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An Officer and a Filmmaker: A Bureaucrat’s Journey From the Theater of War to ‘Music School’

An Officer and a Filmmaker: A Bureaucrat’s Journey From the Theater of War to ‘Music School’

  • After serving as a national and international administrator, Papa Rao Biyyala launches his movie career with a feature film about the importance of arts in an educational system that regards materialism as a barometer of success.

It is no longer unusual to see people who spent a lifetime in public service pursuing creative arts in their later years. But they usually stick to fields that are an extension of interests and goals they pursued in their public life. President Obama and Prince Henry, for instance, have taken to filmmaking, but in fields they have been deeply interested and concerned with their whole life. So, why has a public administrator who served in key positions in India and Europe, dealing among others, with insurgencies, and civil and ethnic wars, taken to making a song-and-dance film, as it were?

A scene from the bilingual film “Music School,” produced by Yamini Films.

Biyyala Venkat Papa Rao (B.V.P. Rao) says he deliberately chose a musical as he wanted his first film to be a neutral subject. “I straightway didn’t want to work on a script based on my experiences,” he says. Rao is a former officer in the Indian Administrative Service and a United Nations administrator in Europe who is currently wrapping up the filming of “Music School,” a bilingual movie (Telugu and Hindi) that highlights the importance of creative arts in an educational system that is obsessed with preparing children in math and sciences to make them succeed in their professional life.

Those who knew Rao personally and professionally are surprised by the choice of his cinematic theme. After all, he has had an illustrious career as an Indian administrator and international diplomat. His expertise and experience are rooted in highly consequential and singularly important issues like conflict resolution and nation-building. Rao not only dealt with counter-insurgency in Assam in the 1990s but as a UN regional administrator was also responsible for building a functioning government and administrative structure in the newly created country of Kosovo which emerged from the brutal Balkan Wars in the early 2000s.

The music for the film was composed by Ilayaraja and some of the numbers were conducted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of his longtime friends who did not want to be identified said he was surprised that Rao did not make (at least) a sports-themed film as he was particularly interested in sports — as an IAS officer on a deputation to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Rao was instrumental in creating a project that scouted and recruited talented youth from communities that had natural abilities for certain kind of sports. The project, for instance, recruited Adivasi youth to train in archery given their natural ability to hunt. A number of recruits of the project made it to India’s Olympic and Asian Games teams in boxing, archery and canoeing. The innovative scheme did not survive Rao’s departure from SAI, not to mention the politics of sports federations. “Maybe, he didn’t want to deal with all that baggage,” the friend explained.

Speaking to American Kahani, Rao says storytelling and music have always been an integral part of his life. Whether it’s the Ramayana and Mahabharata plays he saw as a child in a village in Andhra Pradesh or watching grand Broadway musicals in London and New York, the integration of music and drama always moved him.

The film includes three original songs from “The Sound of Music,” the music for which has been recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

So, Rao decided to take a plunge into the world of cinema with a musical. His “Music School” depicts the pressures of the rote-driven education system on children, which aims to only make them doctors or engineers, leaving no time for arts or sports. The story militates against materialism as a barometer of success.

The “heartwarming and endearing” film, according to the synopsis of the film, revolves around two creative teachers Mary D’Cruz (Shriya Saran) and Manoj (Sharman Joshi), who provide a glimpse of the rich culture and refinement of music and theater to students who are driven by an unimaginative educational system in the name of math, science and technology.

Veteran director Jahnu Barua doing the First Clap. From left, Adam Murray, Papa Rao Biyyala, Sharman Joshi, Shriya Saran and Kiran Deohans.

While this is his first feature film, Rao disputes the notion that his filmmaking resume is rather thin. He completed a film course at the New York Film Academy, and then directed a documentary short titled “Willing to Sacrifice,” which won the National Film Award for Best Non-Feature Environment/Conservation/Preservation Film and was critically acclaimed in international festivals. “This recognition gave me the courage to direct and pursue my passion for filmmaking, writing and music.” Over the years, Rao has also honed his skills apprenticing with noted filmmaker Jahnu Barua.

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True to its genre, music is the film’s main anchor and is helmed by music maestro Ilayaraja, who has written and composed all its 12 numbers. The film includes three original songs from “The Sound of Music,” the music for which has been recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Dance sequences have been choreographed by Adam Murray, whose credits include Hollywood blockbusters like “The King’s Men,” Cruella,” and “Rocketman.”

While the lead actors were chosen for their immense talent and popularity, one of the most interesting discoveries is that of singer Shantanu Mukherjee, popularly known as Shaan. Rao says he signed him for a critical role in the film after watching him sing for the film at Ilaiyaraaja’s recording studio in Chennai. “I was looking for a flamboyant person for this role and Shaan perfectly fit the bill.” Veteran actors Suhasini Mulay, Benjamin Gilani, and Prakash Raj also star in the film, along with Telugu comedian Brahmanandam, Vinay Varma, Gracy Goswamy and Ozu Barua.

The movie is produced by Yamini Films with associate producer Yamini Rao at the helm.

The release date of the film is yet to be announced.

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