Naveen Polishetty is having quite the year. The breakout YouTube star launched his film career in two different film industries within months. Earlier this year, he was the lead in Telugu thriller-comedy Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, one of the year’s most celebrated sleeper hits, which he also co-wrote. Next, he’s set to make his Bollywood debut in Nitesh Tiwari’s ensemble Chhichhore.
Often referred to as the ‘viral actor’, Polishetty shot to fame as the face of a number of AIB sketches which went viral. He’s known for his memorable monologues in videos like the Honest Engineering Campus Placements series, among others.
To Polishetty, numbers matter. Be it box office, or YouTube views, he knows the kind of work he wants to be a part of. “I don’t want to be an actor whose films get good reviews and no box office, that I’m sure about. I want to be an actor who’s movies don’t compromise on storytelling but also have the potential to work at the box office,” he says.
Fluent in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, he hopes to position himself as a pan-India actor at a time when the walls between industries are slowly crumbling. He is also learning French. A decision he took after landing a small role in French comedy series Fais pas ci, fais pas ça, which shot part of it’s 9th and final season in India back in 2017. “After that, I realised acting is universal. You can be an actor anywhere as long as you can speak the language,” he says.
I met the actor at a suburban Mumbai café where we chatted about his big year, the reception of Agent Sai and, and why he will only write movies for himself.
You’re one of the few talents to break out of the comedy space on the web who was recognised for their dramatic acting. Was that by design?
I hope I’m the only one in that space. I consciously always wanted to be an actor, rather than just a comedic actor. I was really interested in doing pieces on the web that require acting more than just comic timing.
I think it’s also got to do with the videos that went viral back to back. The Honest Engineering video was the first big viral sketch. My dad even saw it after it showed up on his uncles gossiping WhatsApp group. I think everyone really started knowing about me after that video. After that, I realised engineers and software engineers are my fanbase and I need to make movies just for them!
Before that, there was Honest Weddings, which was mildly viral. And this is all viral for the pre-Jio era. Post-Jio, there’s been a huge impact. Before, when we hit a million views, we used to throw parties and now it’s embarrassing to say you’ve only got a million views.
Many people see you as an overnight sensation, but you’ve talked about how you’ve struggled for years to get here. I read that you’ve done over 1500 auditions in the last 10 years. What was that time like?
If you do 4-5 auditions every day, then you’re doing roughly 100 auditions a month. They were mostly commercials. When you’re new to Mumbai as an actor, you don’t really start off with film auditions. Film auditions are still a niche space, where a casting director will only call actors that they’ve tested a number of times and believe in their skills. For you to get into that bank of actors takes a couple of years. You just need to put in the work. So I would just go to 4 Bungalows (in Andheri) every day and watch out for auditions.
I was sure I needed to go to bed thinking I’ve worked hard and done everything to make it happen for myself as an actor. I shouldn’t be sitting at home waiting for Karan Johar to call me. I need to do everything to get to a place that Karan Johar will call me. Because I don’t know anyone in the industry, I can’t have meetings with directors. So, what else can you do apart from take the longer route?
Coming to Agent Sai, for me the standout feature of the film was the tone and how you balanced thriller and comedy. Was it tough to crack that balance?
When I was doing these YouTube videos, the director Swaroop approached me on Facebook with the story. I met him for a synopsis, and I loved it. At that time, I’d had enough writing experience, so I asked if I can move to Hyderabad and work on the story with him. For the next 8 months, I sat on the writing with him. That process of co-writing the film is what made me understand the balance this character needs because I had to play him as someone who is funny but also has a brilliant mind.
Agent Sai is a brilliant detective who people don’t take seriously. But it was a real challenge to figure out who this guy is because if I played him more than I did then people might get annoyed. At the same time if I play him a little less, then people might not find it entertaining. So I had to find that exact line where, whatever he does, you’re with him. And then, when we were ready with the script, I had already absorbed this guy’s head in my world. The writing really helped my performance. This is a film I’ve lived with for two years.
I shouldn’t be sitting at home waiting for Karan Johar to call me. I need to do everything to get to a place that Karan Johar will call me.
What did you bring to it when you came on board as a writer? Was it always in the comedy-thriller space?
When I jumped on, we definitely explored a lot more of the comedy space because of my background. We worked on how to make him and the situations funnier and how to reveal the twists at just the right time, screenplay wise. It was a torturous experience. This film took a lot out of the two of us.
Every day we would be like ‘is this reveal correct here? Is it smart enough? Is it too smart?’ We wanted to make this film easy to consume regardless of someone’s background and not just for the Netflix audience. We really wanted to get the balance right of not being too intelligent and not being predictable either, which took a lot of work.
Why did you feel this was the right movie for your ‘launch’? I imagine you got a lot of offers over the last two years and Agent Sai is far from conventional.
I was looking for a script that would blow my mind and that I would be excited to play. When I heard about this character, I was like this is the character I’ve been waiting for. Yes, there were risks involved. When we pitched it, a lot of people said things like ‘who’s going to watch a detective movie with no songs and no love story?’ Other said ‘You have dimples and a cute face, you should have gone for a rom-com in your debut film’. So I’m aware of all these things. But I thought if we did it well, then the audiences are going to love it and today the reception to Agent Sai is crazy. People have just fallen in love with the character. It’s become one of those loved, cult characters. Everyone wants a franchise. In fact, we’re going to announcing a sequel pretty soon.
Last week we completed 50 days in theatres, and I didn’t think a film could still do that in the digital era. Today, it’s the highest-rated Telugu film on BookMyShow and IMDb. And with it coming on Prime Video right now, it feels like it’s just released all over again. We’re at a stage where films are cutting through language barriers and everyone’s watching films from every other language and they’re lapping it up.
I’m guessing a lot of people told you to wait for your Bollywood break instead of doing a Telugu film.
Yeah but my aim has been different. My goal has been to be a pan-India actor. I want to be someone who can act very well in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu because I’m greedy for good stories. I want to use the leverage of being multilingual to get more work as an actor.
The lines have blurred in storytelling between industries and between languages, so I think the lines should blur even in acting. There should be an exchange of talent between the industries where writers and actors from one place can go to another place and work because the fundamentals are the same.
Were you ever afraid that you wouldn’t get the same level of lead opportunities in Bollywood as you did with Agent Sai and that you’d be relegated to best friend roles?
That’s the reason I didn’t debut before something like Chhichhore came along. I was getting a lot of roles, but they weren’t exciting enough. I didn’t want to be the friend who didn’t have a meaty role. It’s a gamble and people will tell you to take up work, but I’ve always been sure that I would rather sit at home than be a part of something that doesn’t excite me.
Do you intend to keep writing going forward?
Yes, absolutely. I’m actually writing one right now. It’s a torturous experience but it’s so rewarding. And I can only write stories that I act in because my primary goal is to be an actor. I only get motivated when I write stories for myself because no one’s writing anything for a guy like me and in this industry, if you want to make stuff happen for yourself, you have to pave your own way.