Two aspiring actors, Punarnavi Bhupalam and Udbhav Raghunandan, play the lead characters in the Telugu remake of the much-loved Hindi web series Permanent Roommates. Before it's release on November 13 on Aha, they settle down for a chat about their struggles as actors, how they look at their characters in the show and what life's like on social media. Edited excepts:
Punarnavi, you started off as a supporting actor in Uyyala Jampala (2013) and Udbhav, you got a lot of fame on Youtube with your show Chicago Subbarao. How has the journey been since then?
Udbhav: I was always interested in films and I aspired to be an actor since childhood. I'm a huge fan of Chiranjeevi garu and Iruvar, which I watched in my 8th grade. While I was doing my masters in the US, I felt there was no medium that was showing the reality of what NRIs in the USA go through. That's why I came up with 'Chicago Subbarao' and it went viral in no time. With the help of my colleagues, I used to write, direct and act in those series. Initially I was apprehensive about my acting but the kind of acceptance I got from the audience made me feel confident. Later, in 2019 I returned to India to pursue acting full time. Since then I've been trying my best with auditions and all that has finally led me to a series like Commit Mental.
Punarnavi: My journey into movies was a fluke. My first love was the stage. While I was doing theater, I was not an actor but I used to take care of production and backstage work. I began to gain interest from the acting classes taught by Ratna Shekar garu from Samahaara Theatre Group. Through a known reference I was offered an audition call and got a role in Uyyala Jampala. I was just 17 so I didn't exactly realise the importance of what I had on my platter. Trying to balance acting with academics, I continued to do a few projects. At first, I was excited to get into the Telugu film industry, but later on, I was disappointed because I kept getting offered the "heroine's friend" role.
At the same time, I also interned as a journalist and a therapist. I didn't want to limit myself just to acting. I wanted to experience everything to be able to choose the path that satisfies me the most. Later on, I got an offer from Bigg Boss and my life changed since then. People now want me to do better roles and I'm glad I chose Commit Mental.
What would you say is the main reason you chose to act in Commit Mental?
Udbhav: I think a script like this has to choose you rather than us choosing the script. It's a very strong script produced by TVF. It's an honour for any actor to get such a role as a first timer. I was a fan of Permanent Roommates when I first saw it in 2013. I felt something like this has to be made in Telugu. At the same time, I had inhibitions because Sumeet Vyas in the original series nailed the role. It was really a task to match those levels and I took it as a challenge. We're very confident about Commit Mental.
Punarnavi: I didn't watch a lot of the original show. Just watched it in bits and pieces because I didn't want to get influenced by the other character. As an actor, sometimes, when we watch such things we tend to pick up their behaviour. I knew that there would be comparisons and get judged for doing a remake so I wanted it to be original in my own way.
Although it is a remake, how is Commit Mental different from Permanent Roommates?
Punarnavi: The essence of Permanent Roommates or Commit Mental is the relation between a couple—what problems they go through and the kind of bond they share. It is something all couples and parents relate to. Because it's 2020 we gave it a regional touch and didn't copy it blatantly. Pavan Sadineni, the director of Commit Mental, owned this project. We made this to show how people of Hyderabad feel about engagement, marriage, live-in relationships and what their parents and families go through in 2020.
How would you describe your characters Anu and Phani?
Udbhav: Phani is very complicated. There's a thin line between looking very foolish and innocent. I had to play him in a way that the audience should love him and feel for him. Ultimately, they should accept him as he is. I did my homework by writing a backstory. The writing by TVF is brilliant with quirky characters and we have tweaked it to the times of 2020. It's a light-hearted festival watch.
Punarnavi: Anu is very independent. She isn't great at expressing her feelings but when she does, it's on point. She is also annoyed by her boyfriend because of the things he does. She is always surrounded by many crazy characters. This is a crazy journey of loving each other, trying to communicate with each other. The comedy has worked out really well. There's a lot to relate.
Going beyond the web series, what is your opinion on relationships and marriage?
Punarnavi: Love lives are always complicated. People in society should be less judgemental about it because every individual has their own way of dealing with their love lives. Also, I feel people should concentrate more on their individual self rather than being overwhelmed by their loved ones. You need to slow down a bit, spend time and think for yourself if you can really go on and be with that person for the rest of your life. Even if you can't, I think it's fine. Love is important but respect, especially one's self respect, is equally important.
Udbhav: Adding to that, communication needs to be established better. Girls and guys don't express what they actually feel with each other or their parents. An honest communication with parents is necessary before taking a big step because the situations out there are very confusing. It's complicated. You can learn this bit from Anu's character (played by Purnanvi). Anu is very outspoken and honest in communicating with her father about what she feels.
Punarnavi, you started off very young at the age of 17. When compared to your old self, how have you improved as an actor today?
Punarnavi: I am not a big judge of my own acting. Every time I look at myself on screen I often look out for continuities. Over the years I grew as a human being. Whenever I had time, I made sure I got trained through workshops and plays. I've tried to improve my craft. It made me more disciplined as an actor. I am very stable with the kind of characters I do today. I observe the behaviour of people and try to sort of bring all of that into my characters. I wanted to do my masters in Drama Therapy which depends on behaviorism and acting.
Chicago Subbarao was written, directed and acted by you while you were working full time in the US. How did you manage both and hone your skills in acting?
Udbhav: Now when I look back, I don't know how I did all those things. It was very hectic. My boss used to tell me during my performance appraisals that I was good at my work but I wasn't doing more than what was required. That's because my interest at that time was acting. I would like to give a lot of credit to my team because they were just film enthusiasts and not professionals yet chose to help me out in every possible way. We used to shoot on weekends and sometimes shoots went up till midnight. Coming to improving my acting skills, I feel I know the pulse of the audience through Chicago Subbarao. I knew I had to break certain barriers that was holding me back. I took up acting classes in the USA and in India, I attended a workshop called Adishakti in Pondicherry. It was a tough and crazy experience. These things made me confident about my acting.
You both have a good following on social media. How do you manage the appreciation and negativity you face on social media?
Punarnavi: I am a very low-key private person. After Bigg Boss, a lot of things changed for me. My journey in Bigg Boss was very stressful. After I came out of the show, everyone was curious and nosy about my personal life. I was even bullied for a while. Because of that stress, I was diagnosed with PCOS. I gained a lot of weight and I faced a lot negativity because of that too. Social media is not always positive and nice to you. We tend to hold on to a lot of negatives which ruin your days. A couple of months were very hard. I gave myself a break. Now I've reached a point where it doesn't bother me anymore. Social media did play an important role in my life after Bigg Boss and I learnt to deal with it in a hard way.
Udbhav: It is much harsher for women. People feel entitled and expect women to be a certain way. They are objectified. People need to change by addressing such negativity openly. Being actors, we are already giving out ourselves because we chose to have this life where attention from people matter. Fortunately, my Youtube experience prepared me for something bigger. I try to take things positively now. Sometimes, I do read my positive comments when I feel low and it's motivating. My goal is to grow beyond this and want people to know me for the work I do rather than my personal life.