The actor talks about his first direct-to-OTT release Malli Modalaindi, the tone of the film and what has kept him away from streaming content this long
Last Updated: 05.39 AM, Feb 08, 2022
Being socially awkward and dealing with fame may sound like an oxymoron but actor Sumanth has juggled both with an element of nonchalance through his two-decade-long tryst with cinema. He may be the grandson of a superstar like ANR, born with a silver spoon, and yet has remained quite pragmatic about his strengths, limitations, success and failure. Sumanth has managed to remain detached from the industry, even while working in it, coming to terms with its uncertainties.
Malli Modalaindi, on ZEE5, is a new beginning for him in OTTs - a younger and a relevant medium that's a perfect foil for his sensibilities and is likely to pave a new path for him as a performer. In a conversation with OTTplay.com, he discusses the film, if it aims to be a conversation starter about life post-divorce, the validity of marriage as an institution, sailing through this transition phase as an actor and more.
When I hear phrases like new-age/multiplex films these days, I feel that you're finally in a space where you can find work that suits your tastes now than say, two decades ago when you started your career.
You are right. I don't disagree with it. There's a lot more content that appeals to me these days. That said, I am a big fan of masala films as well. I watch all kinds of films but with the projects I wish to be a part of, there are more opportunities for sure. It's not that there weren't progressive films before. We always have had a Sekhar Kammula or a K Viswanath garu or Vamsy who tried to create their brand of interesting cinema but the doors have opened up now. The rise of OTTs has played its part too.
Why do you think a label like 'relationship-drama' specialist has remained with you? And you've been a preferred face for urban-centric films more often than not...
I am not sure how the label had stuck to me. I tasted success with mass films like Gowri and Satyam in between. I must say I got better opportunities with story-driven cinema. I was always trying my best to straddle two boats. Right at the time of Gowri, I also managed Godavari. I didn't particularly choose relationship dramas or urban-centric films - I just went with the flow and wasn't conscious about it. I still like action films but they must make sense and tell a good story. I am game for masala films now too provided they match my sensibilities. I can only choose from what I get.
Your grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) being the practical man that he always was, did he have any word of advice on planning various phases of your career and transitioning from one stage to another?
ANR, beyond his worldly wisdom and knowledge, was someone who stayed true to the times and always believed that the rules that applied to his era may not work now. He was very aware and conscious of the fact that he belonged to a different generation and never advised anyone of us in the family regarding our careers. It's probably his greatest strength/attribute.
I ask this because he had quite gracefully transitioned into a character artiste with Seetharamaiah Gari Manivaralu, where he didn't mind going bald for the first time in his career barely a few years after he was a mainstream star...
It took a lot of convincing for him to go bald for the role and appear without a wig, he always told those stories to me. The only advice probably he had for me is to not get slotted in any kind of role. If you look back at it now, he didn't have the action hero-image and a little like me, his strength was relationship dramas too.
A film like Malli Modalaindi, which deals with divorce in a light-hearted vein, requires its actors to be progressive and take themselves lightly. This is a space that would have come quite naturally to you...
By nature, I have this self-deprecating sense of humour and it's more necessary for this kind of film. You'll have to make fun of yourself, openly talk about your weaknesses, embrace them if you want to get this right. I play a 30s something guy who's far from perfect and is navigating life post-divorce. I like the fact that it dealt with divorce and not many Telugu films have looked at divorce in a lighter vein. It wasn't something as heavy as Marriage Story. The treatment of the story is palatable to the tastes of our audiences. The film isn't without its moments of seriousness but the humour takes precedence.
As a society, do you think we've come to a stage where we no longer consider divorce a taboo? Did that give you the confidence to take up Malli Modalaindi?
I come from a small percentage of society, so I'm not sure if I can directly comment on that. I haven't studied how families across various strata deal with divorce. However, I still believe there is some stigma associated with divorce in India more than in the West. I guess I'm right about that. I haven't looked at this from a social point of view. Divorce is common now, no doubts about it but, surprisingly, it took us so long to make a film about it.
Does it get tricky or awkward for you, especially if people try to read between the lines and compare your personal life to Malli Modalaindi's premise?
That's where the trick lies. If you're conscious about that, you can't attempt a film like Malli Modalaindi. If certain people want to read between the lines, I am alright about it. I strongly believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and viewpoint. If they try to infer something from this, good for them! I'm fine with that. When you make a film on such a topic, this is all part of the game.
We live in times when a lot of questions are being raised on marriage as an institution. Does the film shed light on why probably the institution is falling apart?
It's more a story about the protagonist's life and doesn't get into the psychological/social aspects of marriage. It doesn't try to get into the social ramifications of divorce that much. It's meant to be a light-hearted film and tells how the character deals with the twists and turns in his relationships. It's dealt with a lot of wit - you notice there's a rehabilitation centre for divorcees where they can 'reset' their lives. The centre is actually named 'Reset'. I liked the tone of the film.
It's clear that Malli Modalaindi was planned as a theatrical release but is ending up on OTT. Do you think a clear distinction has emerged on what content is meant for the theatres and small-screen viewing?
I think the distinction has become clear all over the world. Theatres are still very much a social outing for many. The event-specific, spectacle kind of films are more enjoyable in theatre. Films that are more personal, content-oriented are moving to streaming platforms. Even in the West, you see that a brand of films are no longer making it to theatres and are released directly on OTT. In India, the personal films I had mentioned about, provided they have good music, are shot well can still allure theatre-going audiences. All said and done, I'm not too disappointed that Malli Modalaindi has come to OTT, given the current scenario. We all have to evolve.
What was it like to dub for Ranveer Singh in the Telugu version of 83? Did you see it as an opportunity to relive your memories with the 1983 World Cup win?
It happened very casually during the first wave of the pandemic. Annapurna (Studios) happened to procure the Telugu rights of 83 and my sister asked if I was interested in dubbing for Ranveer Singh. The content was very exciting and I was very aware of the films that Kabir Khan made to date. It was my toughest dubbing assignment to date. Ranveer was brilliant in the film and striking a balance between his performance and Kapil Dev's mannerisms wasn't easy at all. It was doubly challenging, interesting because Ranveer wasn't being himself and was playing an iconic figure on the screen. I thought it would open up many doors for the future because a lot of English films are being dubbed in Telugu - Rana, Nani, Varun Tej, Venky have dubbed for many interesting films. It's good work!
You've constantly expressed your desire to take up negative roles. Have you landed at that dream character yet?
I still haven't got that role yet. I've always made it clear that if ever I play a villain, it has to be an author-backed role and can't be a caricature. The closest I've gotten to it is a supporting role that I'm playing in Dulquer Salmaan's next with Hanu Raghavapudi. I am very excited about that. The shoot is more or less done and we can't wait to get back on set once the Omicron worries subside. It's a period war drama and being a big-time history buff myself, I am looking forward to it. I think the film should open many doors for me.
Why haven't we seen you in OTT more regularly?
I would like to be in the OTT space a lot more. Many offers have come but the right content hasn't come to me yet. You'll definitely see me more in the digital space, for sure! I operate in my shell as long as I go to work and come back home. I like working, keeping myself busy, being occupied with my interests. Given that the OTT content has opened up newer avenues, it's an exciting time.