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On a balmy summer afternoon, with barely three days to go before the release of his new Telugu film Family Star, Vijay Deverakonda is a picture of calm. In a conversation with The Hindu at the film’s production office in Hyderabad, he reveals that at least 50 people known to the producer, the director and his own family members have watched the film, and there is an air of cheer and confidence. He has watched only the first half and his focus is now solely on promoting the film. 

One of the first video promos of Family Star summed up the essence of Vijay’s character, a combination of a family man and a star who flexes his muscles. The initial title in consideration, however, was different. “The original title was the hero’s name, Govardhan. In real life, this is my father’s name. In the film, the grandfather passes on this name to my character and believes that the boy can shoulder the family responsibilities,” says Vijay. Once the film went on floors, the team wanted a title representing someone in each family who makes everyone feel secure. “Every family has a star. We wanted a title that would resonate with everyone through that characterisation.”

Family Star, in which he shares the screen with Mrunal Thakur, is his second collaboration with director Parasuram Petla after Geetha Govindam (2018). “When I take a flight to travel, I most often interact with people; at almost every airport I come across people who tell me that they loved Geetha Govindam (GG) and ask me when I will do such a film again. This time, we went all out to try and ensure that the audience has a blast,” says Vijay.

A lot has changed since the times of GG. “Back then, we had nothing to lose,” Vijay recalls. “I was just winging it; I was a young boy happy that I was getting to live my dream of acting in films. I loved going to the sets and acting and did not think further. It took me a week to understand Parasuram’s style of working. Now, I vibe with him instantly; when a director knows that an actor understands what he wants, he has a blast. Our craft has improved; we understand a film’s structure and performance much better. There is also an added sense of responsibility.”

Middle class memories

Family Star is billed as a film set in a middle-class milieu. Having grown up in a middle-class setting, did Vijay rely on his muscle memory of real-life observations to play the character with added familiarity and authenticity? “Certainly. Bujji (Parasuram) and I know how boys from middle-class families behave in certain situations. In college, if I liked a girl, I would appear cool and confident and not disclose that I didn’t have enough money. But ultimately, my budget will restrict me.”

Vijay points out that the film is not a close-to-reality depiction of a middle-class man’s journey. “This is a mainstream Telugu holiday entertainer. The way my character reacts to a conflict point is over the top and extreme, yet, it reflects how middle-class people can get upset. Govardhan’s extreme reaction makes the film entertaining.” 

The instinct

Vijay Deverakonda and Mrunal Thakur in ‘Family Star’, directed by Parasuram Petla
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Family Star went through several changes during its making and Vijay points out that it has helped the betterment of the film. However, there have been cases when changes have not helped certain films. He reckons that as an actor, he knows instinctively if things are on track or off the mark. “Several ideas come up as a film is being made and sometimes, new ideas help improve a film. Sometimes we know there is a problem that needs to be fixed.” 

He points out that a film is ultimately shaped by a team — the producer, director, lead actors, cameraman, music director, editors, co-stars, and assistant directors. “All their opinions begin to affect you in some way. There are times when my gut instinct may not match others’ opinions.” 

The self-restraining phase

If Vijay Deverakonda is seen to be choosing his words with caution and not giving too many interviews of late, he explains it has been a strategic shift. “In the early stages of my career, I spoke my mind and put myself out there. Now I speak less, since I think it is good to retain a sense of mystery. I have done only 10 films so far. Perhaps there will be a phase, once again, after I have done 25 to 30 films when I can talk more about my journey.”

The restraint is also partially due to the increased chances of statements being taken out of context. “When media was a smaller entity, misrepresentation would happen but it was not consciously done for clickbait. Now since everything is monetised across platforms, the incentive to misrepresent for money is greater. All of us need money to survive, so I don’t blame anyone. But in such times, it is better to restrict how much you are putting out there since things can be manipulated.”

Vijay recalls the experience of Pelli Choopulu and Arjun Reddy. Both he and director Tharun Bhascker were confident about Pelli Choopulu. But when the film was screened to producers and distributors, many felt the film was too urban and might not work. “Some people shook my hand sympathetically and left; others asked me to quickly find another good film. Tharun and I knew that the stakes were low (a budget of about ₹60 lakhs), and if we promote the film such that like-minded people watch it, it would break even.” Pelli Choopulu was a massive hit and spelt hope for several smaller films. 

Arjun Reddy was another exercise of Vijay trusting his gut instinct. “Sandeep (Reddy Vanga) narrated the story to several producers but no one was keen to take it up. We both believed in the film and Sandeep self funded it.”

On the contrary, there have been times when Vijay would think something was amiss but others had a different opinion. “Then, you start believing in it since you have put in so much effort. I dislike it when my gut instinct is being swayed by what others say.”

Learnings from ‘Liger’

This was true in the case of Liger. While he was training for the physical transformation and learning to speak with a stutter, he was aware of the changes the film went through. “The initial narration was great,” Vijay recalls. “In summary, it was about a boy from Karimnagar and his mother who sells chai. They move to Hyderabad since the boy has big dreams and wants to be a fighter. There are posters of his idol (at that time Mike Tyson was not signed on for the part) in his home. His dream is to be able to take a photograph with his idol, but his mother tells him that he should grow to the extent that others would want to take a photograph with him. The boy ends up taking on his idol in a fight and his idol, knowing that he is an ardent fan, appreciates his journey and takes a photograph with him.”

Liger morphed into a multilingual film aiming to capture the national market. “Somewhere down the line the scene shifted to Mumbai and the Karimnagar angle was not established,” says Vijay. Pausing, he admits that he had his doubts but got swayed when at least eight directors, the marketing team and others who had watched portions of the film told him that it would click. “When a director called me around 2am to appreciate the film, I asked if he was sure and he said yes. In spite of my confidence, I usually like to keep things real. But I started believing that all my hard work had to pay off and it can never be any other way.” 

More than the film not working at the box office, says Vijay, what affected him was how he hadn’t seen through the flaws. “Things can go wrong in a group effort, like a cricket match. I want to be that guy who scores a century, takes all the catches and gives the match my best. The team may or may not win since the captain takes the calls and other players are involved. As a young actor, my duty is to deliver my best. But, I also want to be able to trust my instincts.”

Business and choices

In the days following the release of Arjun Reddy, Vijay had told this reporter that he hopes that even a decade down the line, he can retain the freedom to choose films without the restrictions of image. Ask him if he still has that freedom or have business constraints come in with his stardom, and he says it is a mix of both. “I am open to working with any director or producer and any genre except horror, which I do not enjoy watching. But I want to do films that will be watched by a large section of the audience. I cannot do a niche film if I cannot control the budget and the cycle of business.” 

He explains that some of his films that were made on small budgets were sold for high prices, leading to disappointment. “I want everyone who buys the film to be in a safe zone. If I can control the budget and how the film is sold, I can do a small film. For instance, the way Aamir Khan worked on Taare Zameen Par.” 

Vijay cites an example of how he wanted to co-produce and do a brief part in director Shree Karthick’s Oke Oka Jeevitham. “I loved the script. I offered to play a small part, produce it and market it such that I disclose that I liked the story so much that I produced it. But the producer felt that the strategy would not work and I took a step back. I was sure it should not be marketed as my film.”

Vijay’s line up includes a film with director Gowtam Tinnanuri, one with Rahul Sankrityan and another that is yet to be announced, in diverse genres. “The next two years are going to be physically challenging, with films in different time periods and I will sport different looks and speak different accents. I am excited about all my films.”

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