Contrary to what the title of his upcoming film suggests, Telugu star Vijay Deverakonda is not asking people to choose the ‘None of the above’ option when they vote in an election. In the Tamil-Telugu bilingual directed by Anand Shankar, which will be released on October 5, Deverakonda plays a man who finds himself unexpectedly in the chief minister’s chair. The political system is ridden with corruption and is in desperate need of change. All eyes are on Deverakonda’s character.
“The title of the film refers to the undercurrent of frustration that my character has with the political system,” the 29-year-old actor said at a media event in Bengaluru on Wednesday. “He’s a normal guy like you and me with no political experience, but is given a chance to be a part of the system and bring about change. We are definitely not promoting the NOTA button in the ballot. That’ll just be stupid. We’re just saying enough is enough and vote for the candidate who is deserving.”
NOTA is Deverakonda’s tenth film (including cameo appearances) after his debut in 2011 in Ravi Babu’s Nuvvila. A turning point for Deverakonda was Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s romantic comedy Pelli Choopulu in 2016. But it is Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Arjun Reddy in 2017 that catapulted Deverakonda towards stardom. In Arjun Reddy, Deverakonda plays a love-ravaged man who descends into a path of self-destruction after his girlfriend dumps him. Some of Reddy’s rage can be seen in NOTA too – only this time the love is for the country. Excerpts from an interview.
How were you approached for ‘NOTA’?
This happened when I was shooting for Geeta Govindam. Studio Green’s head Gnanavel Raja, who is friends with producer Bunny Vas [Geeta Govindam’s producer], came to me one day and told me about a bilingual film. The problem was that I had already committed to a bunch of projects. So I told him that I could not make space for his film. But he was very keen that I listen to the script. After a point, out of respect, I agreed to, but told him that I could only do the film after a year or so.
Once I heard the script though, I became super-excited to get the film out as soon as possible. This is a political film, about problems that are current. For instance, something similar to what we have shown in the film happened in Tamil Nadu – incidentally while we were shooting. I felt that this film could encourage people to talk about politics or seek responsibility from the administration more openly.
The other reason why I agreed was because I’ve been considering acting in films in other languages alongside Telugu. I want to make my repertoire larger.
Will ‘NOTA’ follow the examples of other political films in Telugu such as ‘Bharat Ane Nenu’ or ‘Nene Raja Nene Mantri’? Or is it completely different?
One difference you’ll find is that this film has been made extremely realistically. The heart of the film lies in stuff that has happened in real life. The only fictional part is my character.
And that’s the cinema I like to do – I play it real and I like it to be real. So, in that sense, this film is different from the others because, for instance, Bharat Ane Nenu still had a bunch of fights and stuff like that.
What guides you in choosing your roles? How much of your career do you plan?
It is not possible, at least for someone in my position, or for someone who has gotten this far, to plan. I can only choose from the scripts I get, and those I can’t plan. From what I get, I pick what I like. Now, that it is paying off. We are trying to reverse-engineer it to recognise a plan or format.
Having said that, after the next year, I want to cut down on the amount of roles I do because it is taking a toll on me. So when I start doing one film a year, that’s when I think I can decide that now, I want to do a musical, a period film or a film for families.
You recently launched your production house King of the Hill.
This is just another consequence of my whims and fancies. I wanted to do a clothing line. I did it. I wanted to set up a production house. I did it. There was again no plan to it.
I’m not able to do all the exciting work that comes to me. It’s humanly impossible. So I decided that when there are scripts that I really like but I can’t do, my production house can step in.
I’ve had experiences where I’ve really believed in a film but no one bought the pitch. For example, with Pelli Choopulu, I knew what a pure talent Tharun Bhasker was. And I knew that as a team, Tharun, Ritu and I could pull this film off brilliantly. Yet, it wasn’t nice to go begging and get rejected and have no one believe in you. So I decided that if I ever spot a team like Pelli Choopulu, I will be a position where I can make it happen for them.
Why not? It is about capitalising on the connections and the reputation I’ve built – on the admiration that is there for me out there. Why not use it for purposes larger than just me?
Was ‘Pelli Choopulu’ a turning point since it put you on the map? Or has ‘Arjun Reddy’ been the game-changer?
Pelli Choopulu was definitely a turning point, especially in terms of people recognising me as business – that we can make a film with this fellow and make money because people are turning up to watch this guy.
Arjun Reddy took it to some other level. It became a mania of sorts.
Did you anticipate the success of ‘Arjun Reddy’?
No, but I knew that it was a bloody good film. It was a film that Sandeep and I believed in so much that the night before the release, I told him that if people didn’t get this film tomorrow, I would go mad. Sandeep was also like, if this film doesn’t work, he’ll go nuts or die.
I knew the film was superb, but you never know, right? Anyway, once we saw the response, I was like, we’re on the right track, and we have the finger firmly on the pulse.
What about the script of ‘Arjun Reddy’ enticed you?
Sandeep gave me a four-hour long narration, and somehow I just knew. We never had a paper with scenes or lines written on it throughout that shoot. We would meet the previous night to discuss a scene. More than discussing words, we would discuss emotions. We would discuss our life, go on tangents, discuss our relationships. The same night we would figure out what we would say. Whenever Shalini was part of the scene, all three of us would do this.
Sandeep had jotted down the crux of the story and knew what the characters had to convey. We’d play around with that, make subtle changes, do the blocking. The next day, we’d just go and do it. For some films, it works like that, especially when it is guided by a strong directorial vision.
I remember there was a scene that I had loved during the narration, but we hadn’t shot at all. The scene has Arjun talking to a woman on his balcony. She is called by someone and goes away briefly. He is smoking a cigarette. When she comes back, she sees him smoking and crying alone in the balcony. He has broken down all of a sudden. We never remembered to shoot this scene. I felt that the scene had soul, it had pain. Eventually, we created a montage of different scenes and one of them has him eating biryani and breaking down while doing so.
I remember all this because the narration affected me so personally.
Some reviews of ‘Arjun Reddy’ and ‘Geetha Govindam’ have pointed out the sexist portrayal of romance. The idea, for instance, that a man can stalk or pursue a woman until he gets her to agree. There’s been a long-standing debate about whether such scenes influence male viewers. What is your position as an actor?
This isn’t an issue that is black or white. It is layered. You cannot break it down to, films influence people so don’t do this, or do that and be responsible. It doesn’t work that way. But at the same time, films do have some sort of an influence on people.
Being influenced is a personality issue. The people who are susceptible will get influenced by cinema or by the company they keep or what they see, perhaps because they don’t have a strong sense of self or personality. For example, I have seen films where actors smoke, but I haven’t felt the need to smoke after that.
Because I kiss a girl on her cheek on the first day of college, will everyone do that? Or because I go around saying ‘Madam, madam’ and fall at a woman’s feet, will they too? Or because I say I don’t smoke, will people quit smoking?
In the end, people choose to do what they want to do. I don’t think we have the power. The only people that’ll change are people who are looking to you to find change. Someone who is going about his life normally – you give him any sort of gyan, he will only do what he chooses to.
What’s happening with ‘Taxiwaala’?
It is coming out soon and we’ll announce a date. The computer graphics was a major source of delay, and they are an important part of the film. We trusted this company that was part of the production throughout and waited for them to deliver. But when we saw the output, we were disappointed. The film is lovely and has beautiful choreography. It is a tight film.
Now they’ve hired a bigger company and more people. I’ve heard that the film has come out well, but I haven’t seen it yet. That film again is in a completely different space from what I’ve done so far.