‘Commercial cinema brings out the best in me’
Ahead of the release of his next biggie, Waltair Veerayya this Sankranthi, the senior actor shares what keeps him motivated after 45 years as an actor and the factors driving his choices
Published: 12th January 2023 12:19 PM | Last Updated: 12th January 2023 12:19 PM | A+A A-
An average millennial who grew up on a staple diet of Telugu cinema in the 2000s will understand how big a deal Chiranjeevi is. Naturally, meeting and conversing with him in person for a media interaction is more than just another work experience. I understand that objectivity is sacrosanct, but at times, one cannot help but be enchanted by an artist you have seen and admired for years on the big screen. And off-screen too, Chiranjeevi is an entertainer, with the ‘grace’ of the ‘boss’ frequently finding a way to seep through into the conversation.
The man, who has always been an advocate for discipline and punctuality, practices what he preaches. As a journalist, I have been to numerous interviews and events but I can count the number of instances they began on time. Chiranjeevi enters the venue four minutes before the scheduled time; no wonder he is the Boss.
Excerpts from the conversation:
The Southern Glory
“The day began with such energetic and positive news,” he says with his trademark smile (one that you are imagining now), as soon he arrives, referring to RRR’s ‘Naatu Naatu’ winning the Best Original Song at the Golden Globes. “The whole Indian film fraternity should be proud of this win. It’s an incredibly proud moment, especially for me,” he adds.
In 2022, a clip of Chiranjeevi recalling his bitter experience of visiting Delhi to receive the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration for Rudreevana in 1988 went viral. In the clip, the actor shares how humiliated he felt upon the lack of inclusion of South Indian cinema at the ceremony—which was represented just with pictures of MGR and Prem Nazir. The tables have turned in the past couple of years, and he gives a dignified response about the changing landscape. “It is fine to share your angst when you are down, but when you have the upper hand, it is not okay to boast about it. I thank all the people who brought respect to our cinema.”
New-age masala cinema
As the medium and the taste of the audience continue to evolve, commercial cinema too has undergone significant changes from the ‘80s when Chiranjeevi started out. Vikram and Drishyam (2013), for instance, have proven to be game-changers with their inventive stories and fresh treatment while still retaining their ability to please the masses. Does Chiranjeevi see himself venturing into the new-age masala territory? “See, I have been wanting to do these calmer roles where I go to the set, play a character with a wife and kids, and simply deliver my dialogues without much physical effort; I would be the most comfortable person on set then,” he laughs, adding, “In fact, when I do films like Waltair Veerayya, where the vintage Chiranjeevi has to appear, it’s much harder to ace the comedy, the dance, the messy fight sequences, etc... I take these efforts because the audience expects these from me. They are the ones telling us what to do. If not for them, I would be happy doing films like Drishyam without exhausting my body.”
‘Love from the audience is my driving force’
Commercial vs artistic choices
His next, Waltair Veerayya, promises to present the massy Chiranjeevi from the ‘90s, a detour from the serious roles he has played in his previous three releases—Sye Raa (2019), Acharya (2022) and GodFather (2022). The comparison with films like Gharana Mogudu (1992), Rowdy Alludu (1991), Muta Mestri (1993) and Gang Leader (1996) is inevitable. But he considers it a space he thrives in and, of course, one in which the audience has given their approval time and again. “I have always believed that commercial cinema brings out the best of my talents because I always try to imagine what makes the fans love me. However, personally, I have always had the desire to play diverse characters; this is the reason that has led to films like Subhalekha (1982), Swayamkrushi (1987) and Aapadbandhavudu (1992). In fact, Manthri Gaari Viyyankudi (1983) by Bapu garu was released exactly a week after a sensational action film like Kaidhi.”
Charting the evolution of his choices and where they have led him, Chiranjeevi adds, “I realised that delivering what the audience wants from you is more important than where your personal taste may direct you. My priority is the financial safety of my producers and distributors. That’s one of the reasons I have mostly been in the commercial zone of late. Even after my comeback, I did Sye Raa, which was something I was wanting to do for a long time, and more recently GodFather, in which I steered clear of commercial embellishments like songs and romance. Waltair Veerayya, on the other hand, is 100 per cent for the audience. And I am sure it will entertain everyone.”
The Waltair Veerayya experience
Chiranjeevi shares that acting in Waltair Veerayya has been a joyful experience right from the word go. “Working in the film was so enjoyable that I would spend some time on the set even after pack-up. I knew that once I go home, I would simply have dinner and sleep. The set was great. That’s how much I enjoyed acting in it and it shows in the film too. Every scene in Waltair Veerayya is entertaining.”Speaking about the film’s director Bobby Kolli, who has been vocal about his reverence for Chiranjeevi, the actor shares, “He trusts his content more than technical resources like cameras and lights. That’s something I believe in too and so, both of us were on the same page when it came to the film. I might have liked the fan in him, but I definitely surrendered myself to the talented director he is. He scored more marks from me as a director.”
While Chiranjeevi is aware that his seniority might create a sense of nervousness and restraint in the filmmakers, he always tries to create a liberal atmosphere on the sets. “I don’t move from the spot after the director says cut, and neither do I see the monitor. Only after they okay the shot, do I move on. In my head, I understand how I performed but I wait for the director’s acceptance. I never overpower them, and give them comfort like a new actor.”
The film also marks his third collaboration with Ravi Teja after Aaj Ka Goonda Raaj (the 1992 Hindi remake of Gang Leader) and Annayya (2000). Chiranjeevi has only good things to say about the Vikramarkudu-actor whose stardom has grown by leaps and bounds from the time they last acted together. “Ravi hasn’t changed one bit,” the actor says. “Be it his attitude or eating habits, he remains the same person I knew as a budding actor while working in Annayya. He is as energetic and disciplined as he was back then. He is like a straight line and I never saw any variations in him as a person.” The actor goes on to add that keeping the budget under control is something that he gives utmost priority to and is glad how Waltair Veerayya has turned out to be. “I always warn my producers about overspending and I had been telling Bobby to keep it under budget right from the start.
For your information, we just shot 10 minutes of extra footage that had to be left out on the editing table. We never wasted resources. I feel it is a much more effective way to edit out scenes on paper than on the editing table because it saves so much money.”
The driving factor
154 films and 45 years later, what keeps Chiranjeevi going with the same zeal and energy? “The love of the audience,” he says, without thinking twice. “Let me share an anecdote. Baavagaru Bagunnara (1998) featured a scene that required me to do a bungee jump. From that insane height, if you look down, it is normal to be scared. I was shivering. The trainer had let go off me, and I had to go for the jump in a few seconds. I just thought of all the claps and cheers the shot will elicit in the theatre and it gave me immense strength. I immediately relaxed and jumped with ease. That’s my driving force,” he concludes.