Sandhya Raju courts a new stage

Kuchipudi dancer Sandhya Raju discusses her feature film debut as actor-producer with ‘Natyam’

For Telugu film buffs, the gold standard for mainstream films that incorporate classical dance or music would be director K Viswanath’s Sankarabharanam (1979), Sagara Sangamam (1983) and Swarna Kamalam (1988). Hyderabad-based Kuchipudi dancer Sandhya Raju, who will be making her feature film debut as producer and actor with Natyam, releasing on October 22, is aware of the inevitable comparisons.

Having sought the blessings of the nonagenarian filmmaker, accompanied by Natyam’s director Revanth Korukonda, Sandhya says, “Our film is driven by hard work, passion and creativity. But we are nowhere close to matching the films of the legendary director.”

Sandhya is calm and composed even as the Nishrinkala Dance Academythat she founded is abuzz with pre-release promotional activities. In a corner of the room, a whiteboard lists the tasks to be done each day. For Sandhya and Revanth, Natyam is the fulfilment of a dream of nearly five years.

Sandhya recalls the events that led her to act in a short film directed by Revanth in 2016: “I was also looking to expand my vistas and take up occasional modelling, theatre or short film opportunities. Around the same time, Revanth was looking for a Kuchipudi dancer who could act and reached out to me.”

The short film, also titled Natyam, had Sandhya portraying a housewife who rekindles her lost passion for dance. “I was not into acting and did not pay close attention to the story when Revanth narrated it. The five-minute dance towards the end caught my attention first,” laughs Sandhya.

Once the short film was online, Sandhya was surprised with the response. There were times when young women who spotted her at a mall would come up and talk to her about the film inspired them to start dancing again.

She and Revanth also noticed how short filmmakers were making a mark with feature films in Telugu cinema. When Revanth decided to work on a full-fledged dance-based feature film, Sandhya was game to act and produce the project. Intermittently, she acted in a Malayalam film titled Careful (2017).

Fictional dance village

The feature film Natyam, says Sandhya, has nothing to do with the short film and the similarities end with the title. The story is set in a fictional village called Natyam, inspired by Kuchipudi village in Andhra Pradesh. The village attracts artistes from all over and everything happens around a temple that is home to a powerful Goddess. Sandhya plays a dancer wanting to remove superstitious beliefs by performing the story of Kadambari: “The historical events on which the story of Kadambari is based are true, but the character and story are fiction,” says Sandhya. “The film goes beyond exploring the physicality of dance and uses it as a means of storytelling.”

Natyam was filmed near Bengaluru, Hampi, Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh and Shamshabad in Hyderabad.

Having grown up in Chennai, Sandhya sought the help of Telugu tutors to prep for the film: “I wanted to learn to speak Telugu well so that my mannerisms and movement of facial muscles are appropriate. Not knowing Malayalam was a drawback while filming Careful. Only when you can speak the language can the acting appear spontaneous. ”

Sandhya also took up the responsibilities of choreography and costume design for Natyam. Given her prowess in Kuchipudi, she could have choreographed complex moves, but she chose to keep it simple: “We did not want it to look like a rangapravesam of classical dances.”

Sandhya Raju

Ironically, in the film, she portrays a dancer who has to prove herself while Kamal Kamaraju plays the more experienced dancer.

Executing the project was challenging, she concedes, but the business decisions she had to take during the pandemic were tougher. The team held a test screening and the audience included people from different socio-economic strata and age groups; many of them seemed to enjoy the big screen experience. A few film industry people also weighed in and suggested she wait till the theatres reopen: “Production has been tough; one hears many stories of how women have to rough it out in this industry. I am blessed to have found support from established personalities, be it Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Ram Charan or NTR for the promotions,” says Sandhya.

While classical dance will continue to be her mainstay, Sandhya is open to acting opportunities.

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