The actor, who debuted as a child artiste with Golconda High School, headlines this week's Telugu OTT release on ZEE5, Oka Chinna Family Story, directed by Mahesh Uppala, produced by Niharika Konidela under Pink Elephant Pictures
Sangeeth Shobhan, the lead actor of ZEE5's upcoming show Oka Chinna Family Story (OCFS), may come from a family that has many connections with the industry but you can't dispute the fact that he's a director's delight. He has an organic, realistic approach towards acting, comes prepared to sets and gives it everything as the camera rolls on.
There was no launchpad readied for him to enter the industry and like any other acting aspirant sans a Godfather, he had to work his way through auditions, face rejections, better his craft with time and endlessly wait for opportunities to knock on his door. Yet, at no point did Sangeeth get impatient because he realised he had nothing to lose and that he wasn't good at anything else either. After Golconda High School, Pitta Kathalu, The Baker and the Beauty, he looks set for the big leap as an actor as he chats with OTTplay in an exclusive interview.
You are part of a quintessential film family, be it your father (director Shobhan), uncle, your brother (Santosh Shobhan) and now you all being involved with the industry in some form. In your early years, could you recollect what were your dinner conversations like?
My father was the first person from our family to have joined the industry, my uncle Lakshmipathi took to films a little after him. Dad used to work with RGV and Krishna Vamsi in his earlier days. Another uncle is a co-director now; my aunt is a singer and we, as a family, were part of the media industry in various forms. However, not all our dinner conversations were about films. We were like any other household. We probably discussed what film was good, what wasn't, was this funny and had many such talks, but they were just one part of our conversation. Back then, my brother and I didn't have much knowledge to talk filmmaking with dad. At best, we would discuss if this was a comedy or a mass film, but nothing more in specific.
So, it was only a natural progression that you had to enter the industry. Was it?
I am sure I can speak for my brother as well here because both of us wanted to get into films at some point. The biggest influence was, of course, our father. Because he was a director, we grew up seeing so many technicians, actors around us and we were drawn to it, considering it 'cool' as kids. We didn't know what they were doing but it seemed fun. My parents never found it necessary for us to have a backup plan in case films didn't work. All that my mom said was to have fun in whatever I took up. It's so funny but I have to tell you that I was the first degree holder in our family - none of us including my mom, dad, brother, uncle have graduated. We knew we'll be part of the industry in some form. I still don't consider myself a hero. Neither of us thought we would need a backup. I completed my academics because mom wanted at least one-degree holder in the house (laughs). Both of us brothers were not good at anything else. We didn't have a safety net and we gave it all when we entered the industry.
Was your first on-screen appearance, Golconda High School, more like a paid holiday?
My mother was a good friend of KK Senthil Kumar and her wife Roohi, who happened to inform us that they were making a film about cricket and they needed kids who knew the game and also could act. We went for the audition and got selected immediately. Working for the film didn't even feel like work. We were just these 15 kids running around the field in cricketing clothes and shot for it during the summer holidays. There was no worry about school and we had a great time. We never tried to be child artistes intentionally. My dad wanted us to be introduced as lead actors but he passed away before that could happen. Mom just told us to create our own path, go with the flow and have fun. Anyway, there was nothing to lose.
Were you camera conscious at any point in your growing years?
I am camera-conscious only if someone's taking a photo. I can act in front of a rolling camera for 24 hours but I just can't do photoshoots. Even if a fan or someone from the crowd wants to take an image with me, I get so awkward. I feel it's just easier to perform and react to a scene than to pose in front of a camera.
What was it like to share screen space with your brother in The Baker and the Beauty, someone who knew you inside out?
Both of us are blessed in a way that we don't get intimidated or feel conscious as actors in anyone's presence. We always knew that acting is the only thing we wanted to do all along. Even with Oka Chinna Family Story, though I was acting with veterans like Naresh and Tulasi (garu), I never got worked up or had any inhibitions performing in front of them. When I was not affected by the presence of such stalwarts, it's obviously going to be a piece of cake with my brother. We didn't think much about this on sets.
Our familiarity helped us play our parts better and build our camaraderie like any two artistes working together. Honestly, I and my brother were not that close before The Baker and The Beauty, because of schooling, staying in different hostels. We barely texted each other during college. Our rapport grew during the making of The Baker and The Beauty. Because we are in the film industry now, we have more common aspects to talk about and discuss, share memes these days.
Going back in time, was there anything in specific that your father had told you about the ways of the industry?
We were a little too young for him to offer gyaan about the film industry then (laughs). My mom keeps cautioning me now that people here may not always mean well and can take you for a ride. All my dad said was something on the lines of 'work harder and harder, then you get luckier and luckier.' He said this in Telugu but I think I've managed to make it sound cool in English now.
Did the dramatic highs and lows in the life of your father affect you all personally? The industry isn't an easy place to be, after all.
It did make an impact on us. My father only did three films in his career and only one of them was a hit (Varsham). The other two were disasters. Varsham, before Baahubali, was one of Prabhas' biggest hits in his career. Even with my brother, it took successes like Ek Mini Katha and Manchi Rojulochaie for him to find acceptance in the industry. He is so busy now that he has his hands full for a couple of years and is involved with some of the biggest projects being produced here. One of the best things to have happened during lockdown was the flurry of projects that my brother got and when banners began to feel it was more feasible to make story-driven films with emerging actors. Some of my friends on a lighter note called him a lockdown star.
Did your approach to the role of Mahesh in Oka Chinna Family Story change because you are playing the lead for the first time in your career? Was there any additional pressure on being the face of a show?
This may have been the case for a feature film. However, OTT and feature films are different ball-game. On OTT platforms, a hit or a flop doesn't affect an actor much, unlike a theatrical release where there's pressure on the team to recover the investment and make profits. In OTTs, the business aspect is taken care of much before and it gives a platform for young actors to prove their mettle. I was relieved in a way that with OTT, no one is losing money anywhere. All I had to do was to sit with my director, talk about my character and do what's expected of me. The filmmaking process for OCFS was even better because the director and I had a realistic approach to storytelling.
What happened at the show's audition? You don't seem to be quite proud of it, going by what you had said during the pre-release event.
If I were to be honest, I am very bad at auditions. I believe I am a good actor but I find various ways to mess up my auditions. I can't crack it somehow and have failed numerous times. I am glad it wasn't the case with Oka Chinna Family Story. I still believe I got lucky that one time. I didn't like what I did and informed mom and friends that I wasn't going to make it this time too.
You need to walk the tightrope between being sensitive and funny in OCFS. Was it a challenge to get that delicate balance right?
The more you resonate well with the director or the brain behind a story, the closer you will get to understand your character. The more you know your character, the easier it gets to understand how they'll react to situations. I have interacted at length with my director and knew the script so well that I know what I was shooting for the day besides the sequence that'll precede it and come next. I know the emotional graph that I would have to maintain. It helps you be honest with your character regardless of how the performance turns out. I like directors who're not particular about the lines. It takes a lot of stress off my head. I can never stick to the script as-is. I never change the meaning of the lines but I can't mug my lines and prefer to say it in a flow in my way.
How do you explain your effortlessness as an actor? It's something that aspirants work on and fail to achieve even after years.
Many have told me that I am a natural in front of the camera. I don't brag about it but I can only say that I practice well before turning up on a set. I prepare hard for my scenes and it just ends up feeling very spontaneous and effortless on the screen. My approach to acting is 'go big or go home.' I want to give it all when I am in front of the screen. I may not sit with the script so much before the shoot though I mentally prepare myself about reacting to a situation, look at myself for a long time. I prepare more when there are senior actors around so that even if my performance doesn't work great, I at least get my lines right. I can attribute the on-screen ease to my theatre stint too. There are no second chances when you get to the stage and perform live. Interestingly with theatre, there are so many lights around the stage that you can't look at the audience properly. That's a relief. This approach has helped me in films and OTT too.
Both your roles in OCFS and The Baker and the Beauty had you speaking in the Telangana slang. You may be new to the industry but is there a worry of being typecast?
The fear isn't certainly there. I am not scared of being typecast. I know I can vary my slang according to the part I'm given. Even when I speak to people, my Telugu is reasonably sophisticated. Probably in the future, when people are trying to slot me under one slang alone and I've done many such roles, I will politely refuse it. I don't know if people noticed it but the slang in The Baker and The Beauty (set in a colony in Secunderabad) and Oka Chinna Family Story (set in Warangal) is different. While the Hyderabadi slang is peppered with Urdu references, the Warangal slang is more authentic. I have friends who're from Warangal, so is my grandma, who helped me understand those little differences. The best compliment for this show was the comment from my Warangal friend that I sounded like a native of the region.
What was your biggest takeaway from the shooting experience for OCFS?
The biggest takeaway from the project is the realisation that I can act. I seek that from every offer I take up. Many people may have to say good things about my work but it's important to push myself to get better every day.