Director Sriram Venu wears a relaxed look as we meet him in his quiet office off Srinagar Colony’s busy road to discuss his ambitious project, Vakeel Saab. The film is close to his heart as it features his favourite actor, Pawan Kalyan in the lead role. He cherishes the journey of directing the celebrated actor forever and counts it as a great learning experience.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How did Vakeel Saab happen?
Dil Raju garu introduced me to Trivikram Srinivas, who recommended my name to Pawan Kalyan garu. Pink released four years ago and when I watched it, I never thought it will be remade in Telugu and I would direct it. I must say directing Vakeel Saab was an accidental opportunity (laughs).
Is the film a faithful remake of Pink?
Vakeel Saab is not a frame-to-frame remake of Pink as I have infused a lot of regional flavour that would gel well with the original. However, I have kept the psyche and soul of Pink intact. Also, I have restyled the story to suit the cultural sensitivities of our audience while keeping in mind the star power of Pawan Kalyan. I haven’t deviated from the original and I did my homework to ensure that I can leave behind my signature with pride.
How do you justify the title?
Pawan Kalyan garu is playing a character named Satyadev, a lawyer, who is fondly called Vakeel Saab. While the film is being told from the perspective of three women, Pawan Kalyan’s character takes the centre stage during the course of the narration. How these two dots connect is what Vakeel Saab is all about. You will come to know why we have chosen this title after watching the film.
The promos and songs have raised the expectations. Are you feeling any pressure to deliver a hit?
There is no pressure whatsoever. I am over the moon. I am happy that I have worked with my favourite hero, Pawan Kalyan garu. I have no words to describe this feeling. I was so lucky to have this experience and I think I will cherish this memory for a lifetime. I have spent 42 days with him on the sets and I never discussed anything beyond cinema because the film is so special to me. I am a self-satisfied person and I have fulfilled my wish with Vakeel Saab. I am ready to accept the audience verdict and personally, I wouldn’t settle for anything less than a blockbuster (laughs). As I said, this experience is precious and anything else is a bonus.
Vakeel Saab is dubbed as the comeback film of Pawan Kalyan. Have you put in an extra effort to make it a special film in his career?
I stayed true to my craft and being an ardent fan of Pawan Kalyan garu, my task was only to translate his image onto the screen. Rajinikanth garu once said: “A star hero doesn’t need a director for his film, his ardent fan can do the job for him”. I did exactly what Rajini garu said. Kalyan garu gave me complete freedom to execute my ideas. The only message I got from him was: ‘Koncham jagrathaga cheyyandi (Pls be little more careful)’ to which I replied, “I will give my heart and soul.” Recently, after watching the film, Kalyan garu said: “Baaga teesaru (You have done a good job).” These words mean a lot to me.
What are the challenges while adapting a critically acclaimed film into a different language and culture?
Our audience watch films with a lot of expectations and they like movies that promise to entertain, with elements of action, entertainment, songs and so on. Adding to that, if a film features a big star like Pawan Kalyan, the expectations knows no bounds. Here, the challenge lies in living up to the expectations and helping the film reach a wider audience. I have neatly packaged this film with all commercial ingredients, but the story didn’t allow me to blow up certain aspects. In general, we will hear two versions while dealing with such sensitive subjects. The first one is the director stayed true to the original and the second being we expected more from the storyteller. Having said that, I tried my best to balance both aspects and have taken the responsibility to ensure that our film doesn’t disappoint anyone.
What are the challenges you faced as a director?
As a director my job is to bring the art and audience closer. One should adapt to the changing times and connect well with the audience through their films. A film should enrich me as well as the audience. The real challenge was staying true to my vision. Then we had a major issue like the Covid-19 pandemic, which has delayed the production abruptly. I was thoroughly disappointed. During the lockdown, many people called me saying: “We are waiting for Vakeel Saab”. Even I was waiting with bated breath to see my favourite actor in action after three years. But, we can’t complain much as the world is combating a dangerous virus.
While Amitabh Bachchan played a cameo in Pink, how much footage Pawan Kalyan has in Vakeel Saab?
He plays a full-length character and the details about his screen time, I want to announce it personally in the pre-release event of Vakeel Saab. I must say it’s the actor Pawan Kalyan who dominated the star in this film.
While Pink had no heroine for Amitabh, Vakeel Saab has one for Pawan Kalyan. Why did you create a heroine for him and roped in Shruti Hassan?
The characters aren’t forced and the story demanded Shruti’s character. There is a flashback episode in the film and I don’t want to spill the beans about it right now (laughs).
The story of Vakeel Saab is hinged on three women (Nivetha Thomas, Anjali, Ananya Nagalla). But there was no trace of them in the first look poster.
I agree that I have disappointed about 5% of the audience and I apologise for it. I take the criticism in my stride. I would say Vakeel Saab is as much Pawan Kalyan’s film as it is about these women. It marks his return to the cinema after four years. If you see the brighter side of this story, I didn’t leave 95% of the audience and the trade circles disappointed.
How do you rate the performances of these women?
They are unique in their own ways and all of them were fabulous actors. Nivetha Thomas is a brilliant actor and Anjali is equally good. Ananya Nagalla was relatively new and she took some time to get used to the proceedings. Nevertheless, she did justice to her character.
How did you fit in three songs in the film?
Not three, there are four songs in total. The fourth one is a surprise. I have written an altogether different story for Vakeel Saab without deviating from the original. I have adapted the screenplay in such a way that I could place four songs in the narrative.
How do you sum up the experience of working with Pawan Kalyan?
Working with him was a great learning experience, both personally and professionally. He offered valuable inputs and suggestions which enabled me to complete this film at a rapid pace. He was a master of multitasking as he would balance his films and political work with finesse. He is one of the actors who takes the pressure off you. Personally, I have learnt to shoot with multiple cameras and parallel editing while working on this film.
A still from Vakeel Saab have found its way to social media. What do you have to say about it?
I was literally disappointed. Kalyan garu’s films always generate a lot of curiosity among the audience. To minimize the damage, we have released the still officially.
Are you a fan of remakes?
I am a fan of cinema. I don’t categorise cinema as a commercial and non-commercial entity. I don’t carry cultural baggage either. I go all out to watch a foreign film with the same enthusiasm I have for a Telugu film.
Did you feel insecure about your career at any point of time?
Definitely not. My debut film, Oh My Friend, was indeed a good attempt but didn’t work at the box-office. After that, I worked as an assistant writer for a few films. Two of my films were shelved after celebrating pooja ceremonies. Then, I bounced back with MCA. I have learnt from my mistakes and the failures or the hurdles I have come across in my life helped me to complete Vakeel Saab without any difficulty.
Any plans of trying your hand at OTT platforms?
Of course. I am not in a hurry and waiting for the right opportunity to spread my wings.