Panja Vaisshnav Tej started out as a child artist in films like Pawan Kalyan-starrer Johnny and Chiranjeevi-starrer Shankar Dada MBBS. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, ahead of the release of his second film, Krish’s Konda Polam, he speaks about his days as a child actor, what went on in his mind when he heard Uppena’s script, and why he chose to do Konda Polam after a big hit like Uppena. Edited Excerpts…
What was running through your mind during the narration of Uppena? Did you want a hit movie to launch you as a star or did you want to do a good movie?
I just wanted to go with the flow, without worrying about hits or flops. If it didn’t work out, I’d have done something else. I’ve mentioned this in interviews before: My mama, Chiranjeevi garu once asked me what I was doing. I told him that I had two movie offers but I hadn’t taken them up because I didn’t know anything about films. He made me understand that I had it in me. I should try it out, especially because a lot of people never get these opportunities.
So, I just wanted to go with the flow. Whatever God gives me, I’ll do it. I wanted to give it my 100% and make my family proud — that was all that was running in my head.
In both Telugu and Tamil cinema, everyone wants to be a mass star. Even if the hero doesn’t fight, he has to project a manly image. But with a climax like Uppena where you’re emasculated, were you worried where it would work with the audience?
I was actually a bit scared about what was going to happen. But Chiranjeevi garu asked me to do it if I thought it was a good story. I was not clear about what I wanted. That big man told me to do it and I wanted to make him and my family proud — that was my only thought. After seeing how people liked it from the first day, I was pretty happy.
After such a big hit in your very first film, what was the one thing that made you say yes to Konda Polam?
When I met Krish garu, he told me that he’s going to make Konda Polam with a style like The Revenant. I was excited by the way he narrated the story. There is Krish garu, a tiger and other commercial elements in the film, and I felt blessed to get another film which was not in the usual template. What’s shown in the film continues to happen in the twenty-first century; that pushed me to be a part of the story.
The biggest actor you have acted with so far is Vijay Sethupathi. Are there things you felt shy discussing with your uncles but were able to learn from him?
Of course! I learnt a lot from him. He’s the first big actor I’m acting with, but he was so simple. He had his own personality, and his own team. He sits on a stool and doesn’t need a chair. And he talks to everybody, and likes to pick up their characteristics. I learnt that, for every new character he plays, he writes everything he feels about the character in a book. Buchi [Babu Sana] garu told me this. I think that’s amazing! He gives the character his own touch. And he’s a lovely person whom everyone will relate to. He’s ‘Makkal Selvan’ or ‘People’s man’ — that’s why you love him genuinely.
You worked as a child artist in a few films like Johnny and Shankar Dada MBBS. Back then, did you feel like you wanted to work in films?
My first film was Johnny with Pawan Kalyan garu. He told me that he’d buy me toys if I do the film. I loved toys, which kid doesn’t? I did the film with utmost joy. He used to pamper me as I was his nephew. I used to run around a lot, and they used to give me biscuits and chocolates. I remember once — it must have been second or third grade — he gave me ten thousand rupees. I went into Lifestyle and bought toys for eleven thousand, and they were okay with it (laughs).
It was a bit different with Shankar Dada MBBS, because Chiranjeevi garu kind of auditioned me at my grandmother’s house. He asked me not to blink, keep my mouth a certain way, things like that. He spoke to Jayanth C. Paranjee [director of the film] and the film happened. I always did it for the toys!