In the minds and hearts of Telugu audience, Naga Chaitanya is a star. Since his early successes with Josh and Ye Maaya Chesave, the actor has carved a niche for himself in Telugu film industry, giving several hits along the way, including Majili and Love Story. And now, over a decade after his film debut, he is venturing into Hindi films with the Aamir Khan-starrer Laal Singh Chaddha. Chaitanya spoke to Hindustan Times about his Bollywood debut, adapting Forrest Gump, and the diminishing language barriers in Indian cinema. Also read: Naga Chaitanya says ‘noise’ about his personal life ‘is louder than’ films
Ask him what took him so long to make his Hindi debut and Chaitanya says he has been actively rejecting–or in his words ‘shying away’–from Hindi films for some time now. He elaborates, “I grew up in Chennai and shifted to Hyderabad. So, my Hindi has not been the best. I have been sort of insecure about that for a very long time. That’s the reason why I have shied away sometimes from Hindi films when I have gotten an offer. In fact, when I told people that my Hindi is very ‘South Indian’, people have thought twice to be honest.”
But then what made him say yes to Laal Singh Chaddha? The answer is that the language barrier is written into the script here, as per Chaitanya. He explains, “When I got the offer for Laal Singh Chaddha, I gave them the same ‘disclaimer’. Aamir sir was totally comfortable with that because I am being cast as a South Indian boy who goes up north and that’s where our journey begins. They wanted me to be South Indian in the way I speak. I do speak Hindi in the film but if I slip in a Telugu word or adopt a Telugu accent, they were totally fine with that. In fact, we incorporated a few words here and there to bring in a Telugu flavour.”
Chaitanya, or Chay as fans call him, isn’t the only star from down south to make his Bollywood debut in the near future. Rashmika Mandanna will star in Mission Majnu, Vijay Deverakonda in Liger, and Nayanthara in Jawan. The keyword there is ‘star’, of course. All these actors have lead roles in these films. Chaitanya, on the other hand, has a cameo in Laal Singh Chaddha. “Honestly I don’t mind being a character in a film if that character is taking the film forward and I’m able to influence the audience even if my presence is not there for too long. And I feel with Laal Singh Chaddha, I got that opportunity,” he says.
The 35-year-old adds that given the apprehension about language, he wanted to start his Hindi film journey with a smaller role. He says, “I think I needed a transition film like this. We shot sync sound and my lines were given to me way in advance. This whole process has given me a lot of confidence to do a Hindi film and be showcased on a Bollywood platform. But the true test is on August 11. The audience needs to accept me. If I pass that test, I would definitely love to look for more opportunities.”
Laal Singh Chaddha is the official remake of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump. Chaitanya’s character Bala is loosely based on Bubba from the original. The actor clarifies that the adaptation is so desi that he never worried about imitating or Indianising the original film or character. “They have adapted the film in a way where they have brought the framework of the original but the contents and the events have been completely altered. When it comes to my character, the direction of how he comes into Laal’s life and goes out of his life is very similar to how Bubba and Forrest interact. But my purpose, my roots, my origin are very different from Bubba. There it’s about Bubba wanting to open a shrimp business. I don’t want to reveal but here it is something really extraordinary and very well-rooted and familiar in South India. These things were redesigned very well. I don’t think there will be a comparison with the original from any angle,” he says.
The film will hit the screens on August 11 but Chaitanya has seen it quite a few times already, courtesy the special screenings Aamir has organized. “For Aamir sir, this is his process. He screens the film to a number of people from all walks of life,” says Chaitanya. One of these screenings was rather special for Chaitanya as it had his father, veteran actor Nagarjuna in the audience, along with Chiranjeevi and filmmakers SS Rajamouli and Sukumar. Chaitanya says, “We are not used to such screenings. I have never sat in a room with all of them together, watching my work. And they had some very helpful inputs that I think Aamir sir applied to the edit. More than anything as an actor, it was a really memorable moment being in the room. It was a magical moment that will stay with me.”
Chaitanya’s father Nagarjuna has been among the rare stars from south who have tasted success in Hindi cinema. Nagarjuna starred in hits like Shiva, Khuda Gawah, and Criminal in the 80s and 90s and is coming back to Hindi films with the fantasy epic Brahmastra. Given his success in Bollywood, did he have any nuggets of wisdom to share for his son’s debut? Chaitanya responds, “One thing he said to me is to use this platform to do things I cannot do back here (Telugu cinema). Here, I don’t know how much I’ll be accepted in specific kinds of roles because we already have an image here and the audience expects certain kinds of roles and entertainment from us. If I do a pure character-based role or film here, I don’t know how much of that will be accepted. So, I can play around with what I can’t do here. In Hindi films, I am still very much neutral to the audience. I have that chance, a clean slate.”
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(With Inputs from hindustantimes)