He’s a Telugu film icon, one of the biggest stars in a highly competitive and contested film industry, but that has never stopped Nagarjuna from experimenting with his roles. His latest outing, an extended cameo in Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s Brahmastra has been another creative experiment that has paid off rich dividends. As the film has crossed 300 crores at the worldwide box office, Nagarjuna is reveling in the appreciation that his character has got from both Hindi and Telugu audiences. In conversation with fullfuntoo the superstar reveals all that made his latest film special.
Are you happy with the reactions to Brahmastra, the film’s success and the reception towards your character?
The feedback has been fantastic. The reactions I have received for my character have been very powerful. Everyone’s saying ‘What an impact my character has created at the mid point. Most fans said they were blown away with the Nandi segment and the chase on the road. A lot of people loved my character’s dialogues, especially the ones infused with Lord Nandi’s mantras. More than anything, what surprised me was that so many people sent out videos to me from Brahmastra screenings that happened in the North. It was nice to see those reactions from the Hindi audiences, considering the fact that I did not have a huge role. It’s not the main lead and yet it has got such reactions.
Brahmastra took almost a decade to get made. Was it tough playing the waiting game?
I came to shoot just two schedules, one in Mumbai and another one in Bulgaria. They were the two segments in the film – one in the temple and the other on the mountain road. So I was called to shoot for seven days in Mumbai and four days in Bulgaria. Apart from that, I had about four days of dubbing. So you can say, it was quite easy for me. That’s what I keep telling everybody, who asks me about the long time it took Brahmastra to get made, unlike others, I actually whisked in and whisked out.
I would attribute it to the universal language of the film. The content needs to be good. If a die-hard fan watches a film of mine, he/she will not sit through the movie or praise it if it’s not a good story or if my character doesn’t appeal to them. If I give them a bad performance or film, they will hate me. That’s how the relationship between a fan and a star functions. My character has appealed to a lot of fans. He was also placed within the film at the right time. Of course, there’s an image that I carry behind me, a perception that’s formed because of all the people who have watched me, whether they’re fans or not. They have watched my films over the years and they’ve built the image, shades of which I will always try to add to the character. But credit to Ayan and his team for putting my character into the film at the right time. People realized that Junoon (Mouni Roy), Zor Saurav Gurjar and Raftaar were invincible and there was nothing that could touch them. At that time, Shiva is yet to discover his fire wielding abilities and Alia’s character is a mortal. And then my character, Anish comes into save those two. So automatically, you get those seeti (whistle) moments. The audience was impressed with the image of a bull coming from behind my character.
How much did SS Rajamouli and NTR Jr’s presence during the promotions of Brahmastra, help the movie’s prospects?
A hundred percent. People respect SS Rajamouli a lot. And Junior Tarak is one of the big stars in India. Both of them have known me for the last 38 years. Both Rajamouli garu and NTR Jr are promoting Brahmastra, that itself implies something. Why would we go out and promote a film so much, unless there’s a truth behind our conviction. That involvement created an interest in the audience to watch the film. That is very important. Today, if Mr. Bachchan picks up my film and promotes it around the country and says, ‘You have to watch this Nagarjuna film’, the audience will have a feeling of a spark. They will think, ‘Why is Mr. Bachchan promoting a film, especially when he doesn’t have anything to do with it?’
You recently said, you want to take it easy and not think about work for the next 3 months. Is it easy to take a break and say no to projects when you’re such a sought-after star?
I finished whatever commitments I had, which we made during COVID times and all of that was concluded post COVID. All those commitments are done. I only have Telugu Bigg Boss, which keeps going on. That’s a once-a-week commitment. That’s fine. I want to take this break. I’ve been working nonstop, right through COVID. Except those few months of complete lockdown, I was working non-stop. I never stopped working.
In a recent conversation, your son Naga Chaitanya said that he wanted his Hindi debut to be a project where he plays off an actor like Aamir Khan. That’s in complete contrast to your debut with Shiva where everything was resting on your shoulders.
It depends on what a person wants to achieve in life. If an actor only wants to be a star, that’s the wrong way to pursue your career. When I spoke with Chay and asked him ‘why he’s doing the Hindi movies?’, he gave me the same answer. He said, ‘I want to experience a process where I don’t have to worry about anything. And when I do that, it gives me better experience’. I agreed with him. Some actors are focused only on success. They don’t want to look at anything else in the process of acting. It becomes difficult especially after achieving some success in one language. Everyone has their process, it depends person to person.
I can admit to certain things today, which I would never say during the early phase of my career. At one point of time in my career, I was looking for the masses’ acceptance. Even when an actor is a superstar, they want their fans and followers to appreciate their film, efforts and creativity. The way a film is marketed is completely different, though. They’re marketed for stars and stardom. But when the film doesn’t make the same revenue, who will get the flak? It’s the star who always gets the blame. That’s what you have to be careful of. Right now I’ve fallen away from that trap. Perhaps calling it a trap is taking it too far. It was a certain period of time where I wanted the stardom and I achieved that. Once that that sense of achievement came in, I started moving ahead.
In the time that Brahmastra took to get made, did Ranbir, Ayan or Karan Johar consult with you on key strategies and decisions?
I was constantly in touch with Ayan more than Karan, since he was our producer. Ayan always had great clarity about the kind of film he wanted to make. He had first narrated the script and shown me his story board back in 2018. During the making, whenever he had any key issues, he would sometimes consult with me on production decisions or some promotional strategy. Ayan and I interacted majorly for the dubbing of the Telugu version. Together, we were able to iron out a lot of things. I had a great time while working on Brahmastra.
The fans were eager to see you share screenspace with Amitabh Bachchan. Do you feel we missed an opportunity to create an iconic moment?
I wish I had that opportunity. I wished I would get some screen time with Mr Bachchan. I respect him a lot, both as an artiste and as a human being. Working with him has always been a pleasure and I feel whenever we work together, he always lights me up.
Since you’ve worked extensively in both Hindi and Telugu cinema, do you feel Telugu cinema has evolved at a faster pace than Hindi cinema?
Telugu cinema was a huge success even in the 80s and 90s. It’s just that they weren’t showcased the same way to Hindi audiences as they are today. Today, they’ve become technically brilliant. At one point, some films were a little primitive, but I would say they were rooted to the ground. I would equate Telugu cinema to be like walking barefoot. They’re rooted to the ground. Those are the stories and messages that Telugu films portray. A guy walking on the street can identify with the themes and messages of a Telugu film with ease.
It’s those guys who like to go to a theater and experience a film. I would say, that’s 90 percent of our audience. When I was coming here to the Dharma Productions office, I spotted a few 15 year old kids playing loud music on the speakers and dancing on an item number on the road side. You don’t need intellectually creativity for those audiences. What I mean is, not all films need to be intellectual, they need to be intelligent. It’s very difficult to make make an intelligent film, one that truly understands it’s audience. It’s not as easy as shooting an arrow in any random direction.
What memories do you have of your Hindi film debut in Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva? By the time the Hindi version was made, the Telugu original had already become a cult hit, right?
My early memories of Shiva are of playing cricket while we were shooting. My co-star JD Chakravarthy was brilliant, he was so raw and that’s exactly what Ramu wanted for that character. He had to be a college kid.
The Telugu version was a huge hit and then it released in Tamil and then in Malayalam. Despite the success, Hindi audiences in the North hadn’t really seen it. When we were ready with the Hindi version, we weren’t really sure if the film would work or not. After all, I was a new name for Hindi viewers, Ramu was a new director. But unlike these days, films back then were given time to run. These days, the makers don’t realize that they’re deciding the fate of a film based on initial reactions and taking them out of the theaters. Back in those days, they would let films play for a week’s and then news and word of mouth would slowly pulick up and bring a film’s audience to the theatres. Movie releases used to have a breathing space back then. With Shiva, I think it tools us about a week to get noticed, and then the moments and scenes caught on. There was no social media to promote the film right away,
every film tool a little while to become popular and once they did more shows and theatres were added.
Looking back, which process would you prefer for releasing a film? The old format where movies got more time at the theatres or the new one, where promotions and release strategy try to rake in as much money as fast as possible?
I will prefer the old format. Because there are so many good films that don’t even get the space of a week at the theaters. By the time the films have had the required exposure, another nee release crops up and pushes the old film out of the theatres. The business guys are always looking at selling more tickets. They get a percentage, right, and whether it’s a multiplex or a single screen, they don’t give new releases any breathing space. Their percentage is dependent on how many seats are occupied in the theatre.
The box office numbers are swelling up under the new model. There must be some benefits to it, too.
The new model is good for movies that can pull a crowd. It’s not meant for the smaller films. I mean, space has to be given to everybody. Sometimes some films are made very creatively, but they take time to catch on. My film, Annamayya, had just 10 per cent occupancy for the first 10 days. And to date no body knows the reason why, but from the 11th day the occupancy shot up to 90 per cent. It was a devotional film but it didn’t catch on, on the Friday, not on Sunday, not on Wednesday, not even on the next Friday. But 10 days later, things just clicked.
Can we expect to see you return in the Brahmastra sequels?
It’ll be great if Ayan makes it happen, but it’s totally on him. He killed off my character in the first film only (laughs). He threw me off a cliff. Looking back, even that was such a difficult shot. It was the toughest shot in did in the film. I was suspended a 100-foot off the ground, suspended by cables and they dropped me at least 15 times from that height. Up and down, that exercise was very taxing. But that shot came out so beautifully. It’s never easy pulling off these great moments.