Vijay Deverakonda has a clear plan for the future: Do the best goddamn cinema. He tells Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan about his plans to achieve that, fighting for survival in the industry and why, despite all he shares on social media, his relationships are off limits:
Baradwaj Rangan: Vijay, your life has been spent on Instagram through this lockdown. We know you're sleeping 9 hours a day, playing board games with your mother, cooking… But are you also looking at films and reading scripts? What's happening on the professional front?
Vijay Deverakonda: I'm reading scripts, but as a producer. I'm not reading anything as an actor. This lockdown has been so long, I've had multiple phases. During my first phase, I was like, 'I am doing nothing, this is God-given time. Just sleep, rest, eat. I don't want to move my ass one bit.' Once the two-month mark hit, then I was like, okay I'm done. That's when I started thinking of how serious the effects of this pandemic were. That became a topic of discussion at home every day – looking at how many lives were being affected, how it would have affected us. So the next phase became about the Deverakonda Foundation. We did something called a middle-class fund and that took up the next month. Then I was like, 'Shit, so much money has gone out, now I need money.' So I was calling people and asking them to find me ways to make money. There were so many endorsements that I'd say no to because I'm not fond of them, but then I was like, okay, maybe I'll do that ad.
For the past month, I've been reading a lot of content to produce, just harassing my producer and Karan (Johar) and the director saying, 'Bloody get me on a set.' There's so much content out there that you end up not watching anything. I know about 100 terabytes, 100 million terabytes of shows and I plan to start watching them the next day and end up not watching much, unless it's highly recommended.
BR: You're doing Fighter, a movie that you said is your most commercial film ever. So far the films that you've made have all been edgy, except Geetha Govindam, which is in a more family kind of space. Is this over-the-top space new for you, or do you feel like you already know it because you've watched so many of your senior stars do it?
VD: It was very new for me. This is my most commercial film, but that doesn't mean it's one of the commercial films that you've grown up watching. This will be a wacky, edgy commercial film, it's strange in its own way. It's still my kind of film. When I heard it, I knew this is something I wanted to do as an actor. I didn't want to do it as a check box to tick, it clicked for me as an actor. It happened to be commercial because of the director's sensibilities, but it's very different from a lot of his films. It was a new experience for me, the physicality of the acting is different, the energy that goes into it, the volume at which the actor speaks – that's not me. But then again, lots of characters that I do aren't me. That's my job as an actor and it's fun. That set re-energized me in some way. Doing this film felt good.
BR: When a film doesn't do well, like World Famous Lover, does it make you step back and think about what went wrong in your calculations? What is the space that you find yourself in?
VD: You don't need to wait for the film to fail. I knew (what would happen to) World Famous Lover right through the shoot, the promotions, the release. As an actor, I have certain responsibilities towards my producer, my co-stars, my director so I just tried to see it through. You know in your head that you've made mistakes, you know it right through.
Anupama Chopra: But if you know on day 1 of the shoot, can you not change things?
VD: You try. A lot of effort goes into the product being what it was. If I had let it be, you would've seen a whole other version of the film, which would've been far better or much, much worse. It's debatable. We made it the best product that we could've. I think cinema is a director's medium, but tickets are sold because of an actor's face. If it goes south, or if it becomes a hit, it affects any actor in the film the most, so you have to do all you can. When people are waiting for your film and queuing up to buy a ticket, you have to give them the best. I should know that I've given it my all and I can't do anything beyond that. People will never see the sleepless nights, the fights and the tears that go into making a film.
BR: What about something like Dear Comrade? A lot of people liked the movie, but somehow it didn't seem to have that big success. What happened there?
VD: Dear Comrade was a film I was very confident about. In hindsight, there were lots of things that could've been better, that we could've worked on, but we were satisfied and very happy with it then. The film affected me for multiple reasons. One, it was not doing well. Two, there is this whole propaganda – you can pay money to get a film written off, you can get people to antagonize it on social media platforms. I was completely unprepared for that because I was this young boy who wanted to be an actor and I was doing films that I enjoyed. The whole business aspect, the industry, the politics that surround a film…that put me off, that affected me but then I got over it. I was like, 'This is how the world is, fair to none.' It's like a jungle, you have to fight for your survival.
I made some decisions then. I decided to do films that have nothing to do with reviews. It's like removing middlemen from the equation, then it's just between you and your audience. I decided that I was going to do the kind of cinema that would make audiences blindly believe that I could deliver, irrespective of 1-star or 4-star or 5-star reviews. I'd guarantee the quality of a film, that means the additional responsibility of making sure I choose the perfect scripts, the best directors, the best technicians. It's a whole lot of work, but I decided to not be vulnerable to people who don't want to see me doing well. I enjoy doing cinema and I'll do the best goddamn cinema. Fighter is the first film that I picked after making that decision. I'm making 12 other films, all with this new mindset.
Having an opinion as an individual is okay, but when you're a journalist from an organization and you put across this opinion you may not even be qualified for – you haven't even watched enough cinema or you're getting paid to write something – then doesn't work for me. I don't think it's a healthy system for cinema. That was an issue I was having locally.
AC: But the reviewers are still going to be there. You're saying that what you're going to do is pick something that is review-proof?
VD: Yeah, that is not sensitive to reviews. Review-proof to be precise. That's the goal.
BR: When you're asked about your relationships, you say that's off limits because you don't want your life to become entertainment. That's understandable. But one thing about life for an actor, on Instagram or anywhere, is that it's all some sort of entertainment. You put out (photos of you) playing a board game with your family, with your brother, your mother, making mango ice-cream, playing with your dogs, all of this has nothing to do with your films. So why would something like a relationship be off-limits?
VD: Left to me, I would not be on social media at all. I'd just do movie promotions and not post anything. But being on social media is a requirement to survive as an actor. You don't have a system to support you, you don't have people who will promote your film or talk about you, you need to do your own shit. I have to maintain a connect with my audience. It started off as a survival technique for my career, to be able to get the films I want. I want to restrict it to that, I don't have any of the apps on my phone. Some of my friends handle my social media and they're like, 'It's been a month since you posted something, send something.' And I'm like, 'I don't have any pictures, please take one.'
Even this 'real man' thing was something I would've never done. I did it reluctantly because it was an industry thing. My dear friend Sandeep Reddy Vanga was jobless at home and out of boredom, decided to do the 'real man' challenge and tag Rajamouli. It triggered a chain reaction and a senior director, Siva Koratala, nominated me. It felt rude to not reply when someone's taken your name and he's such an accomplished person. So then I was like, 'Okay, now I have to do this.' I don't wash the dishes at home, I don't sweep the floor, I cook sometimes and I play video games. It was very reluctantly done.I hate these challenges.
AC: Why does your dog have its own Instagram account?
VD: My mum really likes to share. She loves people, she was a teacher once. She doesn't get to meet as many people now, so she feeds off interaction on social media. She thinks Storm is human, she tries to get him to say Sai Ram. I'm like, 'Mummy, he's a dog, he can't talk.' She's believes though. Storm is 70% angel, 30% evil. When he goes into his devil mode, I get really annoyed and feel like giving him one whack, but my mum will throw a fit if I even talk rudely to him. She'll be like, 'No he is a baby, you can't talk to him like that.' My mum records so many memories of him and her explanation is that this is how she wants to remember him. It's like her album that she wants to share with the world because he'll grow up soon, he won't be the little pup that he is now. He's already growing massively.
AC: Well, I'm a big dog lover myself, so I completely relate.
VD: This is something the pandemic did to me. I was never a pet person. I never considered it. But now, every morning, everyone wakes up and from their rooms, they go to visit Storm. 'Where is Storm. How did he eat? How did he poo? What did he do?' This is what we do.
AC: Did you name him Storm? That feels like a name that must have come from you.
VD: Yeah, I did.