The Powerful Short Film Winning Hearts

‘Rapists do have families.’
‘I wanted to see how a father or mother would deal with it.’
‘They go through shame as well and get discriminated from the rest of the village.’
‘Why don’t we show it that way?’

Hyderabad-based film-maker Anusha Rao depicts a fictional story of a rapist’s family against the backdrop of the pandemic in her 29-minute Telugu short-film, Swarna.

Rao’s film is a painful and poetic tale that explores human emotions and intertwines themes of shame, despair, hope and redemption.

Shot at a relative’s home in Nizamabad, Telangana, the film features a troika of novice actors, the townspeople, who come sans any experience in acting.

Rao says she found these people randomly and preferred them over trained actors from Hyderabad and Mumbai.

An engineer by degree, Rao grew up in a household that adores Satyajit Ray’s and Guru Dutt’s films. She worked with Arka Mediaworks (the makers of Baahubali) in the marketing and international distribution department, an experience that shaped up the film-maker in her.

Later, she received her Associates in Science of Film from the Los Angeles Film School, which eventually kicked off her journey as film-maker with indie projects.

Produced by film-maker Venkatesh Maha, Swarna was first shown at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) in 2022 and is now doing the rounds at various public screenings in India.

“People in my village don’t watch films, so they have no sense of it. Because they don’t know methods of acting, the only tool they use is to draw it from their own life,” Anusha tells Mayur Sanap/

Even though Swarna is set in a Telugu-speaking state, it reminded me of rural life in Maharashtra — be it that rustic house, spattering of cow dung water on floor, dot rangoli, the kitchen utensils… It felt so authentic. How much of your own observations and experiences went into making this film?

The film was shot at my father’s hometown at Nizamabad, which is two hours from Hyderabad.

He comes from a farming family, his father, brothers, everyone had been farmers.

He came to Hyderabad and learnt English while learning medicine.

When we were kids, he would take us back home for summer every year, and these are the things I would notice.

That’s the thing about film-making, right? The things you notice all your life, you throw all that into your art.

Villagers live more honest lives than us who live in the city. They don’t have to socialise on weekends. They don’t have these happy new year, Christmas. They live with most honesty.

Ramulu, who plays the father-in-law in the film, was such an interesting person. He would find all these things very fascinating, like, why people are on their phone? Why do we have a touch phone? Somebody walked in (on set) with those jaded pants, which were little torn, and he just looks at them and says, why are you wearing that? Why don’t you wear shorts instead? Your skin is showing anyway.

It’s like the child of a mind, I guess, which older people still have in villages. 

Tell us about the thought behind this film. What inspired you to write this story?

I really like social commentary.

I write about things I feel curious about.

Producer Venkatesh Maha contacted me during the pandemic. He had made this amazing film C/o Kancharapalem. He said let’s make something that revolves around the pandemic, but not the usual issues we face as urban people, like not finding internet or not being able to meet our friends.

He wanted a more rooted story that shows the rural side of things.

I gave him a bunch of ideas. One of them was Swarna, that shows something about a rapist’s family. We’ve always seen films about the victim’s side but never seen the other side.

Such people do have wives. Rapists do have families.

I wanted to see how a father or mother would deal with it.

They go through shame as well and get discriminated from the rest of the village. Why don’t we show it that way?

We shot this during the pandemic for 10 days, and then decided to send it to festivals and stuff.

How big was the on-ground crew?

We were 10, including actors.

The house we shot at belongs to my father’s relatives.

We just asked them to shoot for a week and they were gracious enough to say yes.

What challenges did you face while making this film?

The pandemic, for sure. It was a very difficult time.

People were falling sick. We had to go to the town, live there.

The second thing would be Ramulu. He has a very structured life, which we came in and disturbed a bit.

He was a farmer all his life and had just retired.

Is it true none of the actors are trained professionals?

Yeah. I wanted to get the drama actors but didn’t like anybody.

I found these people very randomly. Ramalu has such an interesting face. I just couldn’t not hire him for this.

His every day timetable is he wakes up, he meets his friends at this bar at 10 o’clock and chills all day. Then he goes home and sleeps. That’s his life.

I met him when he was just passing by. I asked him (if he would like to do a film), and he said no and just walked away.

The next day I had to go to his house and convince him.

The funny thing is he doesn’t know the story. He didn’t care about the story. He would just come and do his part.

I promised to give him a bottle of gin to do this film.

Kumari, who plays the daughter-in-law, is our house help.

My father has a farm house in Nizamabad. I was looking for (Kumari) everywhere and then I just came home, and she was there. I was thinking would she even try. I asked her and she said, yeah, why not?

She was a lot more profound than I thought.

She ended up telling me that she can probably pick the moment from her life which got her a lot of grief and use that emotion to play this role. That is something I hear theatre actors say in Hyderabad and Bombay.

The acting is so natural, it feels like we are eavesdropping on someone’s private conversation. What was your brief to the actors? How did you direct them?

I had to tell the whole story and share details with Kumari and Lakshmi (the actress who plays the mother-in-law), and somehow they were okay with it.

They didn’t say they can’t do it. Neither did they feel uncomfortable. 

This is probably what I will face from a commercial actor in Hyderabad, if I were to cast them.

People in my village don’t watch films, so they have no sense of it. Because they don’t know methods of acting, the only tool they use is to draw it from their own life.

I just had to explain the scene to them.

I wrote the Telugu dialogue in English myself. They would write it down and learn it their own way because they speak in the local dialect.

The daily routine of the protagonist is shown repeatedly to drive home the drudgery of her lonely life — her nursing the baby, being on her mobile phone, cooking, serving food to her in-laws. To some degree, it reminds us of Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

Yes, it was just about the monotonous life that she leads.

The only time her life changes is when her husband passes away.

The information that she shares that she was also a victim to his habits was only to include that she has the courage to speak about it for the first time. It was something she kept inside her for too long. His death was possibly like a very cathartic moment for her to open up.

I didn’t want Ramulu to react too much to that because that is something he probably already knows. The mother also knows, but she’s so much in denial that she’s not able to accept it.

In the second half of the story, when Ramulu comes back after selling the farm and gives the money to her to continue her education, it’s kind of like a happy ending for the three of them.

The mother-in-law, I hope, she respects her even more after that confession. The whole heaviness that they had on their chest is lifted by the end of it.

I didn’t want to give it a tragic ending, especially to Swarna’s character, because it was tragic throughout.

Could you explain the significance of the song accompanying the closing credits of the film? I thought that was really interesting.

When somebody passes away in a village, a lot of women as well as men sing a song like that. They sing about a person who passed away and what he meant to them. They sing a song while crying.

The song wasn’t there in the script.

I asked Ramulu if he knows the song.

He said he was part of the groups in the villages where people used to sing these kinds of folk tunes. These songs were not just about death but tell various kinds of stories as well. It was magical to see him singing.

He actually has a son he doesn’t really get along with, and I don’t know if he thought of him while doing that with that intensity! He sang it beautifully.

How tough is it to secure funding for films like this? How did you manage to get that?

It was all Mahayana Motion Pictures (the production house).

They have produced indie films in the past, and Swarna is their first short film.

Everyone in the crew got paid, but a lot of people help a lot with their favours — the camera equipment, sound equipment for edit, colour grading, music. We got all these things through somebody’s help.

What reactions are you getting for the film?

It is really good. Even at NCPA (the National Centre for Performing Arts, where Swarna was screened recently), it was very interesting to see what the host was asking. It was a longer interview and the audience asked many interesting questions.

I love the kind of things you also noticed. This is very exciting for a film-maker.

It obviously makes my day.

What are your future plans?

I wrote the screenplay for Stand Up Rahul. It’s a Telugu feature about a stand-up comedian, who doesn’t stand up for himself.

I do script supervising as well.

I worked for a Hindi project, which is a remake of the Malayalam film, Angamaly Diaries.

I just finished working on a feature documentary. It’s a food documentary, and I worked as an associate on that.

I work on shows and films in Hyderabad, and I do these shorts on the side just for fun, when a producer comes forward or when I want to invest in my own experimental work.

When I met Mr Ajit Balakrishnan (the founder, chairman and CEO of at NCPA, he said something very funny. He and his wife, I believe, go to NCPA a lot. We started talking as I happened to sit next to them.

He said short films is the future because of the attention span of people, which will keep going lower and lower.

His words stayed with me.

Source: Read Full Article