In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, actor Sai Dharam Tej opens up about Solo Brathuke So Better, his six flops, how he kept his spirit up and learning to say no to a script that does not work for him. Excerpts.
Your Solo Brathuke So Better is the first Telugu film that's going to hit theatres, post-pandemic. What's it like? Did you guys think hard about this decision?
We didn't think much, because we sold it to an OTT platform. But we had a clause saying that if at all the theatres were opening, we'd like to have a theatrical release, because that will be helpful for everybody — producers, distributors and exhibitors. Everybody should have some sort of livelihood, so we thought of that. The moment theatres opened, we were really hoping that Zee5 would give into having the movie released in theatres, and they have been very very helpful and cooperative. We had a lot of discussions on how to take it forward, and the moment we talked to the audience, they said they were waiting for some movement from the film industry. That instilled a lot of confidence in us to release a film. I was kicked about it and said let's get onto the bandwagon and release it in this heat.
Also, during the lockdown for the past eight months, people have not been able to come out. Even if they did, they did not have any sort of entertainment.
So this is an entertainer. It's not one of those films where everyone dies in the end?
No no no, it's a very good rom-com and a family entertainer and people can come and watch it.
Because, I was thinking if people come to the theatres and it's one of those tragedies…
I think we've had enough tragedy of one year getting lost (laughs). We don't want to put the audience through one more.
Tej, you've had an unusual career. It's almost like one of those mythological movies where God keeps testing somebody to check if they're worth it. Have you ever thought about your career similarly?
I'd like to think I am God's favourite child, so he has every right to poke me and test me. Keeping all that aside, if everything goes really smoothly, and everything happens just like that, there's no entertainment for me too. In life, drama happens only when there are hurdles, so these things only show your mettle. There's basically one more thing called jigar, you want that. If you really want it, you'll fight for it. If you have so much fire and passion within you to reach where you want to, you'll go to any extent to achieve it. So, I feel that God is actually showing that I have it in me to get what I really want. I really like my journey and it's really good to have ups and downs in life.
Sometimes, you want it to stop right? Sometimes it's just like, let's just get ahead with some kind of steady career. Have you looked up at the sky and said, "enough!"
(Laughs) I have, because that's how any human being would be like. That was in my first year. As you said, my first film was stuck financially, and in the second film, the actor had to be replaced because he passed away. I remember a fan of Chiranjeevi's calling me and saying: "Sir, what you've done is enough. I think it's time you retire and not continue acting." I was taken aback.
This is after the release?
Before the release of the film.
He said what you've done is enough?
Yeah, because I'm such a bad omen, because none of my films is doing well. People were saying he's a huge iron leg, he can't do a film and all that. I told that man, "Sir, anyway I started these two films, let me finish them, and if you still think I'm not worthy of it, I'll definitely take a step back." A few months after my first film was released, the same guy called me and said, "I'm sorry for what I said. I think you've done a great job and we would like to see you continue in this field." These things actually kept me going, they gave me extra fire to reach where I am right now.
You've done films with established filmmakers and they didn't really work out. Everybody has success and failures, but if you look back on the scripts, would you have considered them or had discussions with the directors and say, "You know, may be, we could look at this, or that." How would you look at those scripts today?
Those films, my gut instinct was telling me, "Dude, not working, just come out of it". By that time, I had already given my commitment to the films, and people had come on board. There were so many opportunities to come out of the films, but I thought once I gave my commitment, it's not right on my part, ethically, to get out. So I thought, let me go ahead, and whatever the result is, let me learn something. So those six films of mine that didn't do well, they taught me how to say no to the script, director and producer, and instead say: "It's okay, get me a good script. If I like it, I'll go ahead. Until then, I'm not going ahead, not even an inch forward."
How do you say no?
Literally, that I don't like the script. If at all they ask the reason, I say, "See with my kind of experience, I already have six backlogs. So I know better, and please don't force me into this."
I'm going to throw this hypothetical question at you. If SS Rajamouli comes to you tomorrow and says, here's a script and you're reading the script and you're like, "Okay, I'm not sure this is going to work"…
I would definitely have a discussion with him, saying, "Sir, these are the points where I kind of feel that there's some bug, there's something that needs to be done." Even then, if it's not working out, then it's not my cup of tea. I'd say, "Sir, I'm really excited to work with you, but not with this script."
Which would you say was your first proper hit?
I'd say, Subramanyam for Sale was the first proper hit. It did really well and people loved my acting, they loved everyone's performances and enjoyed it thoroughly. It gave me audience acceptance.