With back-to-back hits, and a few milestone films adding to his filmography, Nani is enjoying the space he is in right now. “It took a long time to reach here, when I can decide on the kind of films I want to show to the audience,” he says.

It was eons ago, when there was this young boy sitting quietly, completely comfortable with himself, and confident. He was there to support his hairstylist, who had opened his salon. Just a few movies old Nani knew he was at the right place and was willing to wait his turn to make it big in the world of cinema. He was already in the industry and every opportunity that came his way, he gave his all and more, and whether the film garnered less success or was a blockbuster hit, he always came out better and stronger, making an impression in the audiences’ minds and a very special place in their hearts.

Nani entered the industry to direct films inspired by director Maniratnam. But eventually, he became an actor. Interestingly, Nani’s career graph is dotted with diverse roles, innovative subjects, some bordering on experimentation – and most of these cinematic expressions enjoying critical acclaim. So much so that Nani is credited to having a sense of good cinema that also appeals to masses.

In one of the interviews – he says – Every film is teaching me something new; what we do not know; what is yet to be done…through films I want to create experiences for the audience.

Today, as we sit down for an interview I see the same enthusiasm, zest for good cinema, confidence and faith in himself – perhaps with a hint of being worldly-wise after over 25 years of being a part of an industry, where there is no sure shot way to success.
The last two years as the world has been battling with Covid, Telugu film industry squeezed in as much work as was humanely possible between the many lockdowns. In fact, there was a point of time when the industry was making the maximum number of films in the world. And, Nani has contributed his share with ‘V’ by the director of his debut film – Mohan Krishna Indraganti. In addition to being Nani’s 25th film, this was the first film where he played an anti-hero, and ‘V’ is also Telugu industry’s first mainstream film to release on OTT.

Next was ‘Hit: The First Case’ starring Vishwak Sen, made under his banner Wall Poster Cinema with Prashanti Tipimeni. The franchise has the soon to release second film – Hit 2 with Adivi Sesh. ‘Tuck Jagadish’ and ‘Shyam Singha Roy’ released towards towards the fag end of 2021.

Rahul Sankritya directed the romantic period drama – Shyam Singha Roy. Reincarnation theme isn’t new, however by exploring a different culture and the tradition of Devadasis with intensity and heart touching screenplay supported by soulful music, the film appealed to the masses. For Nani this film with Sai Pallavi and Krithi Shetty has become one of the milestones of his career.
Nani’s films are also distinct in the way his character is moulded. He is called Natural Star for a reason. By design or by destiny, Nani has portrayed roles that are quite diverse, not often stereotypical and most of the times defying the set rules for a Telugu film hero. He could be a vain, forgetful, unimpressive, normal boy next door, a liar or a loser – yet each time he emerges a winner – an actor, who always chooses films after his heart and roles that are endearing to his fans. And, that needs a brave heart.

His recent film ‘Ante Sundaraniki’ with Nazriya as the female lead is yet another step in the direction. Sundar, the main character in the film is not the ideal Telugu film lead – he is neither heroic, nor virtuous – he is a normal young man who occasionally lies to get his way, falls in love and is caught in tradition. The film released even as he was shooting for his next film ‘Dasara’ evidently slated for a Dasara release, where he plays a rustic, closer to his roots kind of character.
We caught up with him when he was neck deep in the promotions of ‘Ante Sundaraniki’ and back-to-back shooting for ‘Dasara’.

Excerpts from the interview:

You seem to be enjoying even this phase of film making – promotions?
Generally, I don’t enjoy promotions, but, they are so much an important part of marketing the film. The worst part is to repeat the same things back-to-back. This time I am excited and in happy spirits, the energy is good, and after watching the film, I am very content and happy about how it’s all going.

Will ‘Ante Sundaraniki’ add to your list of comedy-based films?
The reason I like ‘Ante Sundaraniki’ is because the movie has lot of layers. It is not just a comedy film. Perhaps ‘Bhale Bhale Magadivoyi’ is an out and out comedy film.

Ante…in addition to comedy also has a lot of other things as undercurrent. The comedy is created by situations, not just the dialogue driven comedy. It’s a good story that you automatically enjoy. I agreed to do it because it’s a completely different film.

Do you actively pursue different kind of roles in each of your films?
I have never planned to do different kind of cinema. I did many of the movies because the stories were inspiring. I did want to do something real and original. I wanted to be a small part of the change that I wanted to see.

It was not easy to reach here where I could choose the cinema I wanted to do; like a ‘Jersey’ or ‘Dasara’. I had to settle down first, to establish myself. Do commercial and masala films to win over the audience to be able to then show the cinema I want to show. Only, now I am able to say this. It’s a process, and I enjoyed both the good and bad parts. Together they made me what I am today.
It was slow, but consistent and with time it only got better – after BBM, which was a blockbuster, ‘Ninnu Koree’, ‘Nenu Local’, ‘Jersey’ – each of these films took me close to what I wanted to do. You need courage to do something you want to and you need clarity.

Nani’s roles in most films aren’t stereotypical. Your hero isn’t heroic as per known standards. Why is it so?
I believe that there is a hero amongst all of us. Everyone with a good thought is a hero, but he may still have flaws. We all have flaws. How can we show a hero without flaws?
Usually, our larger-than-life heroes don’t exist outside. I don’t want to believe that the world is without heroes. Sundar of Ante…is as normal as possible. He is insecure, he lies, is afraid of his father, mother’s pet. He loves a girl and the way he falls in love with the heroine is shown normally…

‘Ante Sundaraniki’ explores inter-faith relationship. Weren’t you worried about hurting sentiments?
Interfaith relationship can be shown with sensitivity. Had we been dealing with hard and intense subject, it would have been tough, but for the film we show the difference but not as mockery. In cinema we end up stereotyping Hindus, Muslims, Christians. The usual people, our neighbours and friends, they are not shown. This film doesn’t focus on that. It focuses on people, the families, on the characters.

When did you know Nazriya was the right choice for the film?
I watched ‘Bangalore Days’, and I loved that film. If we are looking for glamourous heroines, there is a lot of choice. And, I have worked with some amazing actors with the girl next door kind of look – Pallavi, Keerthi, Nivetha Thomas and Nidhi. One selfish thought was if we could get one more actress to Telugu films, we will have more options. We tried reaching out to her, and then took Fahadh’s help and reached out to her. She heard the story and liked it.

Your directors are as diverse as your stories. Do tell us about Vivek?
Vivek is a brilliant screenplay writer – the way he deals with the subject. He respects the audiences’ intelligence. You don’t have to dumb down the audience and Vivek has shown the way. Ante… is a fun film that can be told in a plain way. But, he has chosen a screenplay that goes back and forth but has clarity and beautiful design to it. The scenes are interconnected like in a muggu (kolam). It is tricky and so easy to avoid. But to take it up and make it work takes courage and he has done it. The film also appeals to me in the way the technicians are in synchronisation – editor, Vivek Sagar’s background score, and cinematography. The emotional layer of the film is my favourite part. You should watch out for the chemistry between Naresh garu and my character.

Are you a director’s actor? And, how come they come to you with these amazing stories?
I don’t know what I am. I am someone who goes with gut. I can say I am a director’s actor. I don’t try to push my understanding or agenda. I try to enhance the director’s vision. I will try to give double of what the director wants in his direction. I get the questions about how I get to do certain kind of films. The vibe that I send out attracts scripts. They wouldn’t be reaching out to me unless they feel I will listen or be willing to do the film. Especially after Shyam Singha Roy and Jersey – they opened up the directors. Each film is a statement.

Is there any kind of film you will not do?
I will not do anything for the sake of it. If it comes organically, I will explore every kind of role. If I have to point out one genre at this point, I may not do a horror film. But who knows, what future holds.

What has been the most challenging film so far?
Most challenging is what I am doing currently – ‘Dasara’.

Do you think people are coming back to theatres post covid? How about your views on ticket prices?
Theatres have completely opened up. But, every week there are around three film opening and audience is divided. Price of ticket totally depends on the film. If we rate the tickets very low, the films cannot survive. There must be a basic rate, but it is also not correct to increase the ticket price without reason. However, a film like RRR occasionally can price the tickets higher.

Do tell us about your next film?
Dasara – The whole team of the film has been announced. It has a very rural Telangana feel to it. It is an authentic raw Telugu film. The director has planned a film with interesting characters and the situations and drama is all built around these characters. It looks very promising.

What was your favourite film in recent times?
Jai Bheem – I was thinking such stories should be made in Telugu – and I wish I get such a role to do.

A Peek into Life:
How has fatherhood changed you as a person?
As father – I am being more careful about what I do, and more responsible. I wasn’t so careful before I became a father. Now, I am constantly watching myself.

Which is the one thing that you would like to change about yourself?
As an actor I need to be careful about keeping myself fit and healthy. I take care of my scripts but I don’t take care of myself.
I am expecting more from myself as an actor and that is there from my first film. My expectation doesn’t change. But I plan to be careful about myself as well.

What is your hobby?
Hobbies – I like to travel a lot, when I am not shooting back-to-back. I also try and spend as much time as possible with Junnu (my son).

Your favourite holiday destination?
My favourite travel destination is Europe, especially Prague. I love solo travel, but have not done that in recent times.

Is there anything that you are afraid of?
Someday, not being able to give 100 percent of my ability is what I am afraid of.\

What is your life philosophy?
Too much planning won’t work. Live in the moment.

What is your most ideal day at work?
Best day should be stress free, with positive people around.
Not every day is the best day…without my involvement, if things fall into place – then I would call that my best day.

What is that one bad habit that you would like to change?
I won’t call it bad, but I can’t sleep without watching a film.

– By Rajeshwari Kalyanam