As the mystical thriller premieres on ZEE5, Nikhil relives his journey in cinema from Happy Days to Karthikeya to Karthikeya 2
Last Updated: 11.30 AM, Oct 13, 2022
Nikhil Siddhartha, despite scoring a monstrous hit like Karthikeya 2, hasn’t had the time to savour the sweet scent of success in the last month or so. He’s occupied with the shoot of his action-thriller Spy and has his hands tied up with the post-production formalities of his next release – 18 Pages. In between his breakneck schedule, the OTT release of Karthikeya 2 has given him an additional reason to be joyous. His phone hasn’t stopped ringing and his inbox is full post the digital premiere of the mystical thriller. He discusses life before and after Karthikeya 2 in a chat with OTTplay.com
You complete 15 years in Telugu cinema this year. How have you built the minimum guarantee-trust with audiences all these years that goes beyond word-of-mouth talk, reviews?
It’s nice of you to say this and I’m blushing right now. I just wanted to be an actor first - we all know how cinema and the deluge of stars are a huge influence in the life of Telugu people. The industry inspires me and I wanted to see myself on the big screen at least once. It doesn’t feel like Happy Days happened 15 years ago and in my head, I auditioned for it only two days ago. I am like you or any other viewer and tried to think like them. I travel regularly, visit Tank Bund, sit down at dhabas, go to theatres and talk to people, and interact with college students. Those are the places where you realise what the people want. Trends and genres change with time and like SS Rajamouli sir says, stay true to the pulse of the audiences and I’m glad to have done that. My choices may work or fail but that doesn’t stop my quest for something fresh. Content should do the talking.
It has been three years since your last film Arjun Suravaram had released and Karthikeya 2 has been in the making for a while now. Was there a worry that the film may not be relevant when it eventually hit theatres this year?
After Arjun Suravaram released and performed well, I took a few months off, poor me didn’t realise COVID-19 was going to hit us. I had finalised only two films - 18 Pages and Karthikeya 2. The minute Karthikeya 2 was about to take off and 18 Pages was yet to begin shoot, the pandemic happened and two years went into their making. I didn’t worry if the films will be relevant or not. We had shot for Karthikeya 2 till this May. My only worry was about the world recovering from the pandemic and if people will be okay to return to theatres again. Movies like RRR, KGF, Vikram, Major and Bimbisara proved that bringing them back to the big screen wasn’t going to be an issue.
Karthikeya was Chandoo Mondeti’s first film and he’s evolved a lot over the years by the time he could make Karthikeya 2. What has changed in him as a filmmaker from 2014 to 2022?
Audiences know Chandoo Mondeti since 2014 - I’ve known him as a friend from 2003-04. I’ve been a witness to his growth from an amateur film buff to an assistant director to a filmmaker all these years. He is a good director, yes, but a great writer. The command he has over the scriptures or the vedas is unbelievable. He’s always reading some book when I meet him. It’s the research he’s done that has helped all his movies. With Karthikeya 2 alone, Chandoo Mondeti did six months of research and he’s making a similar effort for Karthikeya 3 too. It’s impressive that he’s focusing not only on the cinematic tropes but also on the detailing that complements them.
Post Swamy Ra Ra, 6 out of your 8 films have performed well and the common link to them is quality storytelling. How do you bring such consistency to your career in such an unpredictable industry?
It’s important to build your market first - otherwise, production houses or directors won’t trust you immediately. Till Swamy Ra Ra, I was only doing the films coming to me and I didn’t have a say in the script or the making. I made a conscious decision to do a film based on a story and not a production house. Swamy Ra Ra was ultimately made and produced by my friends (Sudheer Varma and team) on a budget of Rs 1 crore and the film collected Rs 12-15 crore at the box office. Once this trust factor was established with the market, I had more freedom to do scripts I believed in and that’s where consistency comes into play. Script selection becomes important in addition to the collaborative work and the conviction from producers. With Karthikeya 2, the producers believed in us and never asked us questions during the making. The result is showing now. Even after its theatrical release, the OTT premiere feels like a re-release and the buzz for the film is similar.
While Karthikeya depicted the battle between superstition and science, a sensitive aspect like religion comes into play with the sequel. Given the politically vulnerable times we live in, what care did the Karthikeya 2 team take to convey your intent and yet not rub someone up the wrong way?
Firstly, we believed that we were showing something positive. Lord Krishna is someone who’s loved by people across religions, countries and other barriers in the world - followers for an organisation like ISKCON validates this fact. And beyond religion, I thought Karthikeya 2 was discussing Indian culture and a way of life. More than being a scripture, Bhagavadgita is a text that guides us to live a life with dharma. Even if you notice the characters in the film, no one talks anything malicious about anyone and I believe, we spoke the truth. I know even Muslim families that came in huge numbers to watch the film. We never had fear and nothing went wrong also. However, we were very conscious and careful about conveying the soul of the story.
All of us had grandparents who passed on stories about history, mythology and culture to our generation. With nuclear families being the way forward, do you think cinema has filled this void for current-day kids?
I always feel cinema has its purpose as an educative tool in society. When a mainstream film like a Bommarillu or a 3 Idiots or a Taare Zaameen Par or Dangal discusses a larger issue, audiences have always encouraged them. A film should always be entertaining first and the message should be camouflaged. Karthikeya 2 fills the void of grandma’s stories to this generation in its own way. I noticed so many pictures in halls where 70% of the audience were kids below 10 years and it was very exciting to know that.
Karthikeya 2 took you to various parts of the country for promotions – Kochi, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai, ISKCON Vrindavan, to name a few. Have these experiences changed your perception of cinema in the country in any way?
This experience taught me that Indian audiences, regardless of the city they come from, are the same. We’re all one and what we want is a good film. The responses I got in Kochi or Ahmedabad or Delhi are the same. We may have different religious practices, lead different lifestyles but we’re all bound together under this umbrella called India. This fact made me very happy because it offers us the scope to make more pan-Indian films. We’re all one and certainly, social media is helping our cause.
While you’ve had hits before in your career, the magnitude of Karthikeya 2’s success was something beyond anyone else’s imagination. How do you not let this tinker with your thought process and stay grounded?
Fear, if used well, can always help us change and evolve for the better. Many of them may feel that I’m enjoying my success, partying and my world has gone topsy-turvy. The moment I finished my promotions, my mind went to my next films - Spy and 18 Pages. I was shooting for Spy in the last 25 days and I’m currently dubbing for 18 Pages. We’re planning how these films should live upto the audience’s expectations after a hit like Karthikeya 2. I become more responsible and I work harder to sustain this success. History has taught us how even the biggest of stars had unkind experiences after taking success to their head. You always learn from examples, elders and I hope I’m on the right path.
Nikhil Siddhartha’s OTT entry – coming soon?
Among the 150-crore population, India has only 2 crore viewers who watch cinema in theatres. Those who don’t come to theatres either are not interested in movies and think it’s too much of an effort to watch films in theatres with the transportation and the food costs. Luckily now, internet has penetrated across nooks and corners of the country. ZEE5 has also marketed the OTT release of Karthikeya 2 extensively and the response confirms it. Many of those who were calling me were those who didn’t get to watch it in theatres. I want to cater to the tastes of both theatre-going audiences and streaming enthusiasts. OTT has huge potential and I’m waiting to tap into the medium soon.