The Prema Kavali actor, who forays into the OTT space with Puli Meka, talks about completing 12 years in cinema
After an anxious wait for the launch of his first web show, Puli Meka, Aadi Saikumar is a relieved man this weekend. The positive feedback for my ‘measured’ performance as a forensic expert Prabhakara Sharma feels gratifying, he says. “It took a lot of learning and unlearning to get this part right.”
With style and substance backed by good casting, the web show has struck a chord with streaming enthusiasts. Going by early viewing trends, ZEE5 predicts the show to be an OTT blockbuster and Aadi couldn’t have hoped for a better start to his digital innings.
Interestingly, this is the same day he set foot in the film industry with Prema Kaavali, 12 years ago. In a chat with OTTplay.com, the actor relives his early years, the lessons he’s learnt from his lows and says why he took time to say yes to his digital debut.
Remembering the release day of Prema Kavali
Despite my dad being in the industry for many years, I neither had much exposure to filmmaking nor do I remember going to his sets frequently. I finished an acting course before my debut in Vizag and I gained confidence in my abilities. It helped that I didn’t know much about the process because I surrendered to the director’s vision completely.
We remember hosting a premiere a day before the release of Prema Kavali. Many applauded my performance though they didn’t say much about the film. I was nervous although my parents told me to be happy about the compliments and forget the rest. Once it hit theatres, crowds received the film well and it enjoyed an extensive 100-day run. There was no looking back later; I’m still referred to as the Prema Kavali actor.
The fascination for thrillers in the recent past - Black, Top Gear, Puli Meka and CSI Sanatan
I always chase concepts that excite me and nothing of this was pre-planned. With Black, I was thrilled by the prospect of playing a constable working in night shifts and how the story unfolds in the second half. I’m not sure why, but, at least 8 out of 10 scripts narrated by the younger directors are thrillers. When I was tired of thrillers, I took up a love story Crazy Fellow when I liked the script.
I am keen on taking up something in the Munnabhai MBBS zone or story-driven entertainers like Writer Padmabhushan. Something on the lines of a Raju Hirani film would be great, where there’s a fine mix between emotions, message and entertainment. I’ve taken up Puli Meka too to offer a contrast - an underplayed forensic expert role is not exactly what audiences expect out of me and I saw this as an opportunity to prove my versatility.
Puli Meka - the reasons behind giving a nod to the web show
I would say the characters piqued my interest. The prospect of playing Prabhakar Sharma, a shy youngster from a Brahmin family, who fears his astrologer father and leads a clues team in the forensic department, was intriguing. The sequences where his father desperately asks potential brides to meet his son at the crime scene were entertaining.
While this was a thriller, the setup was lively and I enjoyed the script as a listener. This has widened the reach of the show among female audiences and viewers of other age groups too, unlike most thrillers which have a restrictive viewer base.
Coming out of an image trap and embracing OTT
I think OTT is one of the most powerful storytelling tools we have across the globe. Within a day of its launch, Puli Meka (which released in over 160 countries) was widely viewed in the US and the feedback was instant. I feel we’re yet to tap into its potential fully and are learning with time. Cinema will have its place among audiences but OTT is another industry altogether. Even within the OTT space, there’s immense competition to grab the eyeballs of audiences.
If you don’t create enough noise, viewers will not bother to look at your content here too. However, I and Lavanya (Tripathi), during our discussions about OTT on sets, were very relieved that we didn’t have to worry about not getting enough screens and drawing crowds to theatres. Our only priority was to focus on our performances and when audiences credit me for my subtle portrayal today, I feel relieved. Beyond all the other variables, this is what matters to us at the end of the day.
Advice from his father (actor Sai Kumar) on longevity in the industry
Regardless of Prema Kavali or today, dad has only one thing to say. ‘When you believe in something fully, give it your best and unconditionally surrender yourself to the craft with conviction.’ He always says you need to learn to harness your potential better. When I was wishing Nani on his birthday yesterday over the phone, he told me how my dad got a great character in Dasara and did a fabulous job with it.
When I conveyed the same thing to him, dad said he wasn’t satisfied with his performance and felt he could’ve still done better. This is the best I could learn from him - sustaining the hunger and the urge to reinvent and better himself and not rest on one’s laurels. Despite having enacted every possible role in cinema, he feels he has a lot more to contribute as an actor. My generation needs to have the same zeal to make progress.
The reluctance to take up web shows before COVID-19
If you notice my career, I’m someone who’s not afraid to try or experiment. When I discussed my interest to take up OTT projects (before the digital boom and COVID-19) with my industry friends, they didn’t take it well, were prejudiced about the medium and nearly judged me for my views.
I, however, saw this as the way forward, paying heed to trends in the Hindi industry where the medium gave birth to a new generationof stars.‘Why OTT?’ was a question I always got asked and it took COVID-19, several high-profile direct-to-OTT releases for them to realise the scope of the digital space.
The challenges of coming up with a realistic performance on OTT minus the flamboyance of mainstream cinema
Right when I began shooting for Puli Meka, the direction team kept reminding me that I was being Aadi on screen and that they wanted to see Prabhakar Sharma. I saw it as a challenge and had to unlearn many aspects. I made sure I didn’t go overboard and forget what I did in my previous films. I had to be the measured, shy guy to ensure the right contrast to Lavanya Tripathi’s flamboyant, toughie character. I hope the strategy has paid off.
OTT has given a second life to cinema - creatively and financially
For most of my films, the theatrical revenue is always a bonus for producers, thanks to the budget recovery via satellite and OTT rights. As long as we stick to our budgets and complete the film on time, most of my producers are safe and keep coming back to me; that’s the reason I have my hands full of offers always. OTTs pay a huge sum for star vehicles too and it has become a very crucial aspect of the trade.
When you tell a good story today, even if it doesn’t do well theatrically, makers are confident their product will get its due because of OTT. Right with the teaser and the trailer, audiences decide whether to watch a film in theatres or on OTT. In times like these, I felt Writer Padmabhushan has set a great example for many small films and proved it’s possible to drive crowds to theatres through smart, aggressive marketing. The scale of the film is irrelevant today - a good story is what convinces viewers to buy a ticket.
On the importance of innovative marketing
It’s important for a film to stand out with the marketing and the producers need to realise that. If you notice the films that have done well in theatres, the makers have spent lavishly on publicity. Teams are going all out to promote content in colleges, with tours in the heartlands of Telugu states, organising paid premieres and doing everything to ensure pre-release buzz for their product.
If a film doesn’t take a strong opening, given the current scenario, it’s difficult to ensure revenues in the coming days. Promotions can boost a product’s prospects though ultimately it’s content that has to do the talking.
What to expect from CSI Sanatan?
Though Puli Meka and CSI Sanatan are both thrillers, the world and the treatment of the latter are different. The story revolves around the murder of an industrialist and how I interrogate the various suspects in the case. I didn’t expect Puli Meka and CSI Sanatan to land at the same time. Puli Meka was to release earlier and CSI.. got pushed due to my other releases. I’m confident CSI Sanatan will impress audiences.
I haven’t signed any projects formally after these films. I have been working non-stop for over three years now and I want to take a break. I plan to make use of the time to reflect on what I’ve done till now and reconsider my future choices. I have okayed a script to be produced by Bekkem Venugopal, it has great shock value and will surprise audiences. He’s a producer with good taste. I plan to go slow henceforth. You can expect another film from me by the end of 2023 or early 2024.