Thoughts on the often-overlooked producer of a film, occasioned by the passing of Edida Nageswara Rao.
When I heard that Edida Nageswara Rao had died, my first thoughts were about the three films – Shankarabharanam, Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli in Tamil), Swati Muthyam (Sippikkul Muthu in Tamil, Eeshwar in Hindi) – that defined him as a certain kind of producer, at least to non-Telugu audiences. But before getting into that, we may need to consider that producers never really become “names” to the average audience member. We remember the splashy banners – say, the AVM production house, or Yash Raj. We remember directors. We remember stars – the people right in front of the camera, the people whose faces draw us in. Ask the man on the street, and he’ll tell you Salangai Oli is a Kamal Haasan movie, and that Jayaprada looked mind-bogglingly beautiful in it, and that the film had a magnificent score by Ilayaraja. A smaller bunch may recall the director, K Viswanath. But only film-industry trackers and those who write about cinema would probably remember Edida Nageswara Rao, whose money made the movie possible in the first place.
This isn’t a uniquely Indian problem. Even with Hollywood films, no one outside the business really cares about the producer. Well, maybe they used to, once upon a time – which is why the poster for the biggest blockbuster of 1939 announces “David O Selznick’s production of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind.” You’ll have to search, far below, for the name of the director, Victor Fleming. But gradually, the cult of the director took over. He replaced the producer – at least in public perception – as the driving force behind a movie. By the 1950s, you begin to hear of “Hitchcock films.” But a producer can be as instrumental in shaping a film. Take the case of Brokeback Mountain. Sometime in 1997, Diana Ossana, the film’s eventual producer and screenwriter, read Annie Proulx’s short story, about two gay cowboys, in The New Yorker. “Two-thirds of the way through reading the story, I began to sob, and I sobbed all the way to the end,” she said later. “I was floored. Emotionally exhausted, I went to sleep, got up the next morning and read it again because I wanted to see if it affected me as much in broad daylight as it did in the middle of the night. Its effect on me was even more profound.”
Ossana asked (eventual co-screenwriter) Larry McMurtry to read the story. He loved it. They wrote Proulx a letter, asking to option the story to them so that they could adapt it for a screenplay. Proulx responded within a week, and by the end of 1997, there was a screenplay. They tried to get the script into production. Many directors came and went. Many actors were interested, until they weren’t anymore. Then, in late 2003, Ang Lee came on board. “I never really lost faith,” Ossana said, “but I didn’t think it would take seven years… People wouldn’t truly commit. They’d read it, they’d love it, they’d waver or anguish about it – and then something that paid more money or whatever would come along, and they’d just let it go. And then I’d simply press on, contacting more directors and actors, sending it to people to read and to consider.” The film was finally released in December 2005.
This is what a producer does, sometimes. They’re the first people in on a project, and they bring in the others – the others who, ironically, go on to become more identified with the project. I take the example of Brokeback Mountain because Edida Nageswara Rao’s films were as tough a sell in the marketplace. I don’t know if he conceived these films, the way Ossana did – maybe he did, or maybe the director approached him with an idea and asked if he’d like to produce it. I’m just talking about the fact that he financed these projects that were no one’s idea of a sure-fire hit. Shankarabharanam had at its core the guru-shishya tradition, and it was filled with Carnatic music – there was even a plot point about a mis-sung avarohanam. And Salangai Oli, the story of a classical dancer who weeps at the commercialization of dance, is practically a mirror to the movies, where art often matters less than commerce.
Picture courtesy: moonramkonam.com/
It’s easy to mock the other kind of producer, the more commercial kind – but consider the way movies are made in India. There are a few studios, yes, but most films are produced by individuals who spend crores on star fees and director/technician fees and production costs. It’s only natural that, in order to recover these investments, they veer towards the more commercial end of the spectrum. But that’s why a producer like Edida Nageswara Rao becomes even more remarkable. Even in this market, he made those movies. You may argue that it was easier to make these movies then because the audience was open to a larger variety of films, and they weren’t as distracted by other entertainment options as they are today – but how many others, back then, made similar films? The opening credits of Salangai Oli appear on still pictures of religious iconography – conch shell, discus, the U-shaped forehead mark, the bow and arrow – and Rao’s name appears on an image of the god’s palm, raised as if in benediction. That’s pretty symbolic. Without the producer’s blessing, there would be no film to talk about today.
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