As an actor, he’s gained critical, audience and commercial acclaim, but few know that Daggubati is also a producer and entrepreneur, a creative force who has been enriching multiple film industries with his expertise over almost a decade.
Because of the enduring imagery of Baahubali’s Bhallaldeva, it’s somewhat strange to encounter Rana Daggubati the human being. To begin with, he isn’t packing the mountains of muscle he had gained for the films. Daggubati is playing Chandrababu Naidu in the new NT Rama Rao biopic, and thus has a reed-slim frame, a gaunt face and a glorious beard. He may not look evil any more, but the man’s still intimidating.
For the uninitiated (which would be a lot of us, because he doesn’t beat his own drum), Rana Daggubati is much more than a successful actor. He’s been selective as an actor (14 films in 8 years), but has been extremely busy in other capacities. As the grandson of the illustrious film maker Dr. D. Ramanaidu, and son of producer. Suresh Babu, Daggubati sits at the head of the family’s Ramanaidu Studios, one of India’s largest integrated production houses, offering production, distribution, exhibition and studio infrastructure for cinema, TV and digital platforms.
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He also started his own production company, Spirit Media, before becoming an actor, and produced National Award winning films. A self-confessed geek, he owns a technology company, Anthill Studios, which invests in start-ups in the VFX, augmented reality and AI space, like AppStar (augmented reality), LDM (a visual effects studio based in London) and Gamezop (a game development studio), among others. He is particularly heavily invested in VFX, and also owns the south Indian arm of Kwan, the celebrity management and services company that also deals in film acquisition, licensing and digital activations.
Taking his learnings from the global success of Baahubali, he is also collaborating with Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) to create two spectacle films, as well as their novel, comic and merchandising properties. There are also plans to associate with Universal Studios and Imagica, to create theme parks based on ACK and these spectacle films. To top all of that, he has stakes in sporting events, like the Super Boxing League, Premier Futsal and the Premier Badminton League – talk about being a Baahubali in real life.
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In 2010, you made your acting debut in a blockbuster (Leader) and your 2011 Bollywood debut (Dum Maaro Dum) marked you as a promising newcomer. How do you look at your career graph from then to now?
The reason I got into the movies as an actor was so I could tell as many new stories as I can, interesting and unique stuff. I was very happy in the first round, when I could make a Telugu film and then be part of a Hindi film and later, I did a Tamil film. I guess I have this advantage over most people in the country, where I can get to work in three different cities in India at the same time, and in three different industries. From the beginning, the exercise was – more than being in a Hindi film or a Telugu film – to do one story and let that story travel. I think from where I started to where I am now, post Baahubali and films like that, I feel like the storytelling has so much more fun and hue to it. People are accepting of many new genres and films. Films like Baahubali were shot in Hyderabad, they were Telugu films, but became Hindi films. It’s great that now, I’m in a town where stories travel and I’m at the centre of this. So, it’s fun.
I guess I have this advantage over most people in the country, where I can get to work in three different cities in India at the same time. I was very happy in the first round, when I could make a Telugu film and then be part of a Hindi film.
You were the voice of Thanos for the Telugu version of Avengers: Infinity War. Was it a conscious decision to go with Thanos? Do you like his character?
I like him very much. I knew a little about Thanos, mainly from the comic books, because he was not as popular as he is now. He was always the one with the gauntlet, and the one who’s going to take the five stones. When they asked me for it, I remember I was shooting in Thailand, and I took a plane to Mumbai to dub for it and then came back, all in one day. It was really fun and I really enjoyed it – he’s the classic big, bad guy.
Throughout your career, you haven’t been afraid to play the anti-hero, and many of your roles have had grey shades. Is that a choice you make?
Life itself is grey, it’s not black or white. You can play with the complexities, and that becomes the fun part about going to the set every day. Adapting to the new characteristics, reviewing the new person – it’s really what makes an actor, and that’s really the joy that I get when I play characters that are very complex. They are also a 100 per cent more challenging to play.
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You’re from a very respected film family. Do you think it’s made things easier for you as an actor, or tougher?
I grew up in the movies, my parents were working in the movies all the time. I liked Star Wars as a kid, and decided that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was easy in the sense that my parents were in the business, so I could understand it much better than the rest of them. I worked with visual effects for about six years before I became an actor. I used to work with sound and post production for some time. It’s like I’ve been in film school since I was in school, literally. I have the advantage that my exposure and access to all this was greater. It’s not like I’ve had a splendid launch for anything. I found some stories, there were filmmakers who wanted to make it and I went and worked with them.
There’s definitely an advantage when you get in from here (a film family), because you have access to people, but that gives you just an entry – it’ll drop you back if you don’t have a skill that you can harness for yourself. It was definitely easier for me because I understood the business, not just in Hyderabad but in India. It’s not like I come from a family of actors – my mother used to work in the film laboratory, my dad was a producer, my grandfather was a producer and distributor and my uncle is an actor. So ultimately, anything I do will become a long-term thing, as opposed to short term, and that really is the difference between me and probably the others who are not from the movies.
What and when was your first introduction to the world of cinema?
Very few people know that when I was growing up, I was living in a shooting house. The top part of the house was where I used to live, and the bottom half was where the shootings used to go on. For 90 per cent of my school life, I had breakfast on a film set and went to school.
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You’re not an actor who is unaware of behind the scenes work. Do you think your past in visual effects has really helped you become so big right now?
I produce things, work in technology for movies, I work in production – for me, cinema as a whole is an entity that interests me a lot. It’s very entertaining, and it’s a lot of fun to tell stories. Storytelling is really what I enjoy the most. I can really understand visual effects to a far bigger degree than most actors, because that was my first job. I have a technology company called Anthill Studios, which invests in many start-ups in the media, entertainment and tech space. That obviously becomes a big, crucial part in what I’ve learned.
You constantly make it to the most desirable men lists that are drawn up every year. Your films generate critical acclaim. Have you consciously chosen difficult projects so as to not be typecast as just another hot guy?
These things came as perks, I guess (laughs). I never had roles that were classically rom-coms or action films or the regular beat. I always had alternate things going on. I guess each decision is independent, so the decision comes down to the story that I want to do and that’s about it.
On the subject of your looks and height, what was it like in college and high school? Did you get many proposals?
Arrey, no yaar. To start with, I didn’t go to college and in school, I wasn’t very hectic about any of these things. I didn’t know which direction I was heading in. At that time, you’re too young. I was a chiller in school, chilling and studying less and reading stories and comic books more – and watching movies.
You’ve been notoriously private about your personal life. On a talk show recently, SS Rajamouli said that you’ll get married soon, before Prabhas. What’s your take on this? Any details we should know?
During Baahubali, everyone used to ask us . . . I don’t know if you know this, but most of the Telugu actors my age or Prabhas’ age and Anushka’s age were getting married. Like Allu Arjun and all of them got married at the same time. And Baahubali never got done, right, it went on for six years while shooting. So, at that point, it was a conversation where Rajamouli said that I don’t know about Prabhas and Anushka, but Rana will get married first. That’s the thought and assumption that he has. So, let’s see what happens in the future, we’ll all discover it together, I guess (laughs).
I come from a family of actors – my mother used to work in the film laboratory, my dad was a producer, my grandfather was a producer and distributor and my uncle is an actor.
What’s the experience been so far playing Chandrababu Naidu, in the NTR biopic? What can people expect from your portrayal of the character?
This is the first time I’ve played something true to history. True to history as in this stuff literally happened 20 to 40 years ago. Playing somebody real is really fun, it’s not like he’s somebody who is not relevant to the times – he’s the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh today. We had to do a lot of homework, and he was very kind to spend almost four or five hours with us. After that, I took all that back and took some acting workshops with Krish (director Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi) and the others, and I think cinema is the thing that has the power to recreate time and tell it again. So, it was really an amazing experience and I’m hoping people will really like it. And ultimately, we’ll be telling the story of a great man called N. T. Rama Rao.
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Are you a method actor or a director’s actor?
I don’t know what I am, but I guess method is the best way to try and understand the character – understanding and being that person for some time helps you play that character. If I’ve chosen to be in a film, there’ll be certain beats to it and things that I connected to. Now, apart from the story, I start making a proper character arc and plan that well and detail it a lot more than what is there in the script. So, with that, you start understanding the character much more in detail, and you’ll be able to play it far, far better.
I never had roles that were classically romcoms or action films or the regular beat. I always had alternate things going on. I guess each decision is independent.
As an actor, how do you view the Netflix era? Will the digital space replace the big screen?
Nothing replaces anything, it’s just another medium of telling stories. That’s the fun part. Each form and place will give something different – the theatre will have something different playing, and Netflix and the others will have something else playing there. Each platform will allow a different kind of story to be told.
What’s a perfect date according to you?
Well, whatever it is, it has to end up with both wanting to go on another date, right?
What is the one thing that attracts you in women?
Interests in various things, and a sense of wanting to learn and adopt new things.
What are you looking forward to in 2019?
There are so many releases that I have. I am working on a lot of technology and a lot of content companies. So, I’m hoping to do many more such things and being involved with Indian storytelling next year.
Any new year resolutions?
I don’t make any, because I break them very quickly.
And finally, what is your one takeaway from 2018?
The one takeaway would be that impossible is not a declaration, but a dare. That goes along the lines of what Muhammad Ali said, and this year has proven all that. Everything that was said to be impossible and couldn’t be done has been done. This was a good year.
Playing somebody real is really fun, it’s not like he’s somebody who is not relevant to the times – he’s the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh today. We had to do a lot of homework, and he was very kind to spend almost four or five hours with us.
Photographer: Rohan Shrestha | Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva | Creative direction: Shweta Mehta Sen | Hair: Why not by ZEEBA (Jaipal) | Makeup : Vijay Dhamane | Wardrobe Courtesy: Zodiac, ZOD! and Z3 | Location courtesy: Rocky Star cocktail bar and Lord of the Drinks, Mumbai
Story by Arnesh Ghose
Interview by Mayukh Majumdar