Director Prasanth Varma discusses his Telugu zom-com, through which he attempts a satire on film tropes in the Rayalaseema faction backdrop
Imagine zombies visiting Rayalaseema, a region represented by ‘faction’ stories in Telugu cinema for a long time. Warring families, a flashback, and revenge. In Zombie Reddy, scheduled to release in theatres on February 5, director Prasanth Varma attempts a satire on the common tropes of faction films. ‘Samarasimha Reddy meets Shaun of the Dead’ is how the film’s team describes the zom-com (zombie comedy).
Prasanth began working on the film in late 2019, building on the storyline he had from seven years ago. A virus played a crucial part in the story, necessitating some of the characters to wear masks. Meanwhile, COVID-19 surged in China and would soon take over the world. Prasanth named the virus in his film as coronavirus and some of the events in the film were later re-fashioned after events that took place during the lockdown in India.
Filming during the pandemic
- The production team resumed filming with caution, after lockdown. The unit would work for a week, followed by a fortnight-long quarantine. “Luckily none of us tested positive. We filmed scenes that required minimum people on set and gradually built it up. I deputed one person from production and direction departments to supervise sanitisation and to ensure everyone had their masks on,” reveals Prasanth, who points out at the irony. In the initial days of shoot prior to lockdown, it was tough to find masks for the characters that had to sport them on screen. Later, of course, masks became the norm for everyone.
“Things fell into place for the film,” says Prasanth. The Zombie Reddy unit had shot for 12 days before lockdown and were among the first to begin filming soon after restrictions were lifted.
Writing on the go
Prasanth had the basic structure of the story and detailed characters. What he didn’t have was a bound script. He and his team from Scriptsville (the script bank which he mooted) improvised dialogues on set. Sensing the surprise at this disclosure, coming from a director whose debut film won two National Awards, he adds, “This isn’t something I am proud of. But this method worked best for this film because we were able to incorporate incidents inspired by COVID-19.” Prasanth’s debut film Awe won the National Awards for makeup and special effects, and was critically acclaimed for bending the norms of storytelling in an otherwise formulaic Telugu cinema. Both Awe and his second film Kalki had detailed scripts before he went to shoot.
Nevertheless, he says he had a blast translating the zombies in Rayalaseema idea on screen: “It was a physically strenuous film; we had more than 500 zombies in the climax sequence. But I thoroughly enjoyed making this zombie comedy,” he shares.
Before Zombie Reddy, Prasanth had another idea for a zombie film and had pitched it to Samantha a couple of years ago. She liked the script but wondered how it would translate on screen. After watching Awe, Prasanth reveals that she agreed to work with him, but budget and other factors didn’t work out.
Not a small film
In the meantime, he fleshed out the idea of Zombie Reddy and his cousin Raj Sekhar Varma came on board as the producer. Zombie Reddy may not have A-list stars, but that didn’t stop the producer from spending on what’s required for the film. Prasanth reiterates that his project is not a small film.
Long time friend Teja Sajja was chosen to play the male lead and Prasanth chose Daksha after an audition, and Anandhi after watching her Tamil films. “Anandhi is Telugu and that helped. We wanted someone who would grasp the dialogues on the spot since we were improvising on set. The girls have done a fantastic job. Teja and I had wanted to work together for a few years, but both of us were struggling. He got recognition with Oh! Baby and I made my name with Awe and Kalki. We share similar interests and he would easily enact what I wanted.”
Dressing up the zombie characters required preparation. International makeup artists were expensive to hire so Prasanth and the makeup artists looked at YouTube tutorials and did more than 10 trials. “The junior artists didn’t have it easy. With all the makeup, blood and dust, their visibility was diminished and sometimes they would trip and fall while running,” says Prasanth.
Nagendra Tangala who did the art direction for Kalki and Mark Robin from Awe collaborated again with Prasanth for the zom-com. One song was composed by Kalabhairava.
Looking back, Prasanth says he is “super confident” that the audience will love the film. He gauged the reactions during test screenings and says, “It’s a two-hour-two-minute film that will keep viewers entertained. I think we have a blockbuster on hand.”