Teja Kakumanu: Journey from the sidelines to the director’s chair

Teja Kakumanu discusses his chequered journey in cinema as he makes his directorial debut with the Telugu comedy web series ‘Save the Tigers’, soon to stream on Disney+ Hotstar

April 19, 2023 04:09 pm | Updated April 20, 2023 05:16 pm IST

Director Teja Kakumanu and actor Priyadarshi with Gangavva on the sets of ‘Save the Tigers’

Director Teja Kakumanu and actor Priyadarshi with Gangavva on the sets of ‘Save the Tigers’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The title, Save the Tigers, might lead to an assumption that it is a documentary or docu-fiction on saving the big cats. A Telugu web series has this title for a comedy- relationship drama in which men are the supposed tigers. Mahi V Raghav is the showrunner for this series written by Pradeep Advaitham and directed by Teja Kakumanu. Save The Tigers will stream on Disney+ Hotstar on April 27. For Teja Kakumanu who has acted in supporting roles, trained actors and co-directed a few Telugu films, this is his first full-fledged directorial project. 

In this interview on a balmy afternoon, Teja reveals that the series follows the journeys of three male characters played by Priyadarshi Pulikonda, Abhinav Gomatam and Chaitanya Krishna. “Priyadarshi plays a guy who is happy to live in a basti while his wife is keen that the family relocates. Abhinav, an aspiring writer, has taken a sabbatical from work and is dependent on his wife, and Chaitanya is an advertising professional who is at loggerheads with his wife. Through humour, the conversational drama shows differing perspectives of men and women. Our intention is not to make fun of women.” Pavani Gangireddy, Sujatha, Deviyani Sharma, Raja Chembolu, Gangavva and Srikanth Iyengar are part of the cast.

Teja Kakumanu makes his debut as director with ‘Save the Tigers’

Teja Kakumanu makes his debut as director with ‘Save the Tigers’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Teja says handling the director’s job was a smooth process and that it brought back memories of being a student leader during his college days in Vijayawada when he called the shots. Telugu film industry insiders know Teja as someone who can be relied upon to train actors on sets and to help non-Telugu speaking actors learn Telugu dialogues. He was part of the direction department for Bhale Manchi Roju and Devadasu

The ‘Baahubali’ spy

As an actor, he has made his presence felt in Baahubali - the Beginning, (as the spy who reveals Bhallaladeva and Amarendra Baahubali’s plans to Kalakeyas), as a tribal in Akashavani, as a cop in Bheemla Nayak, in Shootout at Alair web series, a smaller part in Parampara web series, among other films. 

Teja says he never aspired to be an actor or a director. He was happy as a student leader until he noticed his peers winning college competitions and taking home trophies. “I thought it would be good to win some prizes. I was good at preparing speeches for elocution contests at short notice. I also worked with a few theatre groups. I loved being on stage and behind it, helping put up the sets and arrange the lighting. I participated in competitions and won prizes.” 

He then pursued Master’s in performing arts at Telugu University, Hyderabad. While in college, he often travelled to Vijayawada and Guntur to train students for their college festivals and also performed in stage plays across the erstwhile State of Andhra Pradesh. “I did not aspire to join the film industry, but back in my village — Abbarajupalem in Thullur mandal of Guntur district — people began asking me why they cannot see me on television or cinema if I am acting. They did not understand the point of me continuing in stage plays.” 

Stage to cinema

Teja Kakumanu

Teja Kakumanu | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The first opportunity to act in films was in director Teja’s Neeku Naaku Dash Dash and the first opportunity to be a part of the direction department came with the 2014 film Billa Ranga. “I had already won awards for acting in plays, including the AP State government’s Nandi award in 2013 for a play titled Kalyani, and it was time to challenge myself with cinema.” 

One of his stage performances as Barbareeka was watched by screenwriter Vijayendra Prasad and this, in turn, fetched Teja the small part in Baahubali. “Initially when I told others that I am working in Baahubali, many did not believe me. Once the film was released, they took me seriously.”

After 12 years in cinema and an assortment of supporting roles and co-director assignments, Teja says he is now keen to take up films and series that will showcase him as an actor and director of merit. “I have kept myself busy with varied acting assignments and learnt through them. I do not like to be idle and have taken up freelance work to train actors, even when I am not credited. Now I am keen that my work is highlighted so that the audience notices it.” As an actor, he will be seen next in director Vikram Kumar’s web series Dhootha starring Naga Chaitanya, and in Trivikram Srinivas’ new film starring Mahesh Babu.

(Save the Tigers streams on Disney+ Hotstar on April 27)

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