Dasara is touted to be actor Nani’s biggest film to date, in terms of scale and nationwide release plans. Days before the film’s release, between multi-city promotional tours, the actor settles down for a conversation at his Hyderabad office and states that the film was inspired by incidents that took place in the vicinity of coal mines in Telangana. He adds that the film directed by first-timer Srikanth Odela has the potential to be a box office winner and win critical appreciation.
Talking about the Telugu film which will also release in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi on March 30, Nani says the story that unfolds in Veerlapally, Telangana, has the potential to appeal to audiences in different languages. “Srikanth’s father worked as a dumper driver in the coal mines for 40 years. Srikanth has grown up observing people in Godavarikhani and their way of life. When he narrated the story, I knew he had not written it from within the four walls. He wanted to recreate the world he had witnessed, on screen,” Nani explains.
The actor reiterates that Dasara is “highly emotional” and not just the mass film that it is perceived to be. “The biggest weapon for a mass film is its emotions. We love S S Rajamouli’s films because of how emotions lead to big action moments. There were times when my producers were worried that people were comparing Dasara to KGF, but I wasn’t. The honesty with which Srikanth has narrated this rooted story, I think, will make people connect to the emotional crux. Ultimately the audience decides if a film has a pan-India appeal. Our effort has been to make a film that feels real and also give the audience an adrenaline rush.”
In his career of nearly 15 years, this is the first time Nani sports an unkempt, rustic look and looking almost unrecognisable. He says the transformation was necessitated by the story and its setting near coal mines. “Legends like Kamal Haasan have experimented with several looks and there is nothing new that an actor like me can do. In the initial years, I mostly got romances and regular dramas that did not require new looks. Now directors consider me an actor who can take up different stories; if those stories warrant a new look, it is a bonus. The way I looked in Ante Sundaraniki or Shyam Singha Roy is different from how I looked in MCA a few years ago.”
The full body dark tone makeup, he says, was not easy. It would take hours to put on and remove the makeup. “The real trouble would begin each day after shooting; all that makeup has to be scrubbed off. By the end of it, I would be so tired that I would get into my car and fall asleep.” When he saw the output, all that effort seemed worth it.
When the conversation shifts to getting into the psyche of his character Dharani, Nani says he has an innate ability to observe the people he meets and imbibe their body language and manner of speaking. “I visited a college yesterday and that energy rubbed off on me. On the contrary, when I spend time with elders I am more restrained. This works to my advantage. On the sets, the entire direction department is from Godavarikhani and would speak to me in the Telangana dialect. I would become one among them.”
The detailing that went into the script and the sets also helped him get into character. “For instance, the story has two brothers living in adjacent houses. One house has a regular black gate and another has a grill. Srikanth reasoned that one is an introvert while the other is an extrovert, is into politics and therefore meets several people. The houses and spaces are designed according to their characters. All these details help me get into the psyche of a character.”
Dasara might be perceived as a male-dominated film on the lines of KGF or Pushpa - The Rise, but Nani points out that the story revolves around Keerthy Suresh’s character Vennela. “Those who think this is a masculine film, going by the slow-motion shots, are in for a surprise. Vennela is the heart of Dasara and her character has been written with a lot of sincerity. I think she has delivered one of her career-best performances; I liked it even more than her work in Mahanati,” he says and hastens to add, “I think I am making too many statements about the film. I hope the audience appreciates these aspects in the film.”
Nani recalls his conversation with music composer Santhosh Narayanan and how the two felt that Srikanth Odela is exploring a raw, rustic space in Telugu cinema akin to that of Maari Selvaraj and Vetrimaaran in Tamil cinema. “We have all grown up watching mainstream Telugu cinema where people are dressed in their finery in villages, as though each day is a festival. I enjoy those films too. But occasionally I wish we would make realistic films as well. There are several layers to relationships in real life and we don’t showcase them enough in our films. I am not saying ‘let’s make a boring film’. Films that reflect native cultures and dialects, with an adrenaline rush required for a Telugu film, can also be beautiful.” He hopes that Dasara will work at the box office and pave the way for more rooted Telugu films headlined by established actors.
Taking stock of his career, he says he is at a phase where he is trying to make memorable movies, cases in point being Jersey, Ante Sundaraniki and Shyam Singha Roy. “This is the stage I have been working towards,” he says. He doesn’t aim to soar too high, to the extent of shouldering box office expectations of a larger audience across the country. “That sort of burden will affect my decisions; I will not be able to narrate the stories I want to. At this stage, I have producers willing to back me and can get the best technicians. I want to be a part of interesting films and if they turn out to be memorable, I will be happy.”
Point out that he has become a magnet for first-time and emerging directors, and he says he didn’t set out with an agenda to work with debutants. His doors are open for young directors. Having begun his career as an assistant director, he says; he used to be a sounding board for others’ ideas; also, his acting experience helps him gauge if an aspirant can pull off a story he/she narrated with passion. “New directors come with stories that have been written with a lot of heart and soul.”
Some of the first-time directors he worked with, such as Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin and Shiva Nirvana and the two directors he introduced through his production house — Prasanth Varma and Sailesh Kolanu — are names to reckon with today. His next, an untitled film co-starring Mrunal Thakur, is directed by debutant Shoryuv. “Hanu Raghavapudi, Gowtam Tinnanuri and Rahul Sankrityan did their second films with me; there is a lot of satisfaction in looking back and thinking that we all grew together.”
He adds, “I want to see new kinds of films in Telugu. I can get the best technicians and producers who are willing to back me; so I see it as my responsibility to present new stories. If I don’t do this, the whole process of taking 15 years to reach this stage is a waste.”