In The Telugu Film Industry, You Either Need Wealth Or A Weapon: Adivi Sesh
Starting off as a character artiste, Adivi Sesh has gone on to create a brand for himself with thrillers and action-dramas. Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation
It's almost as if Adivi Sesh has become synonymous with thrillers. How did this happen?
I disagree that I've become synonymous with thrillers. Kshanam is a thriller for sure, but it's based on a love story, and Goodachari is an action-drama. Evaru is definitely a thriller, it's actually a true-blue thriller. Kshanam is probably pretty hopeful, for me.
You have co-written Kshanam and Goodachari. How did you get into screenwriting?
Because, nobody was giving me a gig! In this industry you should either have aasthi (wealth) or talent. I consider my talent my wealth.
Have you done any course in screenwriting?
I went to San Francisco State University to study cinema. I grew up in California, but dropped out of college. Being on the sets of Baahubali for about 50 days was bigger film education for me than San Francisco.
What did you learn from SS Rajamouli?
He didn't know, but I was observing him like a hawk. My big takeaway is to persevere, to get the right expression as an actor or as a writer, no matter what. He doesn't stop until he gets it right. There's no concept of compromise. I think just the idea to learn that emotion and dedication… I don't even know what words I can use to describe that. I've learnt that from him, probably not to the same level.
How do you go about writing a story? Chart a story arc and develop it or think about the characters and the milieu?
I tend to favour plot-based films with rich characterisation. I love watching character-based dramas, but I'm not capable of writing them. So if I get an idea for something, I need to know in my head all the important scenes. Then, you almost always know how the film begins, where the film is halfway through and how it is supposed to end. Everything else becomes about making that journey interesting.
So, you're saying you can't write a film like Joker, which is based on one particular character?
Even as a viewer, I probably prefer The Dark Knight to Joker, and find it a better film. It is probably my favourite film of all time. Both have the same character, but I find watching the Joker in the context of a Dark Knight much more interesting than to just watch the Joker in his apartment.
How do you add the twists and details when you write? In Goodachari, Sameera talks about being a Leo. That detail is used later in an important scene…
I think a lot of it came from my guru Abburi Ravigaru. He used to say that every dialogue in a film needs to have a value. But that doesn't mean every dialogue needs to be heavy. The moment you start thinking about the idea of Leo, you start thinking about what you can do with it. So I will not place the first dialogue where Leo is casually mentioned, without knowing that I'll use it in another place later. When simple words used in a casual context are brought back for an important scene, the value of those words goes up.
You say that the dialogues have a lot of value. Do you improvise on set?
As an actor, I tend to not stick to the way the dialogue should be said. I stick to the content of the dialogue. For example, "Shwetha, nannu pelli chesukuntava?" and "Nannu pelli chesukuntava Shwetha?" are no different. While performing, we own the character and say what needs to be conveyed. But when we have a payoff for a few dialogues, you have to say them in a particular way.
While adding a twist into the script, can you think about it objectively?
It's always a process, you never fully know. You tell it to your family or some trusted filmmaker friends but you don't ever truly know. A good example is Goodachari. We originally wrote that the secret base of Trinetra was under a Rado showroom. But the Rado showroom people didn't agree to it. Omega already had a tie-up with the Bond franchise. One day, while driving, I saw the Tailorman showroom; they agreed. In fact, after the film was made, I got to know there's a movie called Kingsman that had a spy agency under a tailoring shop. In fact, this was one criticism of Goodachari. What nobody realises is that the idea of putting a spy agency underneath a conventional business is an homage to a Bond movie called From Russia With Love. We don't ever fully know if our decisions are going to be 100% correct. In the same context, there was something else that worked out. A producer mocked us for trying to make a 'James Bond kind of film' with a small budget. So we made Vennela Kishore say the dialogue "Bond antha budget ledu manaki" in a scene; it worked out very well. You win some, you lose some.
Evaru was a remake (The Invisible Guest, Spanish). Was it important for you that the film was not exactly like the original?
Evaru is an adaptation. Halfway through production, we found out that a Hindi version called Badla was being made with Amitabh Bachchan. I did not want to get into the unenviable position of being compared to Mr Bachchan. That's a losing battle. So, we turned an elegant English-speaking lawyer into a corrupt cop; that helped us. I'd like to give credit to Ramji (director of Evaru) for driving the adaptation. Evaru was quite a success for me, it was my highest grossing film. Yes, when you've gone so far to adapt a film and give it a soul of its own, you don't like to read a review with a disclaimer. That did throw me off. I assumed people knew the difference between adaptations and remakes.
During the lockdown, quite a few films released directly on OTT. Are you willing to make movies or series for direct OTT?
No. One of my earliest childhood experiences was watching Baasha in Sri Venkateshwara theatre in Vizag. I felt some magic seeing Rajnikanth walking in a black-and-white frame with the background sound going "Baasha Baasha". I won't get that experience while watching it on a laptop with my headphones. I'm aware that the world has changed. It's extraordinarily difficult not just to make your way into the theatre; things are also more expensive and there is a lot more choice. I do realise that getting people to see your work is more important than the 'where' they saw it. At the end of the day, we are all storytellers sitting around the fire. So, you never say never. But my goal is for people to see it on the big screen.
But if there's a small 'slice of life' film with a tiny budget, would it not make more sense for an OTT release?
That's something I don't have the answer to. What is The Godfather? It's just a bunch of people talking in a room. Does it have the theatricality for people to go and watch it in a theatre today? I don't know. The Irishman was a straight Netflix release. If we set aside the length concerns, I can safely say that it is a theatrical experience. Scale necessarily doesn't mean theatrical, because the best film I've ever seen is The Godfather and it doesn't have the kind of scale that an Avengers has.
Do you think it is relatively difficult for an outsider like you to get an opportunity in an industry that has multiple generations of star kids?
I think it's extraordinarily difficult for any outsider to make it in the movie business. Whether it is Hollywood, Bollywood or in Telugu. There's no doubt that somebody whose family is in the movie business will be able to enter the movie business in a much simpler and concise way. But we have to understand that their skillset is also a lot more. If children grow up understanding the nuances of acting because they saw their parents who are great actors or producers or whatever, they end up learning so much more about how to be behind the camera, in front of it or how to negotiate the art of making a film much more than an outsider like me. A lot of people don't realise that nepotism is so fundamental to our Indian culture. In India, a doctor's son becomes a doctor, a farmer's son becomes a farmer. It's an unfortunate reality of our society. So, I think we need to place nepotism in a bigger context. We need to ask 'What does it mean for Indian society that everybody does what their parents did?'.
I have been fortunate that film families have gone out of their way to appreciate my work. Nagarjuna sir watched Goodachari and offered to be the chief guest for our success meet and he spoke to the media about the film. Allu Arjun called me the day Kshanam released and Rana spoke in the press meet the very next morning. And that evening, Bunny, for the first time ever in his career, put up a tweet about another film. Mahesh Babugaru is producing Major… every step of the way, I have experienced magnanimity.
Even if outsiders don't get as big a release or publicity like star kids, do you think that they at least get an opportunity to prove their talent?
Not in Telugu. Here you need to have some other Astram (weapon). My astram is my writing. It's not lost on me that if I didn't know how to write a script, I wouldn't have had an acting career in Telugu. I don't think the Telugu industry has the concept of hundreds and thousands of boys and girls auditioning for landing a great role. But, that's also the way the audience thinks. I remember someone telling me once that during the CCL (Celebrity Cricket League) that whenever Akhil batted, the TRPs would go up. He hadn't even debuted in a film by then. The audience rewards only a known brand. If there is a son or a daughter of a great actor or actress, you hope that this person will also continue the brand of great acting and great cinema.
Nani and Vijay Deverakonda, who are also outsiders, had to do Ashta Chamma and Pelli Choopulu to get noticed by the audience. Do you think that outsiders have to do something very different from what's happening in the mainstream to get the audience to notice them?
There's no doubt about it. Of course, we were all lucky to land these films. Kshanam and Pelli Choopulu released a few months apart. These two were the small films that changed that year. If you don't have the opportunity to say that I'm related to someone, you have to say that you're going to show them a film that they've never seen before. Either you continue the brand or you create a brand.
Do you want to do something completely different from what you've done? A comedy like your Ami Thumi, perhaps?
Major is a biopic. It talks about the major's life, his love, childhood, parents, war… It's a look at a man's life. And I don't think Major is a twisty-turny kind of film. It's definitely a departure from that. It's a film inspired by the remarkable life of the man.
Ami Thumi was a very happy experience. It is a sort of spiritual sequel to Ashta Chamma. I'd love to do something like that. I don't know if I'm capable of writing one, though. It's not that I haven't gotten offered those; I just haven't liked the ones that have been offered. To my credit, I'd like to believe that once I saw those films on screen, whether they were hits or flops, I knew they weren't my cup of tea. So, I was satisfied in the knowledge that I knew I wasn't correct for those movies. I really look forward to doing a beautiful love story, for sure.
What's happening with Major?
We are doing post-production for the 40% of the film that we've shot for. It's a mammoth film in terms of scale, so there's a lot of visual enhancement needed. I may even take a re-look at how the script is turning out and see if I want to finetune something.
How did Mahesh Babu come on board Major? And how did you decide it will be a bilingual?
It is a long way from being complete. It is my Bollywood debut, and I hope they accept an outsider. I'm really thankful that Namrata and Mahesh sir gave me this opportunity and are producing and branding the film in a big way in Telugu. They are such big brands that even in Hindi, they are the reason that Sony came on board. It is a Sony film as well, and Sony is taking this international. There's no doubt that for an actor who has done only Telugu cinema so far, to be featured in Variety is nice. There is also a third production partner called A+S movies. They pitched the idea to Namrata. Mahesh sir had already seen Goodachari by then. I'd like to think that there's a certain amount of belief they have in me. Most of my interactions with them have largely been personal rather than a discussion about my capabilities. It's very important to me that I uphold their belief in me.
Has lockdown affected you creatively? Have you come up with any ideas or scripts?
Lockdown makes you understand how unimportant a lot of things are. It has affected the way I write, yes, but what it hasn't affected is perhaps my viewing habit. Personally, what I deem important in a script has become a bit different. Perhaps, I'm looking for more hope, something uplifting in what I write.
What movies or shows have you been watching ?
Nothing, if I could say that. There was a certain unattainability about movies, webseries and content that was beautiful. That doesn't happen (anymore). So, I'm not necessarily watching anything.
How do you think people should keep themselves engaged during times like these?
My biggest learning curve has been to be able to sit with myself and my thoughts and not feel bored. To think, to reflect, to feel, to not run so much that you don't even recognise what you're feeling. Looking inward really helps. That's something I'd suggest to any reader, friend and associate.