The Jathi Ratnalu actor discusses his latest show on aha, the landmarks in his career and what helps him lead a content life
Every generation in cinema has one comedian who rises out of the blues and changes the diktats of the industry beyond comprehension. Priyadarshi has been that actor for Telugu cinema this generation. Through his many roles, he was speaking the language of the common man, dressing like them, voicing their frustrations without any inhibitions, caring two hoots about sophistication. There are no filters to his performances, perhaps a reason why he feels one among us.
Beneath his wit, lies a very serious actor who's very conscious about his craft and the path he wishes to tread. Yes, he didn't go against the tide when comedy roles kept coming to him one after the other (after Pelli Choopulu) but he's channelised his popularity fruitfully to lend familiarity to many meaningful stories like Mallesham, Loser, Mail and now In the Name of God for aha. In a chat with OTTplay, we try to understand what keeps him ticking in an industry that loves to stereotype people.
A couple of years before, during Mallesham's release, you'd mentioned your intent to take up one indie project a year at least to prove your worth beyond comedy. Your horizons as an actor have certainly widened today...
I agree people don't refer to me as a comic actor alone. Even in Youtube thumbnails, I don't see videos with titles like 'Comedian Priyadarshi Funny Speech' anymore. For a long time, people found me funny regardless of what I spoke. I don't blame them either. It's the way the industry works. The reason I wanted to do something like Mallesham or any other indie project every year was to venture into unexplored territory, physically and mentally and find some soul satisfaction. It's like a school that I want to go to, for learning and unlearning quite a few things. Opportunities like Loser (ZEE5), Mail (aha) and now In the Name of God have nurtured me as an artist. Does that mean the other comedy roles in mainstream films don't give me satisfaction? Not quite.
What's your approach towards the regular comedy roles then?
I get very nervous when I land on a set and have to get my comic timing right at any cost. For a film like Jathi Ratnalu, the timing is everything. That's also a good kind of nervousness. I am not at all trying to run away from my comedy image when I do other kinds of projects. I am trying to use that as a foundation to explore newer avenues. I consider myself an accidental comedian. It was never part of the plan. Every actor in the industry wants to be limitless and try their hand at everything. Who am I to judge what's good, bad or wrong? There was a phase when I was simultaneously shooting for F2, Brochevarevaruraa and Mallesham and I could say I had a whale of a time. This was the very reason I came to the industry. I relish variety.
Only five years into the industry and you've already crossed the 50-film mark. What do these numbers mean to you?
Being a comedian, I think it's a given that you get to act in a large number of films and are busy hopping on from one set to another. I don't take numbers seriously. One fact I'm very glad about is that I've been a part of at least one memorable comedy film every year. 2019, I had Brochevarevaruraa, this year I got Jathi Ratnalu and I'm equally excited about another project that I did with Sharwanand and Vennela Kishore recently. I am always happy getting work and being in action. Sometimes, you make mistakes, not all of your characters work. Some films don't do well and you aren't funny every time. Whenever I get a reality check, I evaluate myself and gravitate towards something closer to my heart. I must also say the OTT has given a new dimension to my career.
Five years into your profession, what do you make of the entertainment industry?
The industry is an open place and ultimately, it's an invisible entity. Nearly a decade ago, when I graduated from HCU and wanted to make short films, the avenues to pursue your passions were far few and between. At best we could upload it on Youtube, send it to a few film festivals or arrange a screening at select venues. And look at the situation now. We have TikTok, Dubsmash, many online stars who are getting opportunities to act in feature films. I still don't know if I have a word to give any label to the industry. For example, Mail was full of people who made a career out of one-minute videos, cover tracks and they were terrific at their job when they came to the set too. All it takes to make it to the industry is some skill and a lot of common sense. There's space for everyone here. The ever-changing definition of entertainment is precisely the reason why the industry is expanding at an exponential rate.
Apart from Suresh Krissna, the crew behind your next show for aha, In the Name of God, is full of 20s something men and women. You were also part of one such team some time ago, trying something new and you've grown to be a familiar face now. Did you see a bit of yourself in them?
Yes, they remind me where I've come from. Many in the team are only a few years younger than me. I had first asked them to stop calling me 'sir' just because I'm the show's lead actor. I feel so uncomfortable when someone places me on a pedestal. It makes me wonder if I can't have normal conversations with them, or if I have to eat lunches alone at a caravan. The first and the foremost thing I did was to have them call me Darshi or 'bro' at best. They are a group of young people with unusual ideas and I'm intrigued by the way they understand my capabilities.
The synergy that I had with them was mind blowing. The director Vidyaasagar felt that my voice was more suited for darker roles after he watched me in Mallesham. I never imagined myself that way and I had to work harder to achieve what they expected from me. I loved this process of co-creating something very unique, especially when everyone is free to voice their opinion. The ADs in the film are 24-25-year-old kids who took great control of the set sans any inhibitions. It's through a team like this, that I've discovered a new me.
How would you describe your character Aadhi in In the Name of God? What went into the portrayal?
When you are doing a seven-episode series, your character is very elaborate and gives you the total picture of the person, from his peculiarities to his eccentricities to his journey. He is a grey character who takes impulsive decisions and gets into trouble due to his weaknesses; he never does anything consciously. To cover up one of his mistakes, he ends up committing many more blunders. I had many references from Vidyaasagar about the character, how he walks, talks, behaves and added my imagination to the portrayal. Discovering the darkness in your mind while playing a character like Aadhi was an exercise I wanted to do for a long time. The shooting was more like a workshop; I had something new to discover every day. It was an excruciating experience but equally exciting too.
Did the dark space remind you of Terror by any chance, a film where you had played a terrorist?
I wasn't reminded of Terror because Rob was a character who consciously did harm to people and was very clear about sacrificing himself for the cause he believed in. He is cut-throat and clear in his head. Aadhi, in contrast, is a small-town guy with modest ambitions and seeks to live a normal life, have a family for himself. However, if someone intentionally tries to harm Aadhi, he won't resist teaching them a lesson. Both characters are cruel at a point in their lives and that's probably the only similarity I can think of.
How do you process a success like Jathi Ratnalu? The response was mad, unprecedented and one of a kind.
Right when Anudeep narrated the script, I had the vibe that the film was going to be something else. When we went to shoot, we weren't sure if we're doing justice to the story but (producer) Nag Ashwin constantly had great feedback to share about the rushes. When it hit theatres, I saw theatres erupting out of laughter; it's a reaction I last witnessed at a theatre for Pelli Choopulu where crowds were going berserk. Sometimes, I just feel like sitting back and take cognizance of these reactions. We were mobbed so madly in theatres (for Jathi Ratnalu) that we tested ourselves for COVID-19 later. (Of course, the results were negative) You'd be surprised to hear that the reactions were similar in Dallas too. I didn't know what worked for the movie that made millions go crazy about it. It was a lifetime experience to savour a success of this scale. It was a monumental statement that the theatre-watching experience is here to stay.
What do you do when you don't act?
I take the liberty to wake up late. I enjoy not tracking time and the day of the week. I'm happy buying groceries, vegetables from supermarkets. Thank God for the mask, I don't get mobbed. I intentionally talk in a lower tone so that people don't recognise me. I catch up with filmmakers who stay nearby - Shashank Yeleti, Ashwin Gangaraju, Abhilash to name a few. I read books, spend quality with my wife, parents, father-in-law. I cycle in the evening hours and think a little about my EMIs or if my financial situation would get any better (laughs). I just lead a content life trying to make new memories every day.
Talking about Pelli Choopulu, your breakthrough film, everyone who was a part of it has made it big in the industry today. Be it you, Tharun Bhascker, Rahul Ramakrishna, Naveen Bethiganti, Ritu Varma and of course Vijay Deverakonda, everyone has carved a niche for themselves. Do you all look back at those experiences with an element of nostalgia now?
Pelli Choopulu will remain special for all of us and we're almost like family now. When we meet, we discuss less about cinema and catch up on our lives more. The last time we met, we talked about our holidays, food and only if I'm curious about any of their upcoming projects, do I ask anything about cinema. I talked to Vijay (Deverakonda) after Jathi Ratnalu and every time I see people going crazy about him, it feels surreal. Here was a boy who was one among us and is now spotted with the likes of Karan Johar, Manish Malhotra in Mumbai, makes headlines for the parties he attends. He is very chilled out about the attention he enjoys.
The same goes with Rahul; he talks about books, the places he travelled and of course, politics. RRR is sure to give him credibility as an actor across the country. Tharun, his wife Latha invite us to every major event in their lives. I am sure Tharun will make his Bollywood debut soon, given his potential. So much in our lives have changed but so much hasn't too. It feels wonderful all of us made great progress and yet the core remains the same.