The actor talks about his third film production, Vivaha Bhojanambu, which released directly on SonyLIV the previous weekend
Sundeep Kishan is one name in Indian cinema who can't be slotted under a particular label. He's acted in multiple languages across multiple mediums, has done negative roles, lead roles, played a supporting character, has produced movies, and is a hands-on entrepreneur, who owns a chain of (non-film) businesses across the Telugu states. He hasn't been lucky always with the results but no force has dented his enthusiasm to take up risks or experiments in his decade-long career. His latest endeavour as a producer is Vivaha Bhojanambu, the Telugu film that released on SonyLIV the previous weekend, and opened to positive responses all over. In an exclusive chat with OTTplay, the actor-producer offers a lowdown on the many factors that influence his decisions.
What is with the phrase 'Vivaha Bhojanambu' in your life? Be it the film or the chain of restaurants you own (named after Vivaha Bhojanambu), it has only brought you applause.
When the whole idea of the restaurant popped up, I realised everything about my life and my roots are either driven or inspired by cinema. The memory of my childhood days where I spent at my grandfather's place and repeatedly watched Mayabazaar kept coming back to me. The Vivaha Bhojanambu song was my favourite memory from the film. I loved that visual of SV Ranga Rao having that huge meal. I felt that would represent my brand of restaurants aptly and also have recall value. With the film too, the story was about a wedding, people staying at a household, about food, cops and it's also meant to be a happy-little ride. It was obvious that our first choice of titles revolved around wedding meals or marriage. Initially, we were against the idea of using the restaurant's name for the film and thought we were being indulgent, but later we realised it could be our USP as well. It's a happy coincidence.
The last year and a half have been extremely challenging for businesspersons across the globe. However, in your case, you've produced two films, A1 Express, Vivaha Bhojanambu and have expanded your salon brand to the remotest corners of the Telugu states. What was it like to take these financial decisions in this tough hour?
Thanks for asking this! I feel anytime is a great time for a business provided you know what business is working when. I'm one who strongly believes in a good work ethic and solid effort. As an actor, it's not your place on a film set to suggest something to move forward. As a producer, I'm trying to inculcate a work culture that I believe in. All the businesses that I've taken upto date have been very strategically thought through. When I started the restaurant, I didn't want it to be extremely elite or make it a fancy date place. I wanted it to be a place where every family could comfortably afford in their heart of the city and enjoy their meals and leave.
With the salons, my idea was to not cater to the metropolitan cities but to reach out to tier-2, tier-3 cities - Vijayawada, Tenali, Rajahmundry. It was a very conscious decision. I found inspiration from many people with film production, from Dil Raju to Anil Sunkara to Kiran (Sir) and Vivek Kuchibhotla. They only make the product they genuinely believe in and give their heart out in reaching out to audiences. With Vivaha Bhojanambu, our idea was to sell the film defying all cinema conventions, be it the hero or doing away with item songs or fights and casting people only based on characters. It was a gamble but I'm glad my partners Sinish and Kiran (sir) agreed to it. It was an attempt to see if this would work; this was purely a business call and I'm glad audiences are resonating with our choices today. With A1 Express (which was my 25th film), I was particular about producing it and saw to it that the film concurred with my vision. I'm so thankful that Vivek Kuchibhotla and Abhishek Agarwal stood by me.
Be it director Caarthik Raju or Ram Abbaraju now, you've had an eye for talent as a producer.
I just like it when people think out of the box and don't succumb to laid norms. Many were surprised that I backed a 40s something Tamil-speaking director Caarthik Raju to helm a Telugu film like Ninu Veedani Needanu Nene but I did it because I liked the way he visualised the entire project. Say, someone like Vikram Kumar started his career with Ishtam, then made 13B and a blockbuster like Manam - the contrast in each of the film's genres proves how versatile he is. If we go back in time, we must realise that a lot of careers progress depending on the opportunities given to individuals.
For Ram Abbaraju too (with Vivaha Bhojanambu), my idea was to facilitate everything that he would need to tell the story in the most ideal way and let him do his job. And he surpassed my expectations and how! Ram has already signed his next film and so have Satya and Aarjavee. It's a nice feeling that someone you've trusted is finding acceptance in the industry. These guys would've anyway grown big, I'm just happy that I've been there for them to give a push to their talents at the right time. I'm lucky that I was involved with people like Deva Katta, Prasanth Varma, Raj and DK, VI Anand, Lokesh Kanagaraj early in their careers. More than anything else, it's also about being at the right place and the right time.
What was it like to solely sit on a producer's chair for Vivaha Bhojanambu and not act?
A lot of people believe that film production is a financial job but a producer's job is as creative as it can get. He/she must know what the film needs. The most successful producers in the industry are those who always had their particular way of making a film. Many say that the role of the producer is to complete the film under the estimated budget. I don't think the same way though! The idea is to ensure a best-possible product in the least possible time and be ready to invest more if there's a necessity. No filmmaker ends up making a film exactly the way he/she wants to. My role as a producer is to at least get 10% closer to what the director imagined the film to be. I'm not proud of the fact that three of my productions went over budget and there were reshoots too. However, they were ultimately sold at a higher price than the budget. Ultimately, there's some method to the madness.
You couldn't have asked for a better start to your OTT career than a show like The Family Man. Yet, you didn't take up any OTT projects later...
The Family Man was something that happened by chance, a collaboration that I had blindly agreed to because I can never say no to Raj and DK, who've been my mentors for many years now. Would you be surprised if I say that I had asked for my role to be written in that show? The main difference between the digital medium and feature films is the narrative span. In terms of numbers on OTT, it's impossible to predict the content that would be wholeheartedly received by audiences. I have always been open to doing something out of the box and crazy but today, I want to be more responsible for what I take up. I want to weigh my options out, study this space more, not because of the money but for the effort involved (it means more hours of pre-production, post-production and shooting days). I'm someone who only takes up one project at a time and I need to think twice if I'm ready to invest a year's time into a project.
The decision to release Vivaha Bhojanambu on OTT was driven by the financials alone?
Vivaha Bhojanambu going to OTT wasn't a financial decision at all. Honestly, had we gone to theatres, we would've made more money. The film was initially made for OTT but we later rethought the decision and believed that theatres are ultimately the direct connection between filmmakers and audiences. I believe in the theatrical format more in terms of the business aspect too - it's literally based on crowd-funding. After we came close to finalising the OTT deal, theatres had opened up again and distributors were keen on taking the film to the big screen. Just when this was getting formalised, the second wave of the pandemic hit us and I thought it was unfair to keep the distributors at risk and stuck to our initial plan. I had to opt for a medium that gave my film the best possible chance to grab the attention of audiences.
You couldn't have found an actor who's more apt for Vivaha Bhojanambu than Satya Akkala. It's an unconventional choice that has truly paid off.
I'm glad you say that. People initially called me mad and didn't take me seriously, not the director or even Satya believed me till the first day of the shoot. I had producers calling me to suggest other actors come on board for the film but I stood firm on my ground. We adapted the script keeping Satya's strengths in mind. He was a casting choice that I genuinely believed in and I'm so happy that I've been proved right. These are the moments where you feel good about your decisions and tell yourself, 'my brain did work right!' Even with other actors, we made sure that we picked actors who deserved more limelight than what they've gotten.