The Bangarraju star spills the beans about Laal Singh Chaddha, how Aamir Khan and director Advait Chandan surprised him with their warmth and why he felt it was the right time to expand his horizons
Last Updated: 05.05 AM, Aug 08, 2022
Naga Chaitanya is a transformed actor post the pandemic. It’s as if he has found his true purpose after all the soul-searching. He has understood the method to his craft and is hungrier than ever before. The angst, the grief, the innocence in his performances have come through more effectively since his pathbreaking transformation for Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story.
After proving his worth in a mainstream outing like Bangarraju and putting the setback of Thank You behind, he is gearing up for a fresh start with his Hindi film debut Laal Singh Chaddha. He plays a soldier Balaraju in the film headlined by Aamir Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, and helmed by Advait Chandan.
In an interview with OTTplay.com, Naga Chaitanya talks about Laal Singh Chaddha, finding his groove in a new industry, representation of South Indian characters in Hindi cinema and more.
This is probably the most eventful phase in your career. You’ve finished filming for your OTT debut and are set to work on your first Tamil-Telugu bilingual and also have your Hindi debut Laal Singh Chaddha hitting theatres soon. What does this phase of new beginnings feel like?
It feels very exciting in fact. As an actor, I am always craving maximum exposure and now the opportunities are much bigger with OTT coming in and language not becoming a barrier anymore. There’s an enormous opportunity waiting to be tapped and I’ve to make great use of the current trends. The decision to debut in OTT and take up a bilingual was quite conscious. I really wanted to be in the OTT space; it’s a thought I had during the pandemic. In the times ahead, both the theatrical and the OTT markets are going to be equally strong. I was looking out for scripts and fortunately Dhootha, the show I did for Amazon Prime Video, fell into place. But, Laal Singh was very organic. I just got a call one day and the opportunity materialised.
You have a certain comfort zone in Telugu cinema as an insider, you know the people, the industry and its functioning in and out. In a film like Laal Singh Chaddha, where you know little about the industry and its ways, how did you find your groove?
Absolutely, I had this fear initially. I was very jittery during my initial meetings in Mumbai. I didn’t know how to behave and what kind of a person to be. Aamir (Khan) sir and the director Advait Chandan are so good at making you feel warm, comfortable and much at home. More than the actor-director relationship, the equation blossomed into a very nice friendship after two meetings. We spent so much time off-screen than on-screen and we luckily had extensive time for preparation. The preparation time helped me blur the lines between a professional and a personal relationship. We became friends working together. When Aamir sir is in the room, he has the quality of being just another person without any aura of a superstar. He’s collaborating with everyone and is such a good team player. By the time we got to shoot, we were so comfortable. I was happy being the person I am and they accepted me for that.
The journey of your character in Laal Singh Chaddha, from Bala to Balaraju Bodipalem, is indeed interesting. They’ve adapted the part according to your Telugu roots quite organically...
When I got a call for this role, I was very nervous because my Hindi is not perfect and I had expressed this concern to Aamir sir and Advait. They wanted a Telugu guy with Telugu roots in a Hindi film. I speak Hindi in the film, yes, but they wanted a South Indian accent to come in quite naturally in the lines. This gave me a lot of ease. Once we met, we started figuring out names for the character. Aamir sir asked for a typical Telugu name, so we started looking for names and places. He liked Bala a lot, we arrived at Balaraju finally. People here generally have their places attached to their names and that’s how Bodipalem came into play. I later discovered that Balaraju was also my grandfather’s first silver-jubilee film in Telugu cinema. It was so magical when we got to know it. I felt he was blessing me from the heavens. Hindi films are a new chapter in my career. Sentimentally, it felt so right for me.
A few decades ago, Hindi cinema employed a few stereotypes when they portrayed South Indian characters on the screen. With the advent of shows like The Family Man, do you think the industry has changed for the better and understand the cultural nuances of the region better?
Going forward, Indian cinema is becoming one. Everyone is casting actors from different languages because viewership is becoming very universal. Audiences aren’t averse to watching dubbed films or originals with subtitles. Language is not a barrier anymore. The whole crossover synergy is only going to get stronger with every film. This is a trend we’re also witnessing across the globe. Hollywood is regularly casting actors from India, China and Africa - everyone’s keeping a wide audience in mind. Entertainment has become universal. Going forward, the trend will grow even bigger and stronger.
While it’s always good to think big and expand your horizons, isn’t Telugu cinema where you essentially belong? Is the journey of carving your niche as a newcomer in Hindi and Tamil cinema a practical idea, especially when your foothold in Telugu is quite strong?
Becoming too comfortable isn’t good either. You can’t be in your comfort zone for too long and you tend to stagnate. I think you have to take risks once in a while. I sometimes feel I don’t take enough risks. You need to take calculated risks, step out of your cocoon and that’ll only help you to grow. Whether the attempt gives you success or not, you’ll come out learning something from it. It’s more like an investment going forward. I’m definitely not scared. I think it’s only to better myself and expose myself more.
Take us through your experience of donning an army officer’s uniform in Laal Singh Chaddha. What is your idea of patriotism?
I played a soldier before in Venky Mama too. In Laal Singh Chaddha, we really got into the skin of the soldier. From the training to the look, we had an army major guiding us through the shoot and made sure all technicalities were in place. I enjoyed doing this part. We also got trained in an army camp and we set up a perfect replica of the training zones for the shoot. I enjoyed this atmosphere a lot. Hat’s off to their lives, really, for the kind of effort they put in and have such unconditional love for the country. Just to see that vibration in them itself was so inspiring for me.
The warmth between Bala and Laal in the promos was indeed heartwarming - tender and innocent. What kind of an equation can a viewer expect between the characters in the film?
The bond between both of us has come out so well. Bala and Laal are two innocent guys; very clean and straightforward. They don’t know what they’re doing in the army, fighting and killing people. That’s not them at all. Amidst all that chaos, the two are living together in their own world, talking about their ambitions and life. Their rapport is so cute and stands out as a contrast amidst the situation they’re in. It reflects society in a lovely way; there’s always poetry in the chaos around you and the world we live in. This segment mirrors that very well and also results in a lot of humour that you’ll enjoy. There are human emotions in abundance which will make you tear up also.
I personally feel you’re a transformed actor post Sekhar Kammula’s Love Story and you’d peaked as a performer. The Bollywood debut is happening at the right time - you look ready and prepared for it as an actor.
I think I agree with you. Working with Sekhar sir in Love Story gave me immense confidence because he’s brilliant with his actors. I am thankful to him for that experience. If you watch all his films, his actors come out shining. They learn so much from him. Maybe, the timing is right. It’s great that I’ve worked with directors like him and Vikram - I’ve been able to sharpen my skills more. Working with Aamir sir, I definitely want to come to the set and give my best. Opportunities like these only come once in a while.
Was it relieving to not have the burden of headlining the project (Aamir Khan is there to do that) and calmly go about your job, listen to the director and leave the set?
You’re right. I wanted to be presented to the Hindi audiences with this kind of support and handholding. I know how Aamir sir grooms his films. Beyond him, everyone around, including the actors and technicians, gets a scope to shine. He understands that only if a film works in totality, will it become a true blockbuster. This was one of the reasons why I was so sure about Laal Singh Chaddha being my Bollywood debut. I always knew I would be presented in the right way and I was very confident about that.
Spending over 13 years in filmdom, have you become more detached from the results of your films? Do failures and successes still affect you?
The results do affect me a lot - success and failure. Both teach me a lot, failures probably a lot more. More than detachment, I have become more attached to my results going forward. With every film, I’ve begun to understand the responsibility and the opportunity that I have and I am very fortunate for it. There’s so much talent around and people are fighting hard to showcase their talent. The chance to be a lead star in a film is a great opportunity. I respect this profession more every day and how this medium can influence the audience so much. I am truly grateful for where I am and the attachment is only growing with time.