Regardless of which side we may take in the never-ending nepotism debate, we cannot ignore the fact that nepotism catapults a "star kid's" rise and cushions their fall. For them, the pressure to succeed will perhaps never be informed by grim financial uncertainties, or "belt games" by their fathers. And that is why the success of rank "outsiders" like Naveen Polishetty, who have talked about the uncertainties, rejections and heartbreaks they faced while trying to enter (and survive in) the industry, is important.
In Telugu cinema though, nepotism negotiates interesting contours. Most (male) actors hailing from well-established film families undeniably are great actors, or have been given the luxury to evolve into powerful performers. The "insider-outsider" divide is not as sharp in the Telugu industry, because teaser/trailer/audio launches, success meets, and pre-release events serve as meeting ground for (male) actors to support and endorse one another. This symbiosis has worked wonders for brilliant actors like Naveen Polishetty. It has given their work the scale and visibility that they so rightly deserved all along.
I first noticed Naveen Polishetty in Sekhar Kammula's Life is Beautiful. As Rakesh, the 'Gold Phase' baddie, he brought a certain swagger to the role. His enunciation and dialogue delivery also stuck with me. While Life is Beautiful was forgettable – a rarity in writer-director Kammula's elegant repertoire – he has always had a penchant for casting promising new faces in his films. The film also starred Vijay Deverakonda and Sree Vishnu, who have made a mark with their unique choice of films.
And then came Sukumar's painfully underrated 1: Nenokkadine starring Mahesh Babu and Kriti Sanon. Polishetty played an overbearing fan boy, who eventually drives the plot forward. You could not miss the ease with which he transitioned through extreme emotions in the scene where he attempts to kill Mahesh Babu. By then, it had become sufficiently clear: Naveen Polishetty was the kind of performer who'd urge you to take notice of him whenever he appears on screen.
But suddenly, he was off the silver screen, and made a splash in India's booming YouTube landscape. The "Telugu Abbayi" turned into a cocky, patriarchal groom in an arranged marriage set-up in All India Bakchod's "Honest Weddings". Eventually, he became the ranting representative of the Indian engineering and corporate employee milieu. These two viral videos became his claim to pan-India fame.
It was on a lazy evening in my hostel that I stumbled upon the teaser of Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, a promising film in a genre that was uncharted since Chiranjeevi's Chantabbai. A long-suppressed wish had come true for both audiences like me, and for Polishetty himself: he was finally starring in a lead role. Perhaps that is what set Polishetty's entry into the film industry apart from other debuts. This was not an entirely new face and talent that the audience had to decide whether they'd warm up to. This was an artist and a craft that we were waiting to savour for a long time. This was sheer talent meeting anticipation. The film delivered, and how! The guy who spoke Hindi like it was his mother tongue in viral YouTube videos was suddenly nailing the Nellore accent as a genius detective who's struggling to make it big with his FBI: "Fatima Bureau of Investigation". He was speaking Telugu in interviews like he had never left Hyderabad at all. Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, the character, was, to me, analogous with Naveen Polishetty the artist. He knows he's (bloody) good at what he does. And like Agent Athreya, he just needed that one big case (film) to let the world know how good he was.
Just 3 months later, we saw him as the Hindi cuss-word spewing "Acid" in Nitesh Tiwari's National Award-winning Chhichhore. And then, the pandemic happened, stalling the release of Polishetty's second Telugu outing (the current blockbuster), Jathi Ratnalu. It seemed like his bourgeoning cinematic stardom was marred all of a sudden. With the inundation of content on OTT platforms, there was always a risk that the impression created by Polishetty's cinematic debuts would remain ephemeral. It felt like he may have to reintroduce himself to the audiences of Telugu and Hindi cinema.
But the man adapted seamlessly! We saw him reconnecting with the Telugu audience in a video about the tragicomedies of the lockdown, taking a dig at how his own movie's release and stardom took a beating because of the pandemic. He spoke typically Telugu things about being "Nallakunta Naveen", and marrying on a "chaapa" in a tent outside his house. And poof! He transformed into "Stadium Shankar" with a typical tapori accent in a speaker ad, a self-aware parody rapper for a khichdi ad whose jingle itself was a rap song, and a paranoid young man receiving a package in a earphone ad. He added context and a backstory to characters he played even in endorsements, regardless of how "big" or "small" his work was. And that's the thing with Naveen Polishetty. The guy's like water. You cannot categorise him. You can only put him in any role, and watch him adapt effortlessly, like he absolutely belongs there.
That probably justifies why every single promotional video or appearance starring Naveen Polishetty feels like an acting masterclass, a stand-up comedy set, and a philosophical musing, all rolled into one. The interviews and promotions he did before and after the success of Agent and Jathi Ratnalu repeatedly stood as testament to his spontaneity, versatility and quick wit. He could sing, dance, crack jokes, discuss profound insights from his struggler days, and improvise his famous salesman dialogue to suit the context of his appearance. Videos of his interaction with fans at theatres in the USA at the Jathi Ratnalu success tour feel like they belong in a stand-up comedy series of their own. For once, I found myself looking forward to promotional videos and have ended up watching every single one of them!
The rise of stars like Polishetty is representative of a larger structural shift that has been underway in the Telugu film industry. "Star power" is no more something that actors are born with. It is not the excuse that covers up substandard storytelling. It is something that actors are being forced to build (and rebuild) purely on the basis of the quality of stories they choose to associate with. Thanks to that, the Telugu audience is also creating a democratised space for writer-directors like Tarun Bhascker, Sandeep Reddy Vanga, Adivi Sesh, Prashant Varma, Vivek Athreya, and Sailesh Kolanu to bring forth their narratives more organically. Commercial viability is no more conflated with "dumbing down" stories, or adding those compulsory fights and songs. The Telugu industry now has "star" actors like Nani, Vijay Deverakonda, Satyadev, Adivi Sesh, Vishwak Sen, Priyadarshe, Rahul Ramakrishna, and now, Naveen Polishetty, who can successfully shoulder stories that don't typically fit into the clichéd trappings of "commercial" cinema. This is a generation of well-trained, self-aware actors and filmmakers who are fully cognisant of the balance to be struck between leveraging cinema as a large-scale outlet for their art and understanding that cinema is a business. They have struggled hard and have kept at it only because they believed in their inexorable passion to tell different stories, or tell stories differently. This is not to say that audience and filmmaker sensibilities have undergone a linear transformation. They have simply been diversified; today, the Telugu audience can enjoy Ravi Teja's potboiler Krack as much as Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya, which had no "commercial" or "massy" elements.
In the climax scene of Sekhar Kammula's Life is Beautiful, Sreenu (Abijeet Duddala) tells Rakesh (Naveen Polishetty), "Nuvvu naa hero" (you're my hero). That's exactly what Naveen Polishetty has turned out to be after the blockbuster success of his latest outing. This is a hero who belongs to each one of us, because his journey to stardom symbolises what we wish for for ourselves. And when actors like Polishetty shine in such wonderful films, one begins to feel that the title Jathi Ratnalu was less satire and more a declaration that Telugu cinema's crown jewels like Polishetty will continue to arrive and flourish when the audience supports good films and their makers.