Bollywood is all abuzz. The excitement is reminiscent of the frenzy over Nagarjuna after Shiva . From the bungalows of Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, Telugu actor Vijay Deverakonda has taken a metaphorical leap into the production houses of Mumbai’s Aram Nagar, where he is being spoken of as a talent to watch out for.
I meet him a day after the release of Dear Comrade . This is Deverakonda’s first film to release simultaneously in all four southern languages: the Telugu film was dubbed into Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. And Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions will be remaking the film in Hindi.
Deverakonda will not be acting in the Hindi remake , he says; he has two other projects in Telugu and doesn’t fancy going through the emotions of Dear Comrade all over again. However, he is keen to do a Telugu-Hindi bilingual film. “It’s just a matter of time before I lock in on the right project.” This, he thinks, will expand his reach; but he also sees it as necessary in the larger context of Indian cinema. “Shah Rukh Khan broke barriers and widened the market for Hindi films overseas. Now, we have to blur the boundaries between cinema in different languages in India. Or else we will end up watching Avengers in every theatre. We cannot compete with Hollywood. But we can collaborate within the country and tell stories in different languages.”
For decades, Hindi film producers have been remaking Tamil and Telugu hits, but after Baahubali , there has been renewed interest in Telugu cinema. In contrast, actors from the South have so far only bagged occasional Hindi projects — whether Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna, or the current crop of Dhanush, Rana Daggubati and Dulquer Salmaan.
Deverakonda isn’t keen on giving up his reign in Telugu cinema, but he likes how Daggubati does a few films that transcend language barriers (in The Ghazi Attack and his forthcoming Haathi Mere Saathi ). Deverakonda commends Daggubati for going that extra mile to introduce Baahubali to Karan Johar and get things rolling. “It’s because of him, and director S.S. Rajamouli and producer Shobu Yarlagadda that Telugu cinema is in the reckoning again,” he says.
On Twitter, director Vasan Bala ( Mard ko Dard Nahin Hota ) and Deverakonda have expressed interest in working together. Says Bala: “Deverakonda is comfortable being himself, speaking his mind, and has a distinct personality.”
Bala also admires how Deverakonda encourages new talent: “He has worked with a few directors he knew from 10 years ago, when they were making short films. He’s creating a fresh ecosystem and empowering them to tell stories,” he says.
Small but pivotal
Deverakonda first got noticed for his supporting role in Nag Ashwin’s Yevade Subramanyam (2015). Then debut director Tharun Bhascker’s rom-com Pelli Choopulu (2016) put him in the spotlight. The massive fan following he has today began with his role in Arjun Reddy (2017), after which he starred in Geetha Govindam , NOTA (Tamil) and Taxiwala .
He also played a supporting role as a photojournalist in Mahanati (2018), a biopic on the late actress Savitri, where Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salmaan played Savitri and Gemini Ganesan respectively. In this, Deverakonda came across as an actor who knew when to step back and be a small but pivotal part of an interesting project.
If there is an emotion that Deverakonda owns as an actor, it’s anger. But this rage comes with a vulnerability and honesty that made even the worst critics of Arjun Reddy appreciate his performance.
Is there a method to his choice of work? “When I heard the story of Taxiwala , I was laughing away and thought it would be a fun film to do. I sometimes pick up stories that I feel the world needs to know. The films that stay with you longer are those that move you personally and emotionally,” he says.
There’s a bit in Dear Comrade that brings up the #MeToo discussions. An incident of sexual harassment is investigated three years after it occurred, and the survivor, who has gone from chirpy to depressed, finally finds the strength to fight for justice. As #MeToo stories came tumbling out in India, Deverakonda found that eight out of 10 women he knows had faced some incident. “There were men who had been abused in their childhood. A few years ago, a woman I was close to was molested by an auto driver. She was shaken. I was enraged and rode around the city (Hyderabad) on my bike trying to trace this guy,” he says, then pauses. “Women are vulnerable on the road, in public transport, at the workplace... so we wanted to urge them to be vocal.”
From the heart
When Deverakonda speaks, it comes from the heart — a quality that’s endeared him to young audiences. He’s among the very few in Telugu cinema who hails from a non-filmi background and enjoys immense popularity. “People like me for who I am, with all my flaws, and I am thankful. I can speak without pretence,” he says.
This has also helped him in his acting. He has worked with new directors — Ashwin, Bhascker and Kamma — who brought fresh perspective to Telugu cinema with their hunger to narrate stories without formulas or frills.
This matched Deverakonda’s performances that come from a real place. The young actor has also started a production company called King of the Hill, a literal translation of Deverakonda, which is also a town in Telangana.
Deverakonda recalls his years of struggle. “It was extremely tough to break in. It still takes every ounce of energy I have to keep the passion alive and to do what I want to do. The only excitement is to make an impact through the stories we tell.”