Exclusive: Producer Sunitha Tati, a boss lady who braved everything life threw at her

Y Sunita Chowdhary

Sunitha Tati is a woman in control. She is empowered, ebullient, positive and always takes life head-on. She began with a dream and just when she was on the path to acquiring it, she was struck with a monster of a disease. She never lived in denial but at the same time didn’t give up on her dream either. Today, with a heart full of gratitude and compassion, she reaches out to a lot of patients, survivors and helps them understand that they aren’t fighting it alone. She is a super multi-tasker and has an ear for anyone who pings or approaches her. A year back, she produced a lovely, super hit film Oh Baby! whose shelf life has no expiry date at all. In a conversation with Klapboardpost.com, the producer discusses her family, films, mentor and her dream to win an Oscar for India. She also talks about the need for self-responsibility when it comes to sanitisation and states that demarcation is necessary between personal insurance and company insurance.

Of health concerns and shoots

She speaks practically, “It would be good if actors have their own individual insurance. And on top of it, if any accident or mishap happens, the producer will handle it. This separation needs to be done. It is not right to say that the producer is responsible; People go to public events, roam around and contract the virus from anywhere. Producers will make a choice of hiring only those people who have insurance. We all need to watch out for each other and the country. Entertainment, where someone is at risk, shouldn’t be the priority.  We waited for three months, it is okay if we wait for another month. We all have to save for a rainy day, a producer cannot pay complete salaries for a long time.”

A career move that worked

As a producer, I came believing in the story and in the journey of telling good stories but what I didn’t know was that I was entering a star dominant industry. I wasn’t even mentored that way. When I started to become a producer, I told a story-centric tale and that was Bangaru Kodi Petta, which was probably ahead of its time. I also worked with big directors and actors and that taught me as a producer that my storytelling intent (the producer is always known for arranging money and I didn’t come here for that) and graphs had to be reworked tremendously. After making a bilingual, I realised I can’t run behind the talent, I need to work towards bringing my storytelling capability out. I am educated in that field and have experience in that. I studied direction but I am producing because I have a mentor like Suresh Babu who believes that any number of stories can be told if you are a creative producer rather than a producer. If I can direct I will direct ten films but if I produce, I can do fifty films in my lifetime. I am that greedy which brought me to Oh Baby!

The globetrotter

I looked around in India and being a global citizen, I got the opportunity to travel the rest of the world. I travelled many festivals from Busan to Cannes, from New York to LA festivals. I was also a volunteer at Sundance. I looked at it and wondered what was missing in our diaspora of storytelling; we are an economically depleted country, even our industry is focussed one economic factor of storytelling which is what is considered a success. Storytelling can get you money if you focus on the story being the king and you make your own pact with it.

When I was looking at people who are writing path-breaking content, I bumped into Kross Pictures, which gave me an opportunity to produce their cinema in the South and I took it up. After Oh Baby, I and Suresh are producing two more adaptations. Midnight Runners is a story of a trainee cop and we changed it to female trainee cops. We cast Regina and Nivetha Thomas and it will be directed by Sudheer Verma. There is another Korean adaptation too. I now have the confidence that story can be the king and I don’t need a star. We are developing three films of original content, one is going to the floors in October in three languages.

All credit to the mentor

I found a great mentor in Suresh Babu, I didn’t listen to him. Sometimes we become bull-headed and go loggerheads with our own journeys. The first ticket is the story, the second is the budget. In Bangaru Kodipetta, I stuck to what I wanted to tell but I listened to him when it came to the budget. So when the film looked like it won’t work at the box office, I could break even. He taught me as to how I can sell the film, non-box office revenues (satellite). I wasn’t able to sell box office-related distribution, I wasn’t able to cut those deals. He usually prefers to tick mark i.e story should be to your satisfaction, the budget should be earned back and all revenues to be put in place. The fourth is the film should be finished in a period of time and released on time. From the time you start production, the film should be released within six months. Bangaru Kodipetta took me two years to finish. Imagine the burden on me which is not something I would continue again.

Some important lessons

In these years, I made five films and in the process minimised my problems. I actually fell into a black hole after Courier Boy Kalyan along with Gautham Menon. I had no control over the project, tried doing something big and made mistakes as a producer. I have learnt a lesson and that is to never pick a project selected by someone. The director I worked with (after Courier Boy Kalyan) is Gautham Menon. I worked with Nandini for Oh Baby and it was a fabulous experience, she is a sweetheart and she delivers what is promised. She is a producer’s director and if there is any problem, she will come to the table to talk about it. You don’t have directors like that. Sudheer Verma too, is a breath of fresh air. He is always accessible and I travelled with him for six months now, he meets you halfway. The director matters to the producer’s success especially when both of them believe in the success of the story. The star cast comes later. If this wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be riding the path now, it is a path-breaking method I am taking.

I have six films lined up to be produced and the next few years my calendar is blocked. I am also doing a Hollywood film. I took the rights of a book Arrangements Of Love written by Timeri N Murari. I signed up Philip John and also Srilankan British actor Nimmi Harasgama. You get to do this because you want to get involved in the story. There are people willing to work with you irrespective of the advances you give them, they believe in the story. My goal is to be in the film and not to become famous, my stories have to become famous. I don’t come out to the public space, that’s not my journey. I rather find four more scripts I want to make.

Cinema in her genes

My granddad Panchakarla Subba Rao, in the sixties was a successful distributor in Vijayawada. The distribution did well for twelve years. My aunt left for the USA so we all moved there. We all love literature and I have a lot of passion for Telugu. I was born in Vijayawada, studied here for some time and immigrated when I was 17 years old. While we all in the family became engineers, cinema remained a passion. Dad had a phobia and thought it was risky for a girl to take up a career in cinema. Around that time, grandpa was dying of cancer and I went to see him in India. I was looking for a diversion and met Elahe Hiptoolah and Nagesh Kukunoor who were working on Hyderabad Blues. I was a production assistant on the sets.

Back in the US, I told my friend Shekar Kammula who was then an MFA student in Washington, how much I enjoyed my work in Hyderabad. We were discussing cinema all the time and he told me to educate myself before I jump into it. I wanted to be a director-writer and after graduation, I called Suresh Babu. I knew him when I was doing Dollar Dreams for Shekar. I was an executive producer. Suresh advised me to become an assistant director first and so I worked as an AD for Jayam Manadera, Nuvvuleka Nenu Lenu, Neeku Nenu Naku Nuvvu, Malleswari.

A monster that changed it all

While I was in the path of becoming a director, guided by a producer’s compound, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive cancer in the third stage, and all hell broke loose. How did I take that? The whole world stops. I still remember it was 8 PM on May 9th. The doctors said I have a maximum of three months on this planet. My parents were not in the country and I was at that time freelancing for Suresh Babu. I fought with social security and certain foundations and the cost would be around 130 thousand dollars and I didn’t have a penny for treatment. I told my parents that I will take treatment in India. Dad is into radiology and he spoke to Dr Nori and I took my treatment. I wanted to be strong to sustain my dream. Back in India I worked, became financially stable and the family supported me. My dream is to win an Oscar for India, a dream of wanting to tell world-class stories was the source to stay alive. My positivity came from reading books and seeing films. I fought my way to do Oh Baby and if I inspire at least one person, my job as a filmmaker is done.

Life beyond films

My lifestyle has changed a lot, I am a twice cancer survivor and speak to thousands of survivors and their families. I am associated with a foundation that supports cancer awareness. I am not a good manager but learnt to manage time and build relationships but there are things that come naturally to me and I spread that positivity to people. I counsel those who are going through anxiety, stress and depression. I am a huge believer in alternative medicine and also a part of a company called Ayurway and right now we are giving COVID kits to people to build their immune system through Ayurveda.

CLICK HERE!! For the aha Latest Updates