He comes from an illustrious background, but he didn’t place himself in front of the camera till he could prove his worth. Acting was his goal, but it wasn’t a meet-big-director-get-audition-debut route. He started working in the film industry as a visual effects coordinator, began his production company — Spirit Media — and went on to produce a National Award-winning movie (Bommalata) before he made a fantastic debut in the 2010 runaway hit, Leader. To anyone who says they can’t help where they come from, meet Rana Daggubati, and maybe learn.
Daggubati’s acting debut was a story about the conniving and dirty nature of politics — not exactly a safe decision for a debutant. And he has lived in that vein ever since. Grey roles appeal to him, and he refuses to be a cookie-cutter sort of romantic hero. From Baahubali to Nene Raju Nene Mantri to India’s first underwater film, The Ghazi Attack, Daggubati has been one of those rare breeds of actors who’s found commercial success and critical acclaim in equal measure. And that is because of his love for stories. Obsessed with mythology and tales of our land, the actor is a huge fan of spectacle — something that has stayed with him since childhood when he read Amar Chitra Katha comics while he lived in a “shooting house” — the top part of the house was where he used to live, and the bottom half was where film shoots used to happen. For 90 per cent of his school life, he had breakfast on a film set, and went to school. In 2018, Daggubati had told us that he believes that impossible is not a declaration, but a dare. Does he still think so in 2020? Hell, yes.
You are one of the few actors in India who’ve managed to achieve a pan-Indian appeal. What do you think has worked in your favour?
I think my choice of films has been more story-driven than stardriven, in that sense. It was always about the content for me. From the beginning of my career, that was the path I took, whether it was Leader or Dum Maaro Dum, and language wasn’t really a barrier for me. Over time, you understand content that can travel places, and find films like Ghazi and Baahubali that break through the regional language barrier. I think starting my career like that really helped.
In your career spanning almost a decade if we only look at you as an actor and not a producer or visual effects coordinator, what kind of scripts excite you now?
For me, just the fact that no one has done this before or seen this before is what really excites me. Then, mythology or anything that speaks about the essence of who we are — these are stories I lean towards. I like big movies, and most of Indian mythology lead to big fable telling.
Apart from cinema, you’re also invested in businesses ranging from a business accelerator programme for technology start-ups, to an entertainment agency, and a comic book company. How has COVID affected them?How has COVID affected them?
See, those are the things that kept me going when COVID-19 affected all of us. Amar Chitra Katha is doing its best right now in terms of the app, because it has rich content that you don’t get anywhere except on the app. Most of my investments are content driven, and tell my story better. There has been a slowdown in business, but there has been a rise in alternative stuff, whether you see animation, or something independent.
Speaking of Amar Chitra Katha, what about your collaboration with them for two films? Where’s that at?
If not for COVID, we would have been much closer to being on set. The earlier idea was to start towards the end of the year. The process has changed for films now in terms of spectacle, and we are now going into studios and creating these bigger sets. Then, there are the travel restrictions. So, we’re just taking it as it comes. But also, I feel like I’m the only actor right now who has two films ready, so there you go. Next year, you’ll see an array of films.
When we last interviewed you, we asked you what was your one takeaway from 2018. You had said that it was the fact that impossible is not a declaration but a dare. Given the current global scenario, do you still believe that?
100 per cent. See, the time that we’re living in right now, there are a lot of bad things associated with it and I’m not going to get into that, but there’s a lot of good also that’s come out. Whether it’s understanding how you want to conduct yourself in business or in life, what’s really important for you, what you want to spend on, where your interests really lie, and who you really are. During the regular days, you don’t really get to think of all these things. In the entertainment space, this has been a huge eye-opener for everyone, me included. I would have never done animation at this scale if not for COVID.
Why haven’t we seen you on an OTT platform yet?
I will be, soon. Very soon, you’ll hear something very big and solid. It’s been interesting for me as an actor because it’s been 10 years and sometimes, we’re so cinema driven, and the storytelling stands at about two and a half hours. OTT content is more plot-driven. When you get into OTT, the stories are a lot more character-driven. Next year, we have some cool things that we’re working on in the OTT space, and you’ll be one of the first few to know, for sure.
Tell us a little about the films you have coming up this year.
I have two films coming out this year — Haathi Mere Saathi, which is the story of a man who lived in a jungle for over 25 years. As humans, we have a voice that we can use to go out, march, and protest but for animals, there’s so much that man does, and they have nowhere to go. My character in the film becomes their voice, and the story is set in the border of a jungle where there’s a city that’s trying to grow, and encroach upon the forest. And this is something that’s happening pretty much all across India, whether it’s Kaziranga or in Coimbatore. We shot it in three languages. Then, there’s Virata Parvam, which is a love story set in the Naxal backdrop in the early ’90s. Nobody ever really captured those stories, and this film is partly real and partly fiction. It’s a tale that takes you back in time, to the agitations and the anti-establishment movements that we’ve seen.
That’s a very brave choice.
When you pick a story, the question you need to answer is why? Why are you telling this story? Both these films ticked that box really fast. Especially in a time like this, when the environment is so important. Virata Parvam is a story from a part of history that’s not really documented, but everyone knows about what happened.
Your brother Abhiram is all set for his acting debut soon. Have you been giving him any tips and advice?
No ya, like me, he has been influenced by cinema most of his life. He’s worked in the studios and distribution for a while. Cinema is an independent voice. I think he needs to discover things himself.
In the southern film industries, the conversation around nepotism is almost nil, while it is such a huge deal in Bollywood. Why do you think that is?
According to me, it’s very media-led. The understanding of nepotism and family structures is not for everybody because there are only about five to 10 studios in India left. These are structures that have been built over 50 to 60 years, with 300 to 400 employees that you run every day. It’s an extreme corporation that’s kind of led into, and you can’t treat as an individual job. And it’s there in every place. As a country, what does India do? We make money so we can give it to our children — that’s the concept, right? Mumbai is filled with so much news, there are so many media networks there, and news that is quite irrelevant also pops up. It’ll go away after some time; it doesn’t really stop anybody from watching the films. This is a Twitter type of negativity, and nothing really comes on ground. After all, a good film is a good film.
But in Bollywood, you also see those who do mediocre work and yet continue to get work.
That’ll be in every place. There are people who will continue to fund people who they trust in, believe in, or they like. That is a person’s independent choice. And that’s not an industry — it’s not a grant. Who you cast in a film is completely independent of that film-maker or producer or ecosystem. What you culturally understand as a person, you’ll continue to connect to people like that. Whatever field of work you’re in, that’ll be the course you take. What nobody understands is that the film industry is probably one of the most democratic places in the country. You can be a 10th fail or an MBA, or you can be from the greatest acting school or learn it off the street — you all are at the same place. The thing is that it’s easy to look at the bad, and forget all the good. Bollywood song-and-dance has probably been the largest promotion of Indian culture overseas. There was a place I went to where they called me Shah Rukh Khan — they thought everybody in India is called Shah Rukh Khan. There’s an impact that Bollywood has on the world, and it’s not right to rub the sheen off these achievements.
Tell us about getting married in the middle of a pandemic. Did you think about postponing your wedding? What about your honeymoon plans?
I didn’t think about postponing at all. I thought it was a great time to get married. It was just us, and I shot the entire wedding in VR, and sent it all my friends and family. I stopped thinking about the honeymoon about three months ago. I guess we’ll have a delayed version of a honeymoon. Let’s see what the world looks like when it opens up.
When did you know that Miheeka was the one for you?
Whatever I told MW last time about things that attract me in a woman — interests in various things, and a sense of wanting to learn and adapt to new things. She’s ticked all of those boxes. Everything that I’ve said about the kind of person I want to be with, she is all those things.
What is the one thing you’d never do in front of a camera?
I’ll never tell a story I don’t like for sure.
The pandemic doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. How do you think the film industry needs to adapt to this situation?
Each one is doing their bit — some people have moved abroad with units, and some have gone into studios with units. Slowly, you’ll see a recurrence in the kind of work that’s coming back. It’s a pandemic, and going out for a movie is one of the last things on people’s minds. But this is life for us, right? Once life opens back, however, we’ll see a demand for entertainment in so many mediums.
What does the future hold for Rana Daggubati?
It’s a great time to tell stories, and it’s the greatest time we’re in right now where you can tell any story on any platform, in any length, language, or any format. 2020 will resettle the kind of content we watch, and the things we consume.
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