design the animals in the forest.

“Whatever could be done as real sets, we did not spare the effort. For the rest, we relied on CGI. A nearly 100-feet-long indoor durbar set was put up by art director Ashok Kolarath,” says Gunasekhar.

‘Shaakuntalam’ is an adaptation of Kalidasa’s play ‘Abhijnanasakuntalam’

‘Shaakuntalam’ is an adaptation of Kalidasa’s play ‘Abhijnanasakuntalam’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The director’s last film, the period historical drama Rudhramadevi, starring Anushka Shetty, also relied on visual effects and was presented in 3D. Looking back, Gunasekhar says that was the first Indian historical film to be shot in stereoscopic 3D and then visual effects were incorporated, which was a tedious process. So it had its limitations. “Things have improved now. We filmed Shaakuntalam in 2D and converted it into 3D. This ensured better visual effects. This time we also had better budgets since we associated with producer Dil Raju who supported our vision.”

In Gunasekhar’s career of a little more than three decades, there have been mainstream hits such as Chiranjeevi’s Choodalani Vundi and the Mahesh Babu starrers Okkadu and Arjun. He has also nurtured an interest in stories based on mythology and history. His third film Ramayanam (1997) starred around 5,000 child actors and featured 14-year-old NTR Jr as Lord Rama. “Some of the journalists who used to see me conduct workshops with children at Annapurna Studios took pity on me. They advised me to do films with mid-range heroes and slowly build them up, rather than risk making an ambitious film with children. But I sensed the potential. When children perform well, entire families will come and watch.”

Before Gunasekhar turned director, he was awed by the mythological directed by Bapu and the historicals and mythologicals starring NTR. When he worked as an assistant director in Chennai, he would eagerly watch Hollywood period dramas in Casino and Sapphire theatres. “I knew what I was doing while directing Ramayanam. I was married and Neelima was born; I was not going to do something that would put my family at risk.” Ramayanam fared well and also won the National Award for Best Children’s Film. This film caught the attention of Chiranjeevi who asked him to direct Choodalani Vundi.

While Gunasekhar is open to doing a fun masala film like Okkadu once again, he is equally game for large-scale mythological dramas. Prior to Shaakuntalam, he had extensively researched the story of Hiranyakashipu. “We had to put it on hold during the pandemic. We have several superhero and larger-than-life antagonist stories in our puranas. Who can be a better antagonist than Hiranyakashipu?” he asks.

For now, Gunasekhar and Neelima hope that Shaakuntalam will bring family audiences to the theatres. “We talk about Disney stories when we want to tell our children how people lived in harmony with animals. What Shakuntala did is no less,” they say as a parting shot.

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