In the early years of the new millennium, when Yash was still Naveen Kumar Gowda, the eager young boy from Mysuru, and not the superstar of the KGF franchise, he went to theatre group Benaka, run by noted director, theatre person and Benaka founder-member TS Nagabharana, seeking work. Nagabharana was used to seeing these hopefuls, and they would usually be given work backstage, lifting and transporting props from the ground floor to the third floor using the stairs, to check the seriousness of their intent. Some would go away after a couple of days, exhausted. "This boy kept at it. He kept showing up, always ready to work, and he showed tremendous interest in everything that was happening around him. At any given time, you could ask him to step into a role because the original actor was unable to come, and he would do so, without missing a beat or a dialogue. I knew it was a matter of time before he got popular. He endeared himself to all in the troupe," recalls Nagabharana.
Cut to April 21, 2022. At about 5 pm, K.G.F: Chapter 2's star Yash, now 36, put out a thank you video on his social media handles, his hair and beard still making him look like Rocky Bhai. He'd recorded the video, narrated as a story, sitting by a water body, and the air was heavy with bird calls. "A village was going through a drought and the people decided to hold a prayer meet for rain. Many people turned up, but one kid brought along an umbrella. Some called it foolishness, some overconfidence, but you what that was? Faith. I'm like that little boy who had the faith that I'll witness this day," he smiled. He said thank you was not a big enough word to express what he felt, but he'd use it anyway. And then, he went: "I said you no guys, your heart is my territory." The video has crossed 2 million views already. Among the comments section are references to his style quotient.
There was a time when stars from the Kannada industry were known for their acting chops, but not necessarily their fashion sense. Among the reigning stars, Sudeep and Yash experimented with looks often. Sudeep's Big Boss looks are edgy with substance. And, with the KGF franchise, Yash has been accepted as the uber-stylish Rocky across the country.
Speak to anyone who has known Yash from his early days in theatre, television and later films, they will tell you about his determination to succeed. Senior journalist S. Shiva Kumar knows Yash from the time when he was hanging around production houses and visiting directors seeking a chance. "He's someone who had no connections at all to the industry, he was the outsider in every sense of the term, yet made it due to sheer confidence in himself. He managed to get noticed in his very first film Moggina Manasu, which was female-centric. Yash is someone who took the stairs to success, he did not ride the elevator to stardom," he says.
For the final push, Yash collaborated with Hombale Films, which had already worked with him in Masterpiece. "It was a superhit in Kannada, and we noticed the dedication, focus and vision Yash had to become a star. His selection of movies showed us the belief he had in himself and made us think he will be a name to reckon with in the future. Our vision for Hombale and his vision for himself and Kannada films matched and we knew we could team up to make a big film. Everything came together well, and when Prashanth Neel came up with the script for KGF, there was no looking back," says Karthik Gowda of Hombale Films.
Stunt choreographer AnbAriv got a ringside view of Yash's rise and acknowledgement as an action star in KGF. "He was already a star when he did KGF. And, we all saw the solid hard work he put in to become Rocky. On screen, he had an arresting presence. And, while his eyes radiated power, his movements were very graceful. He got the visual we had in mind for the stunt sequences," the brothers say. Karthik also echoes what others say about Yash's ability to pack in 48 hours into a day, and to work without any distraction. And, the reason why people love him — his warmth and affection and care towards his associates.
Why did Hombale back Yash for KGF? "Because we had a great script, we knew Yash is much loved and popular among youngsters. He's big in Kannada and thought it would be great to explore other territories with him. That decision worked out well," he adds.
His associates vouch for his mentoring. Saniya Sardhariya, who has been a part of his team for a decade and his personal stylist for eight, says: "When you work with him, you get to try new things. He's always open to ideas. You also learn discipline and hard work. The director might give you a brief as to the character's look, but you need to have a good rapport with the actor to build that character, and Yash sir makes it very easy. He gives you time for fittings, he respects your time. There's a lot of feel-good factors while being on his team."
And while the world sees the success, his team also sees the hard work and the prep, the late nights and how much he focuses on every department, including costumes, to ensure a seamless experience. "He's a perfectionist and though he has a very distinctly masculine personality, he gives me my creative space to try something new. He is game to push boundaries in his personal style. That said, while he likes something that makes him look good, he does not like anything that makes him come across as overpowering. He has a scale figured out so that everyone around him is comfortable," shares Saniya.
This ability of Yash to focus on the job at hand is something director Shashank, who gave him his debut Moggina Manasu, noticed way back then. His wife Radhika Pandit was one of the actors there. "The film set was like a college campus with young boys and girls everywhere. There was an air of jovialness on the set. But Yash would never engage in chit chat when he was on set. He would sit in a corner, working on improving his lines and performance. That hard work is what has brought him here," says Shashank.
Yash's keenness to work hard on his performances saw him do well in television serials too — he was part of shows such as Uttarayana, Preethi Illadha Mele, Nanda Gokula and Male Billu. Sometime in 2007, director Shashank, fresh from his debut Sixer, was looking to cast for his sophomore film Moggina Manasu, which centred around women. He scoured through hundreds of photos looking for a fresh face to play the male romantic lead in a film about the agony and angst of teenage love. He got back home tired and sat down for dinner in front of the television with his family. "Those days, we had only one TV and everyone watched the same thing out of compulsion. Preethi Illadha Mele was being telecast, and I was taken in by Yash's performance as this rough and tough character in the presence of someone senior like Anant Nag. I had no idea who he was but I liked what I saw. I felt I could mould him to suit the soft romantic role of Rahul, a singer. I had just one condition for him — he had to shave his beard," laughs Shashank.
Yash, whose beard is now being replicated by youth all around, shaved his beard and joined the film. "He was great in sensing a good opportunity. He gave the film his all and shone amid so many actors. He would take the bound script I'd given him, and offer me a variety of expressions. I was bowled over. He had potential, but he worked on his overall abilities. I knew we had a star. Who makes a star, tell me," asks Shashank. "Luck and stardom favour the hardworking. He won a Filmfare award for the film as a supporting actor. We knew he'd become someone big in Kannada, but I don't think we saw the extent of how much he'd grow. And, I think the only reasons he is here are his attitude, passion, dedication and commitment to cinema."
This commitment is something Nagabharana witnessed first-hand during the numerous drama rehearsals and the conversations after a play was staged. "When Naveen [Yash] joined Benaka Theatre Group, founded by the legendary BV Karanth, we were staging Tabarana Kathe, where I played Tabara. We staged about five plays a month, including Jokumaraswamy, Sattavara Neralu and Hayavadana, and after the close, we would go to the food circle at VV Puram in Bangalore and eat idlis before heading home. The next show, he'd be back, watching the rehearsal and observing everyone's actions and reactions. He was grooming himself in theatre and connected well with everyone. Because he was involved backstage, he realised the value of every single person in the troupe. He understood teamwork," recalls Nagabharana, adding that Yash always wanted to make good cinema and make a name as a performer, not a star. Today, it is that very same teamwork that is said to have kept Yash in a zone from where he can go and break new records.
Many people who remember Yash from before speak of his team spirit, and ability to raise the bar for everyone. "He just knew every dialogue, he had good grasping power. And so, he began with small non-speaking parts before he moved to bigger speaking ones," recalls Nagabharana, who burst into laughter thinking of the one time Yash's character was supposed to hit him in Tabarana Kathe. "The actor playing the policeman had taken the day off and I asked Naveen [Yash] to step in. He was supposed to beat me, but he could not bring himself to do that. He promised he would definitely land the blow during the main show, but froze when he realised that the punch landed. He forgot his dialogues and I remember prompting him from the floor. Even today, he remembers that," he says.
Soon, Yash played the major role of Balarama in Puthi Narasimhachar's geeta nataka musical Gokula Nirgamana, directed and composed by BV Karanth. "He knew all the songs and all the movements; in fact, he still remembers them am sure," shares Nagabharana, who adds that even after he began working in television, he continued visiting the theatre space. "Naveen [Yash] is a self-made boy, he did this on his own volition, and proved his ability," he adds.
Journalist Shiv Kumar recalls Yash saying long before KGF that he would take Kannada cinema to a pan-India audience. "I thought it was arrogance, it was actually sheer confidence," he says, happy at being proven wrong. "Actors have a certain market in Kannada and when you go beyond, you have to cross the state borders. The gamble paid off," says Shiv, who believes Yash's next film will be his acid test. If he can even hold on to this popularity, I'd doff my hat. "And no, it is difficult to explain why Yash is who he is," adds Shiv. "It is very easy to dissect failure, but to explain success… that makes cinema fascinating, no? And Yash is that success story."