In his 12-year-long career, Naga Chaitanya has played the quintessential Telugu ‘mass hero’ multiple times. Films like Dhada (2011), Tadakha (2013) and Savyasachi (2018) come to mind instantly. However, there have been more misses than hits on this front. But he found success with stories in which he let his ‘mass hero’ persona take a backstep and allow the characters to come to the foreground. The actor has admitted that his heart lies with sensible, heart-warming stories. Some of his biggest hits, like Premam (2016), Ye Maya Chesave (2010), 100% Love (2011) and Majili (2019) have been character-driven romantic dramas. His last massive success as the lead is the aptly titled Love Story (2021). This track record makes Custody a big leap for Chaitanya, who sounds confident days before the Tamil-Telugu bilingual opens up. The actor promises that his return to the action genre will feature “inventive” set pieces that will fly higher than the monotonous, gravity-defying fights we have grown inured to.
In this chat with Film Companion, the actor discusses his fondness for mass films, cracking the bilingual formula, the challenges he faced with Custody and more.
Custody being a bilingual film must have mandated shooting many shots twice. Was retaining the energy for the second shot in a different language a challenge?
Not really. Shooting in Telugu was easier because I’m used to performing in the language. It was a challenge shooting in Tamil, an exciting one albeit. And Venkat Prabhu sir, being a Tamil-speaking person, was able to extract a lot more from me when I was performing in Tamil. There were instances when we’d go back to change the Telugu take after the Tamil take because something new must have sprouted when we performed it in Tamil and we would want to recreate it in Telugu. It was a great process. Nowhere did it become mechanical.
There have been attempts at making bilinguals in the past but unfortunately, not all of them found success. For instance, The Warriorr, from the production house that’s bankrolling Custody, was also bilingual but did not click. Did you and the team discuss what’s working with bilinguals and what’s not?
Absolutely. There was a lot of analysis involved. I don’t want to name films that we analysed but of course, we did a lot of homework. You see, I know that I’m not going to score a 100/100 with both sections of the audience. Some complaints will emerge from either Telugu or Tamil people about something they did not relate to; it’s natural. Our efforts are to maximise the reach of the film as much as possible. If not 100, then 99. In this process, we analysed numerous films; not just bilinguals but pan-India films too. What’s beautiful about these pan-India hits is that they didn’t try to force themselves to go pan-India. They were honest with their culture, language and audience, and the content organically reached the whole nation. So the biggest takeaway for us was to remain honest to Custody and not indulge in gimmicks to grab someone else’s attention.
Venkat Prabhu is known for making quirky and fun films. Even a thriller like Maanadu has an undercurrent of humour. Custody, however, looks intense and gritty from the promotional material. Isn’t it a risk working with a filmmaker who might not be relying on his USP?
(smiles) Custody has all the trappings of a Venkat Prabhu film. It has elements of quirk and entertainment that keep popping up every 10-15 minutes. They are not set in blocks but they are integrated into characters instead. Krithi Shetty’s character, for instance, offers entertainment and Arvind Swamy sir’s character keeps sprinkling dark humour. And then, of course, we have Premji and Vennela Kishore in the Tamil and Telugu versions. These layers have been scripted in but we would be fooling the audience by portraying entertainment as the forefront. The highlight of the film is the journey of this constable and that’s why we are stressing on this angle. But when you come to the theatre, you will be pleasantly surprised by all the elements in it.
Are you comfortable performing the ‘mass hero’ stuff? I mean, the slo-mo walks, the swag, action…
If there is a story behind it, I’ll do it. I love it. I love watching such kind of cinema, going to the theatre to catch the first-day first show of a star’s film and seeing the fans go crazy. I love that euphoria. If I have to do it, I need a proper story to back it. I cannot do 'mass' just for the sake of it. I don’t think the audience will buy that anymore. Sure, they’ll accept seeing a certain section of stars because they love watching those stars like that. However, with us being the next generation, they expect something else. We cannot do a high-speed shot without any story backing it. It’ll fall flat.
Speaking of action, our action films have always followed a set ‘one vs a dozen men’ template. Was there a conscious effort in Custody to conceive inventive action sequences?
Absolutely. We did not want to go with the regular format people are accustomed to, and Venkat Prabhu sir put in a lot of effort to design action sequences. For instance, he crafted an underwater sequence that’s not just a fight; it’s a car chase that ends in a water body and follows our efforts to escape the vehicle. And then, we have a block set in a tunnel and there’s another sequence set in a moving train. He’s taken a lot of care in conceiving each block to make it an exciting watch and offer the audience a great theatrical experience. He hasn’t explored action much in his previous films and even he wants to prove himself by presenting something different in Custody.