I Never Saw Arjun And Kabir As Toxic Guys: Sandeep Reddy Vanga On Three Years Of Arjun Reddy

In a free-wheeling conversation, the director with two blockbusters speaks about remaking his Telugu hit in Hindi, reacting to criticism and why minute things matter to him.
I Never Saw Arjun And Kabir As Toxic Guys: Sandeep Reddy Vanga On Three Years Of Arjun Reddy

Excerpts from a conversation between Baradwaj Rangan and Sandeep Reddy Vanga

We've been having a series of very controversial guests. So, I thought that maybe for a change let's get somebody who is completely, completely non-controversial. Mr. Sandeep Reddy Vanga, welcome to Film Companion South.

Thank you so much and I understand why you said non-controversial (laughs).

You look amazing. You've lost a lot of weight. That's a very Indian thing to say and I know it is not supposed to be politically correct but you look fantastic. What is this thing? Have you been hitting the gym?

Nothing. It's just eating on time and sleeping on time. Having only home food. No coffee and no tea. When you're in office and working, you tend to have a lot of coffee, tea and outside food like biryani, especially in Hyderabad. So now, there is no outside food at all. 

The reason for this interview is, of course, that it is the third anniversary of Arjun Reddy and then afterwards we got Kabir Singh. So, let's talk about that and what you are going to do. When I saw Arjun Reddy, or Kabir Singh rather, I just felt that you're the first person since K Balachander who achieved something like this. Most directors from the South, when they go to the Hindi film industry and make a movie, it's typically something in the masala/action kind of zone. KB is one of the few who converted Maro Charitra, which was an almost Arjun Reddy-like violent love story into Ek Duuje Ke Liye and that was a blockbuster hit. Now you've managed to convert Arjun Reddy to Kabir Singh, which became another blockbuster. Do you feel that the subsequent criticism that happened with Kabir Singh kind of coloured the pleasure of that success? 

First of all, thank you so much for comparing Balachander Sir's work. I am so glad. It didn't colour me in a different way. Actually, I was more than happy creating the same thing and working multiple times, in terms of box-office and love. I was happy but it didn't change anything  but there were few critics and few people who reacted in a different way. They are very few people actually, but because they eat and sleep on Twitter and had a lot of followers, it became big. The general audience was very happy with the film. And we as makers, the producers, actors, actresses, everybody was happy with the product. 

Now when you look back, do you remember, is it a happy zone that the film conjures up in your mind or does that criticism still rankle? Do you think about it and say, "Wow. They've said all these things!"

The thing is that most of the time I teach what I preach. And I see people not doing that. I am not sure how to put it. I am not saying I am happy, but it irritates me sometimes when you know that they are mocking you just for the heck of it or to make the most of it. It irritates you but it's okay, you know where the energy is coming from.

So, two things from that. Did you kind of sit down at some point and say, "Okay, I've gotten some criticism for this movie." Did you at some point think that some of that is valid?

You mean to ask if that will affect my future writing? 

That's the second one.  Did you think about whether you made the kind of film that they wanted to make or were you confident that your film was okay?

No. I am very confident that my movie was fantastic. I understand that sometimes these jokers come into my mind, but I know where that energy was coming from, and I really know how my energy came onto paper and then the screen and the genuine place this film came from. The thing is, if you take my interview also, it was twisted in a very different way. 

Are you talking about your interview with Anupama Chopra?

Yes. Because I said the same sentence twice but the second time I forgot to use the word vice-versa. I feel that there is a section of the people who were waiting for it. It's always there, because there are people who didn't like Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! There are people who didn't like Baahubali

But Sandeep, you aren't going to compare Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! with Arjun Reddy

No, no. I am just saying the point is that there is nothing to complain about Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! in the 90s. It's a happy film. I am not saying that it is a comparison in the same levels of what you people say is toxicity. It's a happy film, and there's no point to be unhappy about it. 

I asked Vijay Devarakonda this question, whether when he reads scripts for future films, is this playing on his mind? Is he reading it in the universe of the movie or is he just thinking about what critics will say? So I am asking you the same question. When you're writing, are you writing what is true to the movie or is one part of your mind playing tricks on you saying, "I want to write this but if I do, will I get bashed up by the critics?" 

No. I don't think that I have that thought. Now, since I am writing I know that there are areas where these guys will be very provoked, but I am not going to change for them. The point is that I never saw Arjun and Kabir as toxic guys. I never thought that they are very harmful or toxic. 

This has always intrigued me because I saw Kabir Singh very recently and I didn't watch it for a very long time because Arjun Reddy was still fresh in my mind and I kind of just wanted to put some distance between that film and this film. I know that Shahid was a great choice for the hero. I mean he couldn't do what Vijay Devarakonda did simply because Vijay was very fresh and sometimes when a fresh actor combines with a fresh writing and fresh part, like Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer for instance, which you cannot get with an experienced actor, how much ever well they act. But despite that disadvantage, I thought that Shahid was phenomenally good in that film. Is there something that you look for in actors? The first question is obviously going to be if the actor fits the story or screenplay. But is there something else that you do? Both with Vijay Devarakonda and Shahid Kapoor, there's something extra that seems to happen when the film is happening which is more than just fitting the part. I am wondering if you work on them a bit?

Hmmm… I can't put it in terms of what I like in an actor before approaching them. It is a very subconscious decision but when you are working with them like a reading session or a workshop, I feel I go deep into their body language and I probably tell them that you should not sit a certain way or hold the cigarette a certain way because I would have seen them hold a cigarette in a certain way in their previous films. I generally do that kind of minute correction. I do this with the other actors, not just the hero or heroine. If there is a father character who is already famous like Prakash Raj. I did not work with him, but I am giving you an example. So you know how he reacts to all kinds of emotions so you tend to tell him that you want it in a certain way. Especially when it is a hero centric film, you tend to spend more time with the actor and the kind of time that Vijay and I spent was much more compared to me and Shahid. So…you tend to become close friends and you can say anything. So I think that understanding between the director and actor is that extra you see. There is an understanding and sync between the actor and director. 

Tell me a couple of things that you worked on with Shahid. What were some of the things that you told him? 

For example, there were a few scenes where I felt he was like Tommy Singh (Udta Punjab) and I used to tell him that it is Tommy and not Kabir. In Tommy, I noticed that there is an unusual amount of blinking eyes. I think he picked it for Tommy, and that used to come in during this film too, so I would tell him that, "Tommy aa raha hai beech main." Even he liked that I went into this kind of detail. There's no special hard work. It is the sync I think, where I am always checking the meter if you are with the character or not, throughout. 

One of the things that many directors say is challenging is that when they make a movie, they live that whole movie and then they have to make that same movie all over again. Going back to K Balachander, he has made a lot of films in other languages but you made Arjun Reddy and the next one was that very same movie in a different language. How did you prevent yourself from being exhausted with the material or saying that, "Yeh toh kiya hua hai." How did you bring freshness to the sets every day when you were there, making sure that this movie was being treated like a first film?

That thought of having done it already will meddle in pre-production, but once you see the actor coming in character with the beard, costume and everything else, your energy doubles and you want to make sure that it is a cult and you can't spoil it. That always runs in my head. 

Both in Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh, what was your motive in putting the title at the interval?

I thought, now what you are going to watch is the actual Arjun Reddy or Kabir Singh. The second half… that's actually the story. Since it's a non-linear screenplay, I thought let's put this in the interval. I somehow feel that it's the beginning of a personal tragedy. The powerless time is going to start now, so witness this guy. I felt that it was more heroic to put the title there when he's completely down. 

Going back to that interval point, he is lying on the bed, he pees his pants and the camera does a 180-degree turn kind of a thing. How do you tackle scenes like that that are exactly the same? 

It's almost the same. There's no change in that scene. Even for the Telugu version, when I was on a recce, I was just checking whether we have a huge bedroom where he goes into that moment. It has to have that kind of a large room.….. In Mumbai as well, I was checking for that kind of bedroom, and that's it. The criteria was a lengthy room and a proper jimmy operator to get the shot properly and the music. And the music has to be right.

One of the things that the audience felt added to the character's anger issues and sense of entitlement is that the character is upper class. Did you ever consider making Arjun Reddy or Kabir Singh, a middle class or a lower middle class person? 

I never thought of it that way. But I always felt it would be more vulnerable if he is coming from an upper class background. Because, for parents and the society that the parents are related to… he has everything. He's a good looking guy, he's good at studies, he has a good financial background and he's going down for what? This reason?  That all boils down to a point where you feel even worse. Because once you set this up in a middle class background, I don't think the point of love becomes more problematic. They look at it like 'Oh my god, he's undergoing a lot of problems in his life'. Because in middle class life, there's a lot and people advise you in a very different way. They'll say 'What are you doing? Settle in life.'  But here, there's nobody telling him to settle in a job or earn or think about loving someone later. So that angle becomes more central if he is from an upper class, financially affluent family. That is the reason why I subconsciously chose him to be from that place.

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