The latest Kannada film after KGF to be dubbed and released in Hindi is about an angry young man and his pet dog. Kiranraj K’s 777 Charlie, which will also be released in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam on June 10, follows the brooding loner Dharma, played by Kannada actor-filmmaker Rakshit Shetty, and the Labrador Charlie, who changes Dharma’s outlook.

Like Sylvester Stallone, who wrote Rocky as his breakthrough in Hollywood, 39-year-old Shetty transformed his career with the crime drama Ulidavaru Kandanthe and the coming-of-age film Kirik Party. Shetty makes his films with a recurring set of collaborators, including Kiranraj K, Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana director and lead Raj B Shetty, Hemanth M Rao and Kirik Party director Rishab Shetty, who also backed the acclaimed independent film Pedro. Their projects constitute a strain of Kannada cinema that strives to be more artistic and independent-minded than the mainstream industry.

In 777 Charlie’s cast is Raj B Shetty as a veterinarian, Sangeetha Sringeri as an animal welfare officer, and Danish Sait and Bobby Simha in cameos. Shot across Goa, Maharashtra, coastal Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Shimla and Kashmir, 777 Charlie is the most expensive film to have been produced by Shetty’s production house, Paramvah Studios. “Not every film has to be a pan-Indian release, but 777 Charlie makes sense as there are dog lovers everywhere in India,” Shetty told in an interview.

What drew you to ‘777 Charlie’?
I could relate to Dharma’s introversion, not having friends or talking to colleagues and neighbours. When I am working on a film, I completely disconnect from the world. I liked the changes the dog brings in Dharma’s life. Also, I liked how Kiranraj philosophically connects Dharma’s journey to that of Yudhishthira’s walk towards heaven with a dog by his side.

777 Charlie (2022).

Tell me more about Charlie.
Eighty per cent of Charlie in the film is just one grown dog. We used one other dog as well as two puppies.

You could say these dogs were born to act, as they were specifically adopted and raised for the film. Kiranraj hooked them up with a personal trainer [Pramod BC]. He wrote down some 450 different tricks to be learned by them as per the requirements of the script. Before each schedule, Charlie would be taught 20-30 tricks.

Once the shoot got over, I adopted one Charlie, Kiranraj one, and the technical crew the remaining two.

What were the filmmaking challenges?
We shot for 167 days across three years. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy while doing the workshop with the dogs, but the challenges became 10 times harder during shooting, with one shot taking up to 30-40 takes.

It’s one thing to act opposite an actor who responds to your acting. But dogs can’t act, they only do tricks. I had to give my best in every take but we wouldn’t know when and how Charlie would perform.

We used different techniques to act with Charlie. For the scene where she licks my face, I had fish oil put on my face. It’s horrible, it stinks. Then, I had to hide dog biscuits in my mouth or between my fingers, which I’d give Charlie as a treat at the end of each take. That way, she’d maintain eye contact with me. Acting on screen and commanding a dog simultaneously is hard.

I haven’t had a pet in ages. The last pets I had was in the sixth standard, when both my dogs passed away. Since then, I ceased having an emotional connection with pets although our home in Udupi has three dogs. After I moved to Bangalore for my IT job, I stopped having pets. I feel they are supposed to be free and not be stuck inside four walls.

777 Charlie (2022).

You come from a business family. Today, you’re an actor, writer, director and producer. How did that happen?
My father was a contractor, working with the Public Works Department, making roads [and] civil construction. I went into IT and became an electronics and communications engineer. I had that job for just 20 months in Bangalore. During this time, I did theatre, short films, trying to learn the craft of acting and cinema.

One of the short films I did was Confessions of a Dustbin, which I plan to release soon. There’s another short film called Let’s Kill Gandhi. I couldn’t finish it as it was difficult to procure even Rs 35-40,000 at that time. But the trailer is available online.

I eventually quit my job when I realised I couldn’t keep each leg in two different boats.

After that, I had an eight-year struggle, during when I often didn’t have money for breakfast. I’d stay in the first floor of an aunt’s house in Bangalore. They too were into construction. They lived in their hometown in Udupi. The workers lived on the ground floor. They’d cook breakfast and leave for the day, after which I’d come down and see if there’s something to eat for myself. Around this time, I made my acting debut in Nam Areal Ond Dina, where I was the second lead. The film tanked, but I’d get lunch at the office.

In these years, I wrote Ulidavaru Kandanthe and Kirik Party, knowing that nobody would give me a break and nobody would write the characters that I want to play. So I wrote roles for myself, knowing that all I need is a producer who’d back my vision.

Belageddu, Kirik Party (2016).

Tell us about your regular collaborators.
When you want to make films, you need a team. I wanted to be an actor right from my engineering days. Two other friends wanted to work in films. So, we collaborated on short films. Later, more people joined me from my theatre days.

I know most of my collaborators for at least 15 years. After Ulidavaru Kandanthe became a hit, more got the guts to leave their jobs and joined me fulltime for Kirik Party. When we were making Avane Srimannarayana, some more left their jobs and joined me.

Till date, I have only had two directors from my group direct me in my scripts. There have been no ego issues. Right after the first draft, say with Kirik Party, I’d sit with the Seven Odds and work on making it peppier. Risabh [the director] would be a part. By the time we’d go on floors, he’d know exactly what’s in my mind, know the script shot-by-shot. The same happened with Avane Srimannarayana.

Avane Srimannarayana (2019).

What do you feel about ‘pan-Indian films’ and Kannada cinema outside of ‘KGF’?
The South has always liked and made larger-than-life films, especially Andhra filmmakers, from whom Tamil and Kannada directors took note. Not all films from South can be pan-Indian.

From Kannada cinema, I know Vikrant Rona and Kabza will get pan-India releases because they are of that nature. People will watch these films in theatres as opposed to on OTT. That bifurcation people have figured out in their heads.

In Kannada cinema, you have your commercial strand of filmmaking, in which KGF has reached the top. Then there’s cinema that is quirky, a bit hatke [outlier]. My upcoming film Richard Anthony, which I am directing and starring in, is a prequel and sequel to Ulidavaru Kandanthe. That’s a quirky film at a large scale. It might get a pan-India release because today we all enjoy Narcos despite it being deeply based in Mexican culture. Why not be curious about Udupi culture?

What are you working on next?
I star in [Andhadhun co-writer] Hemanth M Rao’s Sapta Sagaradaache Ello, meaning ‘Beyond the Seven Seas’, which is a very different kind of love story. Then comes Richard Anthony. There’s Kirik Party 2, with the same team as the first film.

I will be directing the mythological film Punyakoti, based on a Kannada folk tale about a cow and a tiger. But my version will have humans playing the parts. Then, I will be making Midway to Moksha, which is about afterlife. It will be a VFX-heavy film, shot mostly on sets.