The third-generation South actor, who has made his Bollywood debut quite differently than his contemporaries, wants everyone to know that for him, the script is a bigger hero than himself
Naga Chaitanya prefers to be addressed as Chaitanya Akkineni. “Call me Chaitanya. My dad is known as Nag, and now people have started to shorten my name to that. It becomes a bit weird at times,” says the handsome actor, with a boyish charm and a smile, that can melt a million hearts. He had walked in unannounced sans any entourage — there are no PRs or managers hovering around — something you don’t usually associate with movie stars in Bollywood, and don’t expect from the actors down South, given the kind of adulation and unfathomable stardom they enjoy. But maybe their mass appeal stems from this humility that Chay, as he is fondly called, exudes. And it is not every day that you have a star doubling up as a food delivery service. The actor had arrived with takeaways of delectable platters of sushi from his cloud restaurant, Shoyu for the entire team. He definitely knows how to win hearts.
The Akkineni-Daggubati family scion has just made his Bollywood debut as Balaraju ‘Bala’ Bodi (apparently, Balaraju is an ode to his legendary grandfather, Akkineni Nageswara Rao’s 1948 film by the same name that was the first Telugu Silver Jubilee film) in Laal Singh Chaddha, the official Hindi adaptation of Hollywood film Forrest Gump. His character, a chaddi-banyan enthusiast who becomes instrumental in Laal starting a men’s innerwear company, was based on the iconic Bubba Blue, Forrest’s shrimp-loving friend who died in the Vietnam War. Although the cute and charismatic actor, even with his prosthetic-enhanced protruding jawline, reminded us of the young Aamir, many were surprised by his choice for his Hindi debut. While his fellow star Vijay Deverakonda made his Bollywood debut as the protagonist in Puri Jagannadh’s Liger, Chay opted for a comparatively smaller role in what might be called an out-and-out Aamir Khan movie.
“The moment I got the offer, I wanted to do it. I have tremendous respect for Aamir Khan sir. You grow up watching their works and using them as reference points, and then when you get an opportunity to actually work with them, be with them in the same frame, all you want is to observe and learn.
Also, I jumped at the opportunity as such characters help you showcase your acting potential. A few years into my journey as an actor, I really started getting drawn to interesting characters, characters that are uniquely etched, more than just playing the hero. When you are playing the main lead, there is a framework and certain boundaries. But with characters like these, you can really be all out. Also, the audience has a neutral outlook and their reactions are then just on how you are playing the character,” he says with quiet confidence.
It was no doubt a risky move. But, Chaitanya knows the workings of the film industry pretty well and is aware that it is not a place where you can always play safe. The son of superstar Nagarjuna, who made his presence felt in Bollywood with films like Shiva, Khuda Gawah, Criminal, and Zakhm in the ’90s and more recently in Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra, Chay is a third-generation actor and Tollywood royalty. His lineage is linked to two of the most distinguished film families in the Telugu industry: his paternal grandfather, late actor, Akkineni Nageswara Rao founded the Annapurna Studios in 1976, while his maternal grandfather, late producer, Daggubati Ramanaidu started Suresh Productions in 1964. His maternal uncle Venkatesh is also a superstar and is all set to make a comeback in Bollywood after almost 25 years with Salman Khan’s upcoming film, Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan. Chay is the first cousin to Baahubali actor Rana Daggubati, who has also had his share of Bollywood films.
However, he grew up far away from the spotlight. After his parents’ divorce, he shifted to Chennai with his mother, Lakshmi Daggubati. Although he was always close to his dad and visited him often, even on film sets, it was only when he moved to Hyderabad for his graduation that he actually got sucked into the world of showbiz.
“There was no moment of epiphany. When I was in college, I started hanging out on film sets and that’s when I began to understand the process and took a liking to it. It was a gradual process. My parents were elated, but mom was clear that I need to finish my education first. Dad suggested that I join an acting school and see how I feel about it. So, I went for an acting workshop in Mumbai and really liked it, and it was then that I knew that I really wanted to pursue this as a career.”
He stepped into the world of cinema in 2009 with Josh, and promptly picked up the Filmfare Award South for best male actor debut. “Coming from a film family, it wasn’t too hard to land my first film and I am extremely fortunate and grateful,” he says, not shying away from acknowledging or accepting the privilege the Akkineni-Daggubati tags bring along with them. But it also means tremendous pressure “The lineage, my granddads, my dad, my uncles, cousins, all are from the industry and have made such a brilliant mark for themselves. I am here today because of them, and what they have created. It does seem scary to live up to the expectations, but I think I am really fortunate to have all the opportunities that I have because of them. Fortunately, the pressure part never played in my mind. If it had, I might not have gotten into this industry. I only thought how much fun it would be to be on a film set every day and work in movies. It was only after I got into it that I truly realized the pressure; the expectations that come bundled with the family name.”
It is said that the Telugu film industry is still mostly run by a few families with very little outside talent getting an opportunity. Chaitanya disagrees. “I don’t think it is totally a family-run business. There are families that have been part of this industry for generations, but there are also new talents coming in every day. While the family-run businesses, with their years of experience, have a way of working, there are fresh ideas injected into this industry all the time. It is a great synergy between the traditional and the modern that happens here,” he says.
It was his second film, Ye Maaya Chesave (2010), that gave him the critics’ nod apart, from earning box office numbers. He followed it up with another love story, 100% Love. But then the actor hit a rough patch. 2014 saw three generations of Akkinenis: Nageshwara Rao, Nagarjuna, and Naga Chaitanya, come together for the period drama Manam. The film was released post the death of ANR, and not only became a blockbuster but is today considered among the classics of Telugu cinema. Four years later, he would slip into his late grandfather’s shoes, albeit for a film. The actor essayed the role of ANR in Mahanati, Nag Ashwin’s Savitri biopic. “They were such iconic actors and a chunk of the audience has not only grown up watching their works but those movies have stayed with them. It was a huge challenge as an actor. I was a nervous wreck before doing it. In fact, initially, I didn’t even want to do it. I knew it was impossible to try and be him, even on screen. But then one of my friends pointed out that if I don’t do it, someone else will, and asked me if I would be able to live with the fact that some other actor played him. And my answer was a resounding no. That’s what made me take up the offer. I was given very specific references from his works based on the canvas of the movie and I tried my best to do justice to it. I don’t know if I managed it though.”
But it was his 2019 film Majili that became the highest-grossing film of his decade-long career. “A lot changed in the decade between my debut and Majili. There have been some successes and there have been some failures, but every year, with each film, I have learned something new and tried to improve. I think I have changed with each film; you come out differently from each project. It is crucial to be dynamic to survive in this industry. You need to grow every day, otherwise, you will stagnate as an actor, and that is the end of it. Today as I sit here, I can confidently tell you that I am enjoying my work more than I ever did before. I don’t see myself in any other job,” says the actor.
The same year, he also shared screen space with his uncle Venkatesh in the action comedy, Venky Mama. The movie was a blockbuster as well. “It is quite a challenge to work with your family members, but in a nice way. When the camera switches on, they are your co-actors; you can’t look at them as your family members. Otherwise, the chemistry will not work. It took me some time to get adjusted to the process. I would still look at dad as dad even when the camera had started to roll. It took me a couple of schedules to warm up to it. But both of them are such seasoned actors that the switch comes almost naturally; the camera comes on and they are the character and the moment the camera is off, they are themselves.
“There are two sides to the coin; if you manage to flip it to the side that works for you, it can create magic on screen. Because you know their process and their timings so well, the end result is something rather beautiful. You can shed all your inhibitions with them because you already know almost everything about each other,” says Chaitanya, whose second collaboration with his father, Bangarraju, released earlier this year and got the cash registers ringing at the box office, beating the post-pandemic slump. His 2021 release, Love Story, was also a commercial success.
His last Telugu outing, Thank You, was released this year in July; it was his second collaboration with his Manam director, Vikram Kumar. The actor-director duo is now working on Chay’s maiden web series Dootha. “We are still shooting it and it will be on Amazon Prime Video sometime early next year. It is a horror thriller where I am playing a journalist, and there are grey shades. I am again experimenting with something new; it is a texture that people have never seen me in.”
But what took him this long to enter the OTT space? “It was just the script, nothing else. I got excited about this one in the very first narration,” he quips.
Ask him how the OTTs have transformed ‘cinema’ into ‘content’ and if the movie theatres can ever reclaim their lost glory, and he says: “I think OTTs and the theatres will both have their own place. It is not that people are not going to the theatres. But yes, it takes a good film to drag them to one. Before, people would go to the theatres even to watch an average film because they would not want to miss it. Today, if a movie is not that great, the audiences will wait and watch it when it drops on the OTT. The biggest change is in the audience. They are not putting up with subpar movies anymore. If it is not fresh content, they are rejecting it. With OTTs, the audience now has access to world cinema. So, they are choosing the best of the lot. The responsibility now is to put out content that can break the clutter and engage the audience. We need to keep pushing the envelope and get better and better at what we are doing.”
He points out that the best part about the OTTs is that a lot of new filmmakers are getting opportunities to showcase their works and experiment beyond the trappings of the box office. “Indian cinema is becoming truly a national cinema, the language barriers are fading and with it the regional borders, and it is the way forward. As actors, filmmakers, and technicians, we all crave maximum exposure. With OTTs, our works are now reaching audiences across the world creating a much wider opportunity than ever before. I am very happy where our cinema is headed today,” he adds.
And what are his plans for Bollywood? Is LSC just a one-off project or is this a new beginning for him? “Of course, I would like to do more films in Bollywood. I look up to that industry. There are so many filmmakers there that I want to collaborate with. I am just waiting for something interesting to come my way. And not just Hindi cinema, I would love to dabble in other languages as well. I love doing interesting characters and I love experimenting and playing with those. I am open to all industries when it comes to quality work.”
But what makes stars from the Telugu and Tamil industries shy away from Bollywood? Is the star power they enjoy back home pales in comparison to the Bollywood glitz? Is his generation more open to the Hindi film industry? “I don’t think that we have bigger stars in our industries than Bollywood. We are all just doing our work. Yes, the adulation we get from the audience might be a bit different,” he says, adding that according to him, there is no such shift as such. “Even my dad did some great movies back in the day and now he is doing Brahmastra. It was never a conscious decision not to work in Bollywood. It is the same with me as well. It is all about the offers we get. We need to be excited by the offers. Having said that, my family is Telugu, and we not only connect with the Telugu audience, but they have also given our family so much love and respect that we and even our future generations are indebted to them. So, they will always be my priority.”
Today, many are of the opinion that South cinema is dwarfing Bollywood and coming out on top. What, according to him, is going wrong for the Hindi film industry? “Nothing is going wrong anywhere. The audience picks the content they can relate to the most. If there is an emotional connection, they will make it win, be it in any language. Language is not a barrier anymore; people are watching movies with subtitles. I think we just need to churn out fresher and more relatable content, be in any language. The makers need to make movies that resonate with them first before they can attempt to connect with the audience. Mimicking a trend is not going to make the cut, not for long. We have a vast variety of emotions as well as cultures, and there is an audience for every kind of cinema.”
And what is his take on the newly-minted term ‘pan-Indian actor’ being bestowed on some of his fellow actors? “It is just a new tag. People will eventually remember you for the work you have done. For me, more than being called a ‘pan-India actor’ I would love to be known by the name of the character I played in the last film I did. That is what I am aiming for.”
We wrap up the interview by asking him about his 5-year plan. “My to-do list is to keep acting and do so in as many languages as possible. I just want to make sure what I am putting out to the audience is fresh and exciting, and that I am taking up is not similar to my last project,” the actor smiles.
Describe your style in three words
Simple, to-the-point, and comfortable
Three essentials you don’t step out without?
My coffee mug, my phone, and sneakers
One thing one would always find on your nightstand?
If you had to pick only one designer to wear for movie premiers for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?
What was the first car you ever purchased?
If you were to pick one perfume to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Any woody fragrance
If you could redo life, what would you change?
I would change my second language from Sanskrit to Telugu in school
Tell us your one vice
I don’t say bye while leaving a party (laughs)
Current celebrity crush?
One dating advice you would give yourself?
Be open to change
One relationship rule you have learned from your past experience?
That relationships have no rules
One thing you want to steal from the following:
Nani: His comic timing
Allu Arjun: His dance moves
Ram Charan: His style
Junior NTR: His diction
Vijay Deverakonda: His craziness
Prabhas: His on-screen presence
(All jewelry by Men of Platinum)