In February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown and dealt a massive blow to the entertainment industry across the country, a small-budget Kannada film caught the imagination of the audience.
Dia, directed by K S Ashoka — along with Love Mocktail by Darling Krishna — brought back old school, simple love stories to Kannada cinema. It also introduced Dheekshith Shetty, a household name already in Karnataka through the TV serial Naagini, to the movie-going audience.
It’s been a little over three years since Dheekshith’s silver screen debut. The actor is now gearing up for Dasara, where he sports a mean, rugged look as Suri, and shares screen space with Nani and Keerthy Suresh. The film will hit theatres on March 30 in five languages.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, says Dheekshith, who has been silently working in the background on a string of projects in Kannada, Telugu and Tamil.
“Because of the three-year gap, people keep asking me what I’ve been up to. I’ve worked on five films, as well as a couple of short films and anthologies during this period. We couldn’t release any in 2021-22 due to the pandemic, but this year, I will likely have a release every two months,” says Dheekshith, who is among the very few young Kannada actors in recent times to have broken the language barrier and seamlessly crossed over to other industries.
Big break in Tollywood
Dasara, directed by Srikanth Odela, is set in the backdrop of the Singareni coalmines near Godavarikhani of Telangana. While this is Dheekshith’s first big banner release in any language, it is not his maiden foray into Telugu. He has already worked on three Telugu projects, one of which was Meet Cute, an anthology directed by Deepthi Ghanta (Nani’s sister) for SonyLIV.
“I was chosen for Dasara thanks to my work in Meet Cute. It’s my first time sharing screen space with a huge star like Nani. We have a lot of misconceptions about how stars behave, but watching Nani sir at work from such close quarters made me realise that discipline is crucial to reach that stage. The entire team was very professional, and never made me feel like an outsider,” the self-effacing actor says.
Dheekshith’s upcoming films span across genres – from sci-fi to action, romance and family drama — as well as languages. Apart from Dasara, his releases in Kannada include KTM, Sheeghrameva Kalyana Praptirastu, Blink and Strawberry. For a fairly new entrant in the business, this impressive line-up is a reflection of his unconventional choices.
“As an actor, I believe I need to learn something new with every project and that a role should challenge me. If you look at films featuring newcomers that have achieved success of late, people want to see us in content-oriented films, and not mass entertainers which are mostly expected from big stars. Since most of these films would release back-to-back, I also wanted to ensure my characters didn’t seem repetitive,” Dheekshith explains.
But will it also translate into proof of his versatility? “It’s hard to judge our own films objectively, so there is a fair chance the audience may not accept it. But my confidence rests on the choice of scripts. I have been mindful to choose roles that offer room for more experimentation and do not pigeonhole my abilities,” he says.
Testing the limits
These conscious decisions were not without the attendant challenges of rigorous physical and emotional transitions from one character to another. Where KTM and Dasara pushed him to his limits physically, in Blink, Dheekshith had to dig deep into the emotional complexity of his character.
“In KTM, I play a guy whose personality undergoes multiple changes in his life. I had to lose 8 kgs to look eight years younger than my age in the first half, and then gain it back to look six years older in the second half. I also had to understand the psyche of the character at four different ages. I sat at a bar in Kalasipalya for several days to study how alcoholic men behave,” says Dheekshith.
Dasara, on the other hand, was a different ball game — not least because of having to emote in an unfamiliar language. “We shot in a coal mine stripped of all glamour. Sitting for hours on the make-up chair and then getting it all out was a task in itself. I once went to a hotel in makeup and the manager simply wouldn’t let me in. I also worked with our director Srikanth Odela to fine tune the Godavari Telugu dialect that my character speaks,” he says.
As someone with no backing in the industry, Dheekshith is also aware that every offbeat project he signs is a gamble. Therefore, he makes sure to leave no stone unturned where preparations for his performance are concerned. “I generally write down the traits, likes and dislikes of my characters and study them. Our lived experiences determine how we react to the world around us, so I try to understand the history of my character. If I don’t believe in the role I’m playing, how can I make the audience believe in it?”
A focused journey
The pandemic hit just when Dheekshith had made his transition from television to films. For a young actor taking his first steps towards a career in films, those could have been uncertain, anxious times. But Dheekshith was determined to stay the course and make it big on the celluloid.
“When I took up acting after completing my LLB, I had a single goal in mind. If something untoward were to happen, my only options were to sink or swim but to never travel in two boats. I had full faith in my abilities to survive as an actor. My only fear, post-pandemic, was whether people would come back to theatres,” he says.
That, of course, was unfounded. The audiences have returned to the theatres with renewed vigour and a steady stream of well-executed, quality content every year should reinforce people’s belief in Kannada cinema.
While that remains the collective responsibility of the industry, Dheekshith says he will continue to work on fresh, interesting stories to entertain the audience. After television and films, the actor has now taken a leap into the OTT space, and will soon be seen in a Telugu web series for Hotstar. “I look forward to working in genres I haven’t dealt with yet — a thriller, a sports drama, or even mythology. Meanwhile, I hope Dasara will introduce me as an actor to all of India.”