Chandrajith Belliappa: From writing programs to writing screenplays

Chandrajith Belliappa grew up in a small town in Karnataka. As a child he wanted to be an actor first, and later a director. This in itself isn’t unusual –  we’ve all had our share of childhood dreams. But Chandrajith kept his interest alive through school, college, and during his years as a software engineer. He read spy novels, wrote scripts, made short films with a friend, and when he got an opportunity to move full-time into the Kannada film industry, he didn’t hesitate

In his four years as a writer in this industry, he has worked on films like Kirik Party and Avane Srimannarayana, which were among the biggest box office hits in recent years. He has also directed a short film titled ‘Rainbow Land’ in the anthology Katha Sangama

Chandrajith and I talked about his transition from Software Engineer to Film Writer and Director, but along the way I also got to hear about the way some things work in the film industry. And it’s not always what you imagine from the outside.

This episode is hosted on Buzzsprout and is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Sticher, and other podcast players.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Perhaps a good place to begin would be to look at your current occupation.  Can you tell me a bit about your current role in the Kannada film industry as writer and director? 

I am employed as a full time screenwriter at this production house called Paramvah Studios. I juggle between various roles but primarily I do a lot of screenwriting. Probably a year from now I will be looking at directing a couple of features as well. 

Paramvah Studios owned by Rakshit Shetty, one of the famous actor-director in Kannada films. And as I understand so you’ve been working with him for a few years now, since 2016? 

Yes, I am working with him for close to four years now. 

You’ve collaborated with him on Kirik Party, Avane Srimannarayana and also this short film that you’ve made Katha Sangama.

Katha Sangama was in collaboration with Rishab Shetty sir.  The others were with Rakshit Shetty sir. 

It basically started with a project called Thugs of Malgudi which he was supposed to direct and in which he and Sudeep were supposed to act together. I joined as a writer for that project but eventually that didn’t materialize and then I made a transition into Kirik Party

In Kirk Party you were also the assistant director, isn’t it? 

Yes. I was not there for the entire movie — I joined from the second half, so I was there for the writing and then he asked me to be there on the sets as well. So that’s how I ended up being assistant director for that movie.  

What does the role of an assistant director typically involve? 

Probably in the pre-production it’s more of a creative role, but once it matures into shooting stage or post-production stage it’s more of making directors life lot easier in respect to everything, in managing stuff and probably creating inputs as well.

As a writer you are a part of this team working on the script. Now how does this evolve once the shooting starts – are you writers still actively involved? 

Usually we writers are there for the first few days or for the first few schedules but eventually we move out to a different project, but if there are certain critical scenes that have to be closely monitored then we would be present. Avane Srimannarayana involved lot of writing and rewriting even through shooting phase and after shooting as well. So with respect to Avane Srimannarayana, we were closely involved throughout until the release, in the editing and other post production processes. 

Let’s move back in time a little bit, you said you actually had this love for films right from your early age — tell me more about that. When did it start — when did this love for films and film making begin? 

As long as I remember I think I always wanted to be in movies. Probably I started off with an aspiration of becoming an actor. I was fan of Shah Rukh and I idolized him — even now I idolize him — and I wanted to be an actor. But when I was in second or third standard we were taken to this children’s film festival and there I happened to watch a movie called Halo, by Santosh Sivan (he had directed it). That movie somehow appeared completely different to me and it was beautifully shot, it was a beautiful idea, it was a beautiful movie as well and that stuck with me and I think from then on I wanted to make films. But that idea somehow faded away and I was stuck on to that acting part. Eventually I took up writing and then again I wanted to be a director. I think right from my primary school days it was there.

During school and college were you also writing plays and did you get into theatre? 

I wouldn’t say theatre but there were a lot of skits in which I used to participate. I used to write and act, and more importantly it was all impromptu.

I am someone who read lot of things as a kid. Probably 90% of whatever I read in my life was before 10th standard. My sisters were into lot of reading, so I read lot of magazines, novels across languages like Kannada and English as well. There was this series of Kannada magazines that used to publish… I wouldn’t say sleazy but you know how James Bond novels are right, it’s filled with adventure and then a couple of other things as well. I was influenced a lot by those kinds of stories or novels and I used to try writing spy based novels — I still have them somewhere. That’s how you know the whole writing habit kicked in. 

Then you actually then went into college to study engineering, you did your computer science engineer at UVCE. So how did that come about? Because if you wanted to do something in films you could have gotten into arts but you chose engineering — why was that? 

First of all I am from Madikeri, which was a very small town then, so exposure to various other fields was a lot lesser. So you don’t know how this would branch out. When I was in 12th I was pretty sure that I wanted to be in movies, I told my parents that I wanted to be in movies, but I didn’t know how to go about it. And unfortunately, I was also doing very well in academics. Basically I am from a middle class background as well, so you would want to go for a lot safer career path. My teachers, parents and everyone wanted me to take up that path.

I told my parents I want to take up fashion designing because I didn’t know how to enter the film industry. And when they asked why, I told them that I want to get into movies, so probably from here I could get into movies. But then they asked me to take up engineering and I took up engineering. And once I took up engineering I fell in love with programming and all that, so there is no regrets to that. I still do love programming. 

And you kept your love for movie and the movie ambitions alive through engineering as well — how were you active at that time? 

I used to write a lot in the first couple of years and when I was in third year I met a friend called Haravinthan who helped me do lot of short movies. He had the tool kit: software and hardware both like camera, tripod, dolly and everything and he had an editing suite as well. So he used to do a lot of experiments. I think he is someone who has had a major hand in keeping up my aspirations alive. And friends and cousins were also supportive throughout. 

So after engineering you joined SAP as a programmer in 2012, and you worked there for about four years. Tell me about that experience — how was it working in SAP and what kind of roles were you involved in? 

When I joined SAP as a fresher a new team was formed, so it was a big team completely filled with 40 to 50 freshers. And SAP was moving from its traditional ABAP into web app phase, so that team was completely cut off from the traditional SAP culture on the way how things are approached or probably the technology being used. It was more like a college life once again, there was not much pressure. I mean it was not a mechanical job. It was very exciting because SAP was still in that experimental phase when they transitioned into web apps. So lot of experiments on day to day basis, which was very exciting. 

Did you have a kind of community or network of movie enthusiasts at SAP? I have heard of others also from SAP labs who entered the movie industry as actors or directors — were you in touch with them? 

I think Nirup Bhandari who acted in Rangi Taranga was there when I was in SAP, but we never met. In the first year I was more into writing, probably in second year or so there was some event and then I was asked to by my manager Aruna to do an informative video on certain topic. I ended up shooting a short film for that. 

So, after that I think I shot couple of more videos at SAP, but most of my learning and exercises were outside work. I used to still shoot on weekends and people around me were supportive. 

So while at SAP Labs you were working on some personal projects creating short movies, but in 2016 you took a full time role in Paramvah Studios. Tell me about that transition. What made you take it up full time?

As I mentioned I was involved with Rakshit in this Thugs of Malgudi project. I think I had put 3-4 months into that and eventually he asked me if I could quit my job and join him as full-time writer because he had plans of starting a writers’ group. I asked him to give me a couple of minutes. And I took a couple of minutes and then said ok, I will quit my job. Then I went to my manager and told her that I am quitting my job. Then probably after a couple of hours I told my parents that I have quit my job. It was a very quick decision.

A couple of minutes! What went on in the couple of minutes? 

I tried to weigh things against each other, but then I realized that if I put more thought into it then probably it is going to affect me emotionally. Then I told myself that I will try this out and if this doesn’t work out then I can always come back. So that was my mindset, and I said, ok, I will give it a try.

And then you told your parents as well after a couple of hours. What was their reaction?

My mom asked me: is this going to help you in the long run? Are you confident about it? I said yes and then they were like ok, well then, good luck. 

You actually haven’t had any formal education in films, isn’t it? Did you consider joining a film institute to learn it formally?

There was a time when I contemplated that. That was in 12th standard but then later I learnt filming is more about…that formal education shouldn’t be attached with cinema because it is a diverse art form.

So the learning has been mainly on the job.

And a lot of subconscious learning from the movies that you watch.

The transition itself was fast, but you may have gone in with some expectations in this full-time role. How did those expectations match the reality?

Frankly speaking when I made the transition, my expectations were very low with respect to everything, with respect to financial stability or film making opportunities that would come my way. So those were kept very low. But I had also set a target for myself. I said to myself that I would do this writing for one year and then probably I will make my transition as a director. So that one year financially I took a hit. That was there but I was prepared for it.

But then after Kirik Party, I couldn’t make a transition as a director because I thought that I quit my job to become a writer and I have joined Rakshit in this newly formed writers’ team. He had certain vision for the writers’ team because he wanted to inculcate writing habits in Kannada film making aspirants. That was his goal. So I told myself that since I have quit my job to support this idea, then why not put a couple of more years so that I could write more scripts and probably inspire others also to take up writing as a career. I don’t know about inspiring others, but I am pretty much happy with whatever I have done till now.

Let’s look at some differences between the two occupations. On the programming side at SAP, you work in a team and the team sees the work or maybe the customer sees the software, but when it comes to movies it is a lot more public, isn’t it? And in this public sphere you may have to face criticism. 

For e.g. one review of Avane Srimannarayana in the Indian Express says ”The way Rakshit Shetty and his team have written Narayana however has problems. The over-smartness of the hero doesn’t develop into something bigger and significant. The film promises that there is more to the hero than meets the eye” 

How do you deal with criticism of this sort? Was it difficult initially to deal with public criticism of your work? 

Criticism doesn’t affect me much because I am someone who has been writing from childhood and people around me always used to give me feedback. My sisters are my greatest critics. So I am used to all these feedbacks. I take what is significant, what will help me improve. 

I wouldn’t say that I was not affected by all the negative reviews or certain brickbats that came our way, but there were certain times when the criticism was very blatant or personal. So those were the things that affected me a little but otherwise criticism was something I could derive some learning out of, and I don’t think that it affected me negatively.

So there was nothing that made you feel that you want to get back into the safe world of programming

There were certain things that made me feel that way. One because we had spent so much time writing Avane Srimannarayana, probably 2-3 years, our expectations were high. We were also releasing the movie in multiple languages. So we were expecting the movie to do or to be received really well across languages. But when didn’t happen, that certainly affected me. In Kannada it was great. But I was expecting the movie to be loved by other language audience as well.

So, that was a little let down. After the movie was released, I took a one-week break. I went home, I did lot of introspection and then I decided to write more scripts. 

How do you work as a team of writers when it comes to long movie? There are different scenes, there are different characters. How do you as a group of writers divide this work?

Again it would vary from movie to movie. For certain movies like whole team would sit and develop the scripts and certain scripts you need to write as an individual. With respect to our projects, Kirik Party was something where a team of writers were involved, and with Avane Srimannarayana 7 of us were involved. 

So there we had to first develop the story, the story structure, the plot points as well and that took a lot of time. We used to debate a lot every single day. We follow something we call index cards where we put plot points and move it around and derive a timeline out of it. And when the scripting happened i.e. the transition from the story phase to the screenplay phase, each one of us was asked to come up with scenes. Scene ideas were there but to construct a scene you have to get the pitch of the movie right, you have to get the mood of the characters right, etc.

So each one of us was asked to write and come up with scenes for a particular plot point and then from one of us, I wouldn’t say who but one of us, the scene was selected and eventually we stuck to scene treatment for the entire movie. Rakshit was closely involved, he was also one of the writers and Sachin was also one of the writers. So they had a vision as how the pitch of the movie should be and after that we stuck to that pitch. 

But what about the aspect of characters? Characters need to be consistent through the movie, and if there are multiple writers writing different scenes of the same character, wouldn’t there be an unevenness? 

That’s why a leader is very important. We need to have a good leader who would say that this is what works and what doesn’t. So Rakshit was someone who took up that role when we submitted our scenes. He used to take a call on whether this is in line with whatever we are thinking in the larger picture or not. 

When we team of writers sit for the scene discussion, sometimes the discussion would go on for a week for just one scene. So he was someone who would put a hard stop saying guys, I think this is time we stop discussing this scene; this is what I think and let us stick to it. 

Regarding characters, by the time we finish the story structure we knew how the characters would speak, we knew the back stories of those characters and the temperaments of the characters as well. So there was no such problem in writing the scenes. We were almost in line with the definitions of the character but again Rakshit took a call as whether it was working or not. 

We first wrote the entire script in English, then we sat down to do it in Kannada. I wouldn’t say translate, but it was more of rewriting things into Kannada. And there every word that was put in, every dialogue, every word, we discussed and debated because we knew what kind of words this specific character uses. What kind of dialect, the choice of words, the way he puts across things, etc. So every single word was discussed and debated before it was put on paper.

That’s fascinating. You people first wrote the script in English and then rewrote that in Kannada. Is that the normal process that you follow or was it only for this particular movie? 

The problem was that most of us write in English first. Even now whatever scripts I am writing, I write it in English first. Over the years since I have been writing in English, now whatever thought occurs, it is first formed in English. It is always better to put that thought in the language in which it originates. So when I write, things form in English, I put things in English and later I sit down to rewrite it into Kannada. 

You have been in the software industry for about 4 years and now the 4 years in the film industry. What are some of the learnings you had with SAP that have helped you in these last 4 years in the film industry?

Consciously I don’t know but subconsciously there are many things that have influenced me. When I joined SAP as a fresher, we were put into this new project where lots of experiments were going on, so we used to have a lot of heated debates and I was sort of a person who would fight till the end.

But I think over the period of time my temperament improved. My temper and temperament both improved. I think that has helped me lot here.

Are there some aspects of your old life, as a programmer at SAP that you miss?

Yes, I think the social life of SAP i.e. being around with a larger team, is something I would miss here. At SAP there were people from diverse backgrounds, here it is a relatively smaller team and people are from similar background as well. So with respect to diversity and diverse people, I think that is something I miss here.

I understand that you still work on software programming from time to time. What kind of programming is that?

I don’t do very diverse programming. I stick to JavaScript and HTML in the front end and web development. So currently I am trying to build a tool. I have already built an ideation tool for script writing, for the internal use of my team. Probably I would also try to build a couple of more tools that helps in the entire script writing process.

Coming back to films, it is an interesting time to be in this industry, isn’t it? With all these OTT platforms coming in, Amazon Prime and Netflix and so on. Do you people also do some work for these platforms?

We are trying to come up with something for these platforms. I can’t divulge much details here,  but each one of us in the writing team have been asked to come up with scripts for OTT platforms, to be shot as OTT original movies. I won’t say which platform. If things go well and if the script also does well then yes, probably a couple of scripts would be chosen.

Do you approach it differently when you know it’s for an OTT platform in comparison to something for the big screen?

Yes, because in Indian cinemas we have the concept of interval. Theatres rely on the interval for revenue generation and that is why it is sort of a mandate to have an interval in movies. But in OTT there is no such problem. 

When people break into the interval a certain context gets diluted. So in the second half we need to bring people back to context. We need to build the emotions again. So we have to keep those things in mind when we write for big cinemas. But in OTT there is no such problem. I call OTTs as laptop movies, so I approach laptop movies differently.

And what is your preference? Do you like to write more for the big screen or for OTT?

I like to write for the big screen. But I also do a lot of hobby writing as well, so I treat that as laptop movie writing. But I prefer to write for the big screens.

Now four years into this new line of work, if you think back to those couple of minutes which you took to make this transition, do you think it was a good decision that you made?

Right now when I think about it, sometimes I feel that probably even I was in SAP, I could have still done whatever I am doing now. Because even when I was in SAP, every evening I used to write for three to four hours. I wouldn’t say that everything transitioned into something incredible (there was lot of junk stuff too) but still I was writing for three to four hours every day. Even now that is the number of productive hours in my daily life. 

Certain times I feel that way, but again the quality of writing has significantly improved and that is only because I am with my team here and all the experience from the Kirik Party and Avane Srimannarayana. And you also get to see how others approach things differently. You get learning from that as well.

In closing, what have been some of your influences? Can you share some movies which have influenced you or some directors or writers who have influenced you?

I wouldn’t take big names but I would say that almost all the movies that I watched either have taught me how to do things or they have taught me how not to do things. As I said that Halo was a movie which kicked in the aspirations of becoming the film maker. So I would say Santosh Sivan. Shahrukh was someone who made me fall in love with cinema. 

As a child I was a Doordarshan kid. We didn’t have cable then. So I used to watch a lot of movies that were being directed by the alumni of FTTI. So that quality of movies somehow had subconscious effect on me. But I think it was in Engineering that I started watching international movies. I wouldn’t say world cinema but international movies. 

Steven Spielberg is someone who influenced me a lot in terms of film making. Not writing as such, but the way he narrated the story through visuals. And Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump has had a significant impact on me, on how a cinema should be, the kind of emotional experience a cinema should give. 

Coming back to Indian cinemas I think Rajkumar Hirani also had a significant impact on me on how emotions of movie should be. But coming back to techniques I think again Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, their techniques have left an impression on me. And a lot of Korean movies as well.