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“Saagu”: An Aspirational Telugu Filmmaker’s Journey to International Acclaim

A little over a year ago, Vinay Ratnam embarked on a mission infused with cinematic dreams and a shoestring budget. At 25, this aspirant from Rajahmundry, with an unwavering passion for storytelling, set out to bring his vision to life: a short film tentatively called Saagu. He had previously cut his teeth on almost 15 short film projects but none held the promise of Saagu—a project aimed to be more than just another addition to his portfolio. It was intended as a stepping stone, a powerful demo to launch him into the world of feature film direction.

Vinay shares his adoration for Telugu cinema, citing megastar Chiranjeevi as a significant influence. Winning the best film award at the South Indian Film Festival, presented by Chiranjeevi himself, Vinay describes the moment as bringing his cinematic journey full circle. But this was just the beginning of the accolades.

In 51 minutes, Saagu unfolds a gripping tale centered on a struggling small-time farmer in Andhra Pradesh, an underdog persecuted for marrying above his caste. Portrayed by Vamsi Tummala, the character defies societal boundaries alongside his on-screen wife, Harika Balla, challenging an age-old caste system.

The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, as Saagu clinched the title of Top 100 Films at the Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival and scored best cinematography and best costume design at the Indian Independent Film Festival. On the international stage, the Polish International Film Festival honored Vinay with awards for both best debut director and best film.

The story’s premise emerged from the harsh reality of farmer suicides—an agonizing truth Vinay was intimately familiar with through family connections. Their collective experiences helped sculpt the character of Hari Babu, encapsulating the grit of individuals ostracized for rejecting prescribed social norms.

Saagu’s journey from conception to completion was a testament to community and perseverance. Initially crowdfunded, it eventually garnered the support of Yasaswi Vanga, a US-based producer, who recognized the film’s potential. Squeezing every ounce of resource from a modest budget of about ₹16 lakh, the crew shot the entire film over four days in May 2023 in the village of Peravaram, Atreyapuram. Vinay’s friends, motivated by sheer dedication, assumed behind-the-scenes roles in assistant direction, production design, etc. With an emphasis on authenticity, the actors rehearsed extensively to perfect the regional dialects required for sync sound filming.

Post-production, a screening at Ramanaidu Preview Theatre in Hyderabad marked a crucial milestone. Vinay, with limited industry contacts, managed to invite actor Ankith Koyya. To Vinay’s delight, the screening also attracted producer and actor Niharika Konidela, whose subsequent social media endorsement and offer to present Saagu to film festivals gave the short film a significant boost.

Reflecting on the creative process, Vinay reveals that the narrative grew from a monologue, conceived originally as an audition piece for a friend. This snippet, emphasizing human resilience, ultimately became the heart around which Saagu was built. Giving due credit to the women in his life, Vinay crafted a female protagonist that mirrored their strength and resolve, countering clichéd portrayals of submissive female characters.

Riding the wave of success and acclaim, Vinay now focuses on his next goal: to direct a full-length feature film. He is currently channeling his creativity into a new script, drawing inspiration from the same well of resilience and endurance that powered Saagu.

Audiences worldwide can now experience Saagu on a range of digital platforms such as Aha Telugu, Amazon Prime US and UK, Airtel Xtreme, Tata Sky Binge, Hungama, MX Player, and more. Through this exposure, Saagu not only reflects Vinay Ratnam’s singular journey but showcases the universal spirit of chasing dreams against all odds.