Watching Sailesh Kolanu's Telugu investigative thriller HIT last month, a thought struck me. The producer of the movie is popular actor Nani, who has been enjoying critical and commercial success in Telugu cinema since his debut in Ashta Chamma. Even then, he doesn't star in the films he produces. Is that a business strategy? If yes, it's worked well for him. While Awe won two National Awards, HIT had a good run in theatres and might get better viewership on OTT.
Nani's relationship with film production didn't begin with Awe. He lent his name to the heist comedy D for Dopidi way back in 2013.
Why do actors turn producers? Is it just another avenue to earn money or a way to give back to the same medium? I vaguely remember Kamal Haasan once saying that a farmer invests all the money he earns into the farm again because that's what he does for a living. He called the film industry his farmland.
More often than not, actors who turn producers get involved in movies where they play the lead. Take, for example, Vishal in Tamil. He's produced more than half a dozen films so far, and starred in all as the lead. A producer gets some kind of creative control in the projects being churned out. An actor-producer working in his own project is on the sets every day, and gets a complete picture about how his money is being spent. Vishal's method seems easier, but that's not the only way.
Fathers producing films for their sons to headline and vice-versa has been the norm in the Indian movie industry for a long time. The money stays within the family, and there's the big factor of trust.
Since the return of Chiranjeevi to the big screen in 2017, with Khaidi No. 150, only Ram Charan – his son – has been given the job of backing his projects. I'm guessing the equation won't change for Chiranjeevi's future films, as well. Surprisingly, though, his brother Pawan Kalyan co-produced Chal Mohan Ranga in 2018 – a move that nobody could have predicted three years ago. It featured Nithiin and Megha Akash. Again, that was an exception and not a rule.
Vijay Deverakonda, the current heartthrob of the Telugu states and the Mumbai film world, is steadily upping his game, and he's finally put his heart where his mouth is. The result is the astoundingly funny Meeku Maathrame Cheptha. He appeared only in the promo song, played as part of the end credits.
Be it Vijay Deverakonda or Nani, they're not looking to produce big-budget films like the ones studios do. They're quite happy with their experiments and that's what matters. And, somehow, the films they produce stay in the genres they're comfortable with. HIT and Awe may not be crowd pullers, but you can imagine Nani in them. Likewise, you can imagine Vijay as the goofy hero in Meeku Maathrame Cheptha.
Puneeth is a mass star; his films cater to a large audience. And he never stars in movies considered to be off the beaten track. Right from his debut as lead, he's made the masala genre his comfort zone. Action, comedy, drama, romance, and a few foot-tapping numbers are the staple offerings from mass stars in Telugu and Kannada cinemas. Why then would Puneeth produce a police procedural? He did not don the hero's hat in his second film as producer, Mayabazar 2016 too.
On the other hand, Telugu superstar Mahesh Babu has been taking it slow. He started out by co-producing films – Srimanthudu, Brahmotsavam, Sarileru Neekevvaru – and has now come a full circle by roping in Adivi Sesh for a Telugu-Hindi bilingual, titled Major. As much as cinema pugilists like to argue that filmmaking is an art, we have to draw a line somewhere, and say that it's a form of business, too. And all the male actors mentioned above are simply taking care of their best interests.
Other Southern stars such as Kamal Haasan, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Prithviraj, Suriya and Dhanush have found the sweet spot. They attach their names to movies – whether they star in them or not. Moreover, some of them are multi-hyphenates. They sing, write, act, direct, pen soothing lyrics, produce and distribute films.
The enthusiasm of someone like Kamal Haasan, with an enviable body of work, is palpable. He at least makes a cameo appearance in a film he produces. Do the last-minute surprises in Magalir Mattum and Nala Damayanthi ring a bell? He, nevertheless, threw a curveball by producing Kadaram Kondan. There was no sign of him anywhere in that motion picture.
This trend of actors turning producers only looks like it will continue to grow. With the rise of OTT platforms, there are enough opportunities around. Hopefully, by then, actresses too try their hand at production, like their predecessors Vijaya Nirmala, Bhanumathi, and Savitri. Or, to give a more recent example, Charmme Kaur, who has produced movies such as Rogue, Paisa Vasool and iSmart Shankar, and is bankrolling the forthcoming Romantic, in association with Puri Jagannadh.