It's bewildering how Gowtham Tinnanuri's 2019 Telugu film Jersey manages to cover everything that we love to see in Indian movies. It has a rousing underdog story, a compelling love story, a moving father-son relationship and cricket. All these various strands are held together by an emotional and truly lived-in performance by it's leading man Nani. He plays Arjun, a brash, young cricketing talent who loses his chance at greatness. Years later, an out-of-work Arjun gets back into the game to redeem himself in the eyes of his doting son. For the most part, Arjun is a 'loser', and yet Nani says this is his most heroic performance to date.
It's been a year since Jersey released and it's Hindi remake starring Shahid Kapoor is also on its way. We speak to Nani about what it took to create Arjun, which he feels is his best work to date.
To us Jersey will be a milestone movie in your career. Where do you place it in your filmography?
Jersey is definitely my number one film. Now when I look back, after every 4-5 films I have always had one film that changed the scenario. Because the most recent one is Jersey, I can see the impact it has had on what I am choosing right now and how I look at my career in next few years. Back in 2015, Yevade Subramanyam did that for me, it took me on a different route. And now Jersey has changed everything for me.
Do you mean the kind of scripts that are being offered to you have changed?
No. Now I have started understanding the kind of cinema I want to be a part of. Around 3-4 years back, I wouldn't have accepted a film like Jersey. Back then I would have thought there isn't much scope for performance in this film because the trend in Telugu cinema used to be different. You had to be loud and over the top for it to be called a great performance. If a guy was playing a loser and sitting silently, it would never be considered a great performance. It's only after Jersey that I understood what real acting is. Unlike my other films, when I saw Jersey, I was able to forget that it was me on screen. That never happens in a general commercial film because you are always seeing yourself on screen and not the character. Now that I have tasted this feeling, I have an inclination only towards these kind of films.
So at no point were you tempted to play Arjun a little more heroically?
No. I was very clear from the beginning and I told Gowtam that the more normal I am, the more heroic I will look. The more people see themselves in Arjun, the more they will root for him. I think in an earlier interview with Film Companion I had said this is the most heroic film I have done. Being a hero is not just about walking is slow motion. It is about how much you can get an audience to root for him. People were rooting for Arjun, so it was heroic.
When was the last time you saw Jersey?
Recently when the film completed one year. We were sitting at home and decided to watch it together as a family.
At the time of release you said it's your best work. A year on, do you still believe that? Do you see any mistakes?
There will be a few scenes in every film where you feel you could have done better. When I say Jersey is my best work till date, it means in comparison with the work I have done before. It doesn't mean that I don't see a possibility of making it better.
I remember the scene in which I go to a friend's house to ask for money and I meet his wife. I don't like my expression in that scene because it felt like me from a commercial film. For a fraction of a second, I could tell that I was not completely Arjun in that moment.
If you had to pick a favourite scene, what would it be?
It would be the one where I ask my son whether I should play the match and he says you should go because you look like a hero on the field. When I read the script, I knew this was the most crucial scene in the film. A big decision is being made in that moment. When you first watch it, you don't see it but as the film progresses you realise it was a big call he took. The background score of that scene is also my favourite. So a lot of things made that scene special.
Did you rehearse a lot for that scene?
No, actually not. I loved the script so much that I had it with me all the time. I was always in the mood. I went there and performed what I felt at that moment. I think too much rehearsal for a film like Jersey would have made it very mechanical and artificial. Even the train scene, which became iconic, we never thought it was going to be received in such a way. In theatres people were saying it is one of the best scenes.
You shot the train scene at an actual station and had to wait for trains to pass by. Did you have to do a lot of takes to get the timing of the scream right?
Not really. We only did it twice because the first time we noticed the train slowed down. We were told that it will pass by fast and that's what we wanted. But the train slowed down at the station so we didn't get it. Then we waited till late, around 12.30-1 in the night, for another train to pass and then shot it. We were controlling thousands of people who had gathered at the station. I had to cut all that noise off and do the scene. If we missed it, we would have to wait for the next one, which was after another 3 hours.
When you were reading the script, was there any particular scene that made you nervous?
Yes. The scene in the end when Sarah (his wife in the film, played by Shraddha Srinath) offers me the flight tickets and says take these because you'll be too tired if you go by train. It was frightening because we shot that scene on the third day of shoot. We still didn't know who Arjun or Sarah were, we were just getting into our characters. I was very nervous because I knew there was no going back. After I finish the whole film, I should not regret what I did in that scene.
I am curious to know about the chemistry with your son in the film. It's absolutely crucial because more than a sports film, Jersey is essentially a father-son story. Did you work hard to develop that ease with him?
I was an assistant director before I became an actor and for some reason, even then I was always in charge of the child actors on set. I used to teach them their lines and get them ready for the scene. So I was already comfortable with child actors. After I acted in Eega (Makkhi), wherever I went, kids used to flock around me. Even my cousin's kids call me Eega mama. Then I did Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaadha where the whole film is about me and three kids. There too I was in charge of the kids!
When it came to Jersey, Ronit was such a terrific actor already. Most of our friendship happened on location. Before the shoot started, we only met once or twice. We got very comfortable on the first day itself. After we shot the film, we had a function before the release and he was fully in tears. He was told his parents that he doesn't want to leave Hyderabad and go back to Delhi. He was said 'when will I see Nani again, when I see Gowtham again'. In the middle of the night, his mother had to call me and Gowtam and make him talk to us. I am really happy that he is doing the Hindi version also.
Do you think that a character that you feel so connected to has the power to change you as a person? Did you learn anything from Arjun?
It can. I can't really pin point a particular quality but you know your thought process has changed. The way I look at things has changed. Even when I did Yevade Subramanyam in 2015, I went on this 40 day trek to the Himalayas for the shoot and I know it had a huge impact on the way I viewed life. Jersey has done the same but in a very different way.
You've invested so much into this character. What are your thoughts about seeing someone else (Shahid Kapoor) own it in the Hindi remake. Are you excited to see it?
I am excited that this film is reaching a wider audience. It doesn't matter if you are watching it in Hindi or Telugu. I want Gowtam's story to be out there and reach a bigger audience. A film like Jersey can inspire a lot of people. Even now when we put up something about the film, the comments on YouTube are all filled with messages saying that this film inspired me and I was going through this dull phase and then it gave me hope.
I have to say that I have a family WhatsApp group which has my wife and sister in the US and others. Whenever a film of mine is about to release they ask me how it's turned out. I always underplay it. I'll give answers like 'see and let