CHENNAI: A year-and-a-half ago documentary filmmaker Rajendra Srivathsa Kondapalli was working on a show, India’s Mega Kitchens for National Geography India, where he was to shoot the making of prasadam at the kitchens of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD).
It was then that he realised that there was much more to TTD than just the darshanam and the ladoos. Also, this temple was always an idea for a documentary for Rajendra since he came across an article in 2008. “As a devotee, I have been there many times, but it was only in 2008 when I read an article about Tirupati that I wanted to make a full-fledged documentary about TTD,” says the filmmaker who has more than 20 years of experience in the field.
His documentary, Inside Tirumala Tirupati, was televised worldwide on Monday and he was ecstatic as it was the first time in the history of Nat Geo that a TV show got so many likes on FB. “The promos were out a few days ago and it received more than 12,000 views.
This means two things — one that this is the first documentary shot inside the temple and, two, there are so many devotees of lord Venkateshwara,” he smiles.
As in most temples across the country, photography and videography is prohibited inside TTD and to get permission to shoot and gain access to the higher authorities as well as inside the temple was indeed a herculean task for Rajendra and his team of six.
“Tirupati is one of the most visited places on Earth and nobody has ever done something like this. All shooting is done by their TV channel SVBC, and it was hard for us to make them agree. I met with many authorities and explained what my idea was,” he says.
According to figures from Tirumala, almost 80,000 devotees visit the temple on normal days and the count goes beyond a lakh during the brahmotsavam. “What intrigued me was the efficient crowd management, the supply of raw material for the prasadam and the never ending supply of flowers.
I wanted to capture all of that. My main aim was to focus on the strategic crowd management,” he adds.
The team researched on the temple and spoke to the authorities for four months and by September 2016, Rajendra had gained their trust and made two schedules for his shoot.
“One was a 15-day schedule in September and the other coincided with the Brahmotsavam in October. That was a surreal experience,” Rajendra says excitedly. The team made sure that they did not break any protocol. “We were a part of the crowd that walked to reach the hilltop and we got our shots,” he shares.
As time went by, the authorities got a sense of what we were doing and extended full support. The documentary has made use of ambient sound, time-lapse and hyper-lapse of photos, along with a few graphic elements. Due to this, the post-production stretched to six months.
“We were not allowed to shoot inside the sanctum sanctorum. Even their own channel is not allowed. For that, we made use of graphics to show layout of the temple and what goes where,” he says.
By the end of the 25-day shoot, the team had so much footage that they were unsure of what to use and what to discard. “The documentary does not preach anything. It shows only what happens inside TTD. We have shot as early as 3 am since some of the rituals begin at that time and there have been times we have shot until late night. I felt they were all integral to the story.”
In due course, Rajendra came across the veda patashala in Dharmagiri. “It follows a gurukula system. Many devotees go to Tirupati just to have a darshan. This was something new,” he smiles adding that they made it a point to showcase the importance of the jeeyars who work every day to provide darshans. Apart from this, their shoot in the kitchens began at 3 am as the preparations for annadanam begins at that time.
The team shot the innermost sanctum through the made-for-television replica temple called ‘Namoona Aalayam’ that allows cameras to capture the special chamber of the main deity (mool virat) without breaking protocol. They also visited the Seshachalm forest.
“They have planted sandalwood trees and in the future hope to use it. Seshachalam was once famous for sandalwood, but over the years most of the trees were chopped. Soon, it will be restored to its past glory.”