Edited excerpts from an interview between Anupama Chopra, Nagarjuna and Naga Chaitanya:
AC: I have a huge admiration for the Telugu film industry. I think it's really cracked a true pan-India market. I think the filmmakers seem to be so much in tune with the audiences. You've had such big hits and people have come into theatres. I think though the one soft spot is the portrayal of women. Last week I saw an article in The News Minute which talked about how the lyrics of so many songs in Telugu cinema are sexist, and are promoting stalking. As two leading men with massive clout in the business, how do you think this can change?
Nagarjuna: See, Telugu language is such that if you translate it literally to English, it will look very very sexist. I also tried to analyse this with many people. Even if you look at Bangarraju's songs, they're pure folk tunes. It's a rural film. We've picked out the folk tunes. These are lines that are beautiful when written in Telugu but if you're going to translate it, it'll be a simple "Go to sleep with me tonight."
If you look at it, you will see Telugu women singing those songs. What happens is that in the fields, most of the folk songs arise when men and women work together in the fields. Even now they do it in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Man asks the questions and the woman answer in the form of a song. This is where the language evolved.
There are some films definitely doing what you said. But, I mean, the world is not a perfect place. The majority is not like that. I would say maybe ten years back, fifteen years back, maybe it was like that. That was the time when, as I already said, everything was utterly confusing and none of the scripts made sense. Both the bad guys and the good guys, they didn't make sense. Everybody was doing the same thing — trying to make people laugh.
But I don't think that's true anymore Anupama. Whoever's given you that impression, I'll sit down and break down a song or a dialogue to explain what it means in Telugu and what it means in English.
AC: So you're saying a lot is lost in translation?
Nagarjuna: Absolutely. Absolutely lost in translation. Try a Punjabi folk song, translate it into English, literally. You'll figure it out what I'm saying.
AC: Chai, do you feel that somewhere, it is the actor's responsibility to say no, we shouldn't say this?
Naga Chaitanya: I wouldn't want to generalise but coming from my space, yeah, definitely, we have to somewhere sort of reflect and be responsible. That boundary changes from person to person. I don't know what it is for my colleagues but for me, if I'm directly portraying something wrong about women or society, I would definitely not want to do it.
Nagarjuna: I agree with him. You have to draw the line. As an actor, you're in a responsible position. But the boundaries change for different people, you know? I've seen him do it and I do it all the time. I've never had that problem where anyone from our family has crossed that line.
AC: Interestingly, both of you are in two of the most awaited Hindi films of the year — Brahmāstra and Laal Singh Chaddha. These are two of the biggest titles that, hopefully, we are going to see this year, fingers crossed. Nag, you've dabbled in Hindi films earlier. In fact, one of my clearest memories is actually being in Hyderabad. I vaguely remember it being the Banjara Hill Studios, and you were shooting Criminal. Bhatt sir was directing you. I have such a clear memory of this as I was working for India Today and I was there to cover the film. But you never chased Hindi cinema in any sustained way. So, Chai, will it be sustained for you? And, Nag, do you have any advice for him on how to negotiate Bollywood?
Nagarjuna: No, no. No advice. I never negotiated with Bollywood either. In the sense that I did it out of passion and something nice came out. I consciously never tried, even though I had an opportunity. I was very happy here and I wanted to do the best. The advice I would give to Chai is if he does want to follow it, do follow it. But you can't do it half-heartedly. You have to take that plunge completely. If you want to do a Hindi film, go do it. See, if you look at even Rajamouli's RRR, it is a pure Telugu film. Even Baahubali is a pure Telugu film. If you start to mix both emotions, both cultures, it's going to be very difficult to shoot, for the actor and the director. Nowadays language is not a barrier. You get the right dubbing artist, the right dubbing lines, you can do it.
Naga Chaitanya: As dad said, I never planned for Laal Singh Chadda either. It happened so organically. I got a call from Aamir sir, auditioned, they liked me, and I was a part of the project. Before that and even now I'm really just focusing on Telugu cinema because I feel, culturally, it's such a strong culture. Also, like dad said, I can't pick up a Telugu script and try to make it pan-India. It will get diluted.
I want to be honest to the language I am working on and that should take me places. And if I get a Hindi film in the process, yes I'm always open to it. But my heart is over here, my roots are here. There's still so much to explore. Right now, this is what I'm focusing on. I love Hindi cinema, I love the content they're making and if something comes by organically, I'm always open for it.
AC: But you know, one of the biggest Hindi hits of last year was actually a Telugu film, Pushpa.
Nagarjuna: That's incredible, isn't it? I will give you my analysis of it, Anupama. See, Pushpa is a very native, rural Indian film. That's what people want to watch. They have enough of an influx of OTT, western films, all kinds of films. Somewhere filmmakers are losing that. If you see, the most appreciated films, even in Bollywood in the last two or three years are the rural films where you're going into the rural areas. People are able to connect to those emotions. Pushpa is that, very clearly. It is a pure Indian film. The way people dress, the way people look. This is what ninety percent of India looks like. This is why I say people like larger than life films. If you start applying logic to it, there's no way you can enjoy it. This is what I mean by capturing the single theatres. Pushpa is a pure single theatre film and it has proved it.