It is an important Friday at the box office for Telugu actor Nani: he turns producer for Prasanth Varma directorial debut Awe!
Starring Kajal Aggarwal, Nithya Menen and Regina Cassandra, Awe! is the first production by Wall Poster Cinemas, Nani’s recently founded production house. Supporting Varma’s film was a no-brainer, the 33-year-old actor said. “Awe! is very, very different,” he told Scroll.in. “I know everyone tends to say this about their film but in Awe!, right from the opening frame until the end, what you will see is something that is very original, something that we haven’t seen in Telugu cinema till date.”
All Nani will reveal about the film is that it spans different narrative elements. “This film, with its unique format and core idea, mixes several genres quite effortlessly,” he said. “What I also really like about Awe! is that it doesn’t try to dumb things down. It respects its audience and their intelligence. It is a genuinely narrated, new-age film.”
A bonsai tree, with a voice-over by actor Ravi Teja, is one of the characters in Awe!. Nani is in the film as well, but as the voice of a fish. The actor was Prasant Varma’s immediate choice. “The reason he imagined my voice as that of the fish is because of Eega,” said Nani, who played the role of a man who is reborn as a fly in SS Rajamouli’s revenge saga. “Varma is not the first director to think of my voice when it comes to these offbeat characters but I’m glad he did. I really enjoyed dubbing for a fish.”
How did he prepare for the role?
“They had all the shots of the fish when they came to me,” Nani explained. “This is not an animation film. These are actual shots of a fish moving inside the aquarium. The challenge for me was to match my dialogue to its body movement. When it suddenly moves, for example, the line needs to be said in a hurry. It was all about fitting the line such that it matches the pace of the movement of the fish and its body language. It was a lot of fun.”
For Nani, who completes a decade in the Telugu film industry, the objective behind turning producer is clear: to introduce young talent and cinema. “Generally, there’s this feeling, and rightly so, that we [the Telugu film industry and its audience] don’t get new cinema or new content,” he said. “Most of the time, we see films being made in the commercial format. I am what I am because of this industry. If there is any way I can give back to Telugu cinema, it is by introducing young talents and technicians. We cannot complain about scarcity of cameraman, actresses etc if nobody introduces them. Through this banner, I want to encourage ideas which generally a regular producer wouldn’t dare to.”
Over the coming months, Nani’s acting projects include Merlapaka Gandhi’s Krishnarjuna Yuddham, set to hit the screens in April. He plays two characters named Krishna and Arjuna in the commercial entertainer. There is also a untitled multi-starrer with Nagarjuna in the lead, apart from other projects that are still at the script stage.
“Natural Star” is the title bestowed on Nani, a reference to the boy-next-door avatar that he has assumed in a majority of his films. Whether it is Ride (2009), Yeto Vellipoyindi Manasu (2012), Janda Pai Kapiraju (2015) or Nenu Local (2017), Nani’s characters, irrespective of their heroic journey, often have their roots in humble backgrounds.
His most recent outing, Venu Sri Ram’s Middle Class Abbayi, took this role play to its pinnacle. In Nani’s hands, the middle class man of the title is someone who is not just adept at household chores, but also at fighting corruption and crime.
The choice of such roles isn’t conscious, insists the actor. “I like to do films that I’d love to watch,” he said. “Whenever someone narrates a script to me, I don’t imagine myself in the role but imagine me watching the film. If I like the film as an audience, then I go ahead and do it. Yes, the common man element is there in my films, but I have also done other kinds of roles.”
Nani played a man with a sinister edge in Mohan Krishna Indraganti’s murder mystery Gentleman (2016), the arrogant son of a rich landlord in Pilla Zamindar (2011) and a cut-throat businessman in Nag Ashwin’s Yevvade Subramanyam (2015).
“Even in a film like Ninnu Kori, my character Uma Maheshwara Rao is a common man, but one who champions an unconventional narrative,” Nani said. “Generally, what we are used to in Telugu cinema is if a hero loves a woman, we know they will end up together. Ninnu Kori changed that. It was a film that said if things go south, moving on is alright. Love can be found again. I thought that was a relevant message for today’s times.”
Nani’s professional choices are heavily informed by the movies he has grown up watching. “As a movie buff, the films that I have really liked have always been a little more than just entertaining,” he said. “Your film might become a super hit when you make people laugh and entertain them, but only when you touch their heart, when you make them teary-eyed, they will take the film home with them. These kind of films – ones that make you emotional – excite me. They are also challenging for an actor, and give me the satisfaction of being one.”
Nani’s method of getting into a role is spontaneous.
“When a director narrates a story, it generally lingers in my head,” he said. “Then, when I go to the sets, wear the costume and the shot begins – I’m not Nani anymore. Each film has its own vibe and that informs your body language and the identity of your character. When I read the scene itself, I see the scene in my head and then recreate that.”
A film that changed his career was Nag Ashwin’s Yevvade Subramanyam, a coming-of-age drama in which the actor plays Subbu, an ambitious businessman. “Up until Yevvade Subramanyam, I was doing films in Tamil and Telugu – I wanted to be there as well as here and was pretty confused,” said Nani. “After the film, I felt that I had some clarity. I wanted to just act in films I believe in – not because of the names involved or the banners.”
A few years before Yevvade Subramanyam, Nani took up one of the most interesting roles of his career in Eega. “I had just done four or five films up until then and I get a call from a director who had just made a blockbuster like Magadheera,” he recalled. “That was a shocker. When I heard Rajamouli sir narrate the film, I was blown away. I knew he was the only one who could think of something like this and deliver it.”
That the role was a small one – Nani’s character dies early on in the film – didn’t really matter. “In fact, I was thrilled,” he said. “The fly is the hero of the film. But because the audience has seen me in the first half of the film, subconsciously, for them, the fly would mean me. So, I used to joke that without working hard, I would get all the credit.”