Radhika Lavu is a filmmaker with over 10 years of experience. Her production house, Ellanar Films, has successfully partnered with Zee5 to produce Telugu-language digital content. Its Gods of Dharmapuri (GOD), a Telugu web series on Zee5, has won accolades for its bold and gripping narrative style. A Telugu first-of-its-kind, GOD is remarkable saga of power struggles set in Dharmapuri, near the Andhra and Karnataka border.
In an interview with ottwatcher.com, Radhika dwells at length on her creative journey, the challenges she faced, her take on the OTT industry, and future plans. She is currently producing a historic drama titled Unheard, an intimate and unique take on the Indian freedom movement, through the eyes of the nation’s unsung heroes.
You come from a family of businessmen and professionals. What inspired you to carve a niche for yourself in the male-dominated Telugu film industry? Was it your childhood dream to work in the creative field?
I was always fascinated with stories and emotions. What fascinated me the most as a child in these stories was the portrayal of various emotions, which is the essence of any story or ad film. As a child, you do not see the camera or know what is happening behind the scenes. We used to go to Pragati Maidan on the weekends, where they used to screen movies in different languages in a theatre setup. I have great memories of visiting the place whilst accompanied by my friends and watching Spanish, French, German and Italian movies which transcended into an ambition and dream career through the passage of time.
My love for filmmaking started with me watching movies on screen; I was drawn towards understanding how it all works, how a film is made. It was more about the curiosity. As I grew older, I could understand the various nuances and aspects of filmmaking. Today, that passion has reflected in all the work that I do, and my venture Ellanar. The Telugu film industry is like any other industry, and in this day and age, women are breaking the mold everywhere. In the end it is all about exceling at one’s job and sending across a strong message through one’s work.
It has been a wonderful journey for you, starting with the prestigious Goldsmiths, University of London to launching your own production house Ellanar Films. Can you describe the journey in brief? What were the learnings, the new insights learned, and challenges faced?
Every journey is unique, and every journey has its own purpose. My filmmaking education equipped me with the rules of the game and the process of filmmaking since I was beginner at the time and also helped me navigate my way through this dynamic field. As a filmmaking student, I was absorbed in the process of storytelling and spent quality time learning how to master the craft.
The challenge I faced was when I started going to film school was that I was the youngest in my batch and a girl from India, freshly out of under grad college with no experience in the craft but it was a great ground for learning and growth. Post that, just out of film school at twenty-one years of age, I was offered a job of making documentaries for the Government of Andhra Pradesh and I grabbed the opportunity. I travelled a lot across the state to get a better perspective, and this experience taught me so much about life, and the extraordinary power of filmmaking in sending across a message and educating the masses.
Breaking away and transitioning from the mold of being a documentary filmmaker to a commercial filmmaker was also a major challenge post my stint with the AP government. Today, I am proud of Ellanar Films and excited to be spearheading it and producing quality content, through this diverse and enterprising venture. Setting up one’s own production house entails a lot of responsibility, and the experience has been about hard work and passion in equal parts. Looking back, I always wanted to explore more and grow, and the journey has been an overwhelming one, as I fondly reflect over it today.
What are the ways in which OTT platforms are democratizing the film industry by giving opportunities/ new avenues to budding artists, independent filmmakers, etc.?
New OTT avenues give budding filmmakers a chance to showcase their unique worldview and spread their wings, and nobody has to wait for years for the right opportunity to turn up. Today, all that matters is quality content, and there are no barriers stopping a promising talent showcasing and pitching their work. Furthermore, with so many opportunities in the film world today, no good idea goes unheard, and there is less of a hierarchy, allowing newcomers to blossom more than ever.
What kind of trends are you foreseeing to emerge in the film industry post-Covid-19?
The film industry will have a greater emphasis on quality content in the coming years, due to the rise of impeccable, low-budget masterpieces that have been able to generate mass appeal due to the OTT segment. Another trend is leading filmmakers taking to the series format to showcase their craft and a rise in homogenous content that can strike a chord with viewers across various demographics, as the world becomes increasingly digitized.
The Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise for OTT platforms. With theatres shut, OTT release has been the only way out. But, once life returns to normalcy after the pandemic, do you think the audience will stick to OTT platforms as we see today? What is your take on this?
OTT was extremely lucrative, even before the pandemic struck, and I feel that COVID-19 has only speeded up the inevitable. Theatres have traditionally been the greatest viewing platform for families and groups, while OTT is more personal and easier to access. Hence, movie theatres will always remain a hot favorite for family and friends’ outings, etc. and OTT will pick up quicker than ever to cater to customized needs of the consumer, maintaining a healthy balance between the two.
Congratulations on the success of the first season of Gods of Dharmapuri (GOD). Were you expecting this kind of stupendous success for the series?
It has truly been a wonderful year. The response received for the first season of GOD has been overwhelming. I attribute the success and popularity of the show to the entire team of GOD that has worked relentlessly to make it a possibility as well as our audience from across India who have not just viewed GOD but taken the time out to appreciate the various nuances of the show. It gave me a lot of encouragement and good vibes from everyone. GOD has given me more determination to just do better and something bigger.
Please tell us a bit about GOD. What are the key elements that have worked towards the stupendous success of the series?
GOD is an intense gangster crime drama set in Dharmapuri and its power struggles and has today become one of the most popular Telugu web series on Zee5. The idea was to create a work of art that brings a unique story to life and perhaps the audience greatly appreciated a fresh new genre, filled with complicated characters and ingenious plot twists, which was further accentuated through the series’ authentic rustic vibe. Today, the audience truly appreciates out-of-the-box content, and hence, we could envision and bring a dark tale to life, and fill it with imagination, thrill, and intensity.
We have seen an exponential rise of regional content on OTT platforms. With subtitling, language is no longer a barrier for regional filmmakers to showcase their work to the world. Similarly, Hindi films/shows can be watched by regional audiences. How this ‘cross-pollination’ will help regional content generators?
I am of the belief that ‘Glocal’ content (A mix of global and local content) is a powerful tool to bring quality regional film offerings to the world and give them the recognition they deserve. In a country as diverse as India, we have truly produced some great masterpieces in various languages, that have the potential to touch millions of hearts, and I feel that OTT today is playing a huge part in increasing the footprint of quality regional content. Film, like all of art, transcends boundaries and is universal, and I am excited for the boundless possibilities presented through the concept of ‘cross-pollination’.
Streaming services of late are coming under immense pressure, the recent one being the case against Netflix over a kissing scene. Will such moves stifle creative freedom and the growth of OTT in India?
For about a hundred years, Indian filmmakers have been extremely creative in their pursuit of breaking barriers and reflecting the truths of society. Film is a medium that will always remain about liberty, free thought, and creativity. Controversies have been a constant for the cinema world, and I feel filmmakers have always risen to the challenge of protecting their originality and the authenticity of a story and triumphed against societal pressures. That being said, I am a mother to a young, impressionable girl-child and a responsible citizen, apart from being a filmmaker. Hence, I firmly believe that there needs to be accountability; one should have a certain sense of responsibility when producing content and OTT platforms should exercise parental control features.
What is your view on the government move to regulate OTT platforms?
Accountability is important as we are all responsible citizens of the country, trying to create a positive impact on society through our work. And yet, to a filmmaker freedom of expression is extremely important to be able to do justice to a story without artistic boundaries being placed on his creativity. Hence, I believe that there needs to be a certain balance and we must find the thin line and also look at the larger picture.
What are your upcoming projects in the pipeline? Have you signed up with any OTT platforms for any projects?
I am producing a historic drama titled ‘Unheard’, which will be an intimate and unique take on the Indian freedom movement, through the eyes of the nation’s unsung heroes. It is too early for me to comment on any OTT collaborations for the same, but I have always tried to do something different with each venture, and surprise myself with my work. We also have some new and exciting initiatives in the pipeline through which I aim to further expand the Ellanar Banner as a pioneering production house, which celebrates quality film.