At 56, Akkineni Nagarjuna is as fit as a fiddle. Even while his two sons make headway as leading men in Telugu cinema , Nag continues to rule as a leading man.His last release Soggade Chinni Nayana was a blockbuster. His new film Oopiri is special as it is being released in both Telugu and Tamil and Nag plays a paraplegic character for the first time. Amidst a hectic promotional spree Nag takes time off for an interview with Subhash K Jha
Oopiri is the official remake of the French film the Intouchables. How did that happen?
(Laughs) I guess the French love me as much as I love them. No but jokes apart, it was a film I wanted to do for some time. Four years ago my wife Amala and I saw Intouchables.We loved it. I loved the spirit of my character who is on a wheelchair but never depressed. never wallowing in selfpity.My character is very inspiring. I wanted to do a Telugu version of Intouchables from the time I saw it.
So why didn’t you?
I would have produced it myself. But I didn’t know how to adapt it into Telugu. If we did a completely faithful rendition it wouldn’t work. It had to be Indianized.We had to keep our commercial angle in mind.When the director Vamsi Paidipally came to me with the idea I was happy but cautious. I told him to see if he can adapt it, because I had tried and failed it.
Then what happened?
He asked me to give him six months to work on it. He came back six months later.I had no choice but to say yes.
How difficult was it for you to play a man whose movements are relatively restricted?
Initially it was difficult. I am a very physical actor. I generally use my hands a lot.It was difficult specially in the first schedule. I told my director to take his time, do as many retakes as he wants until I get it right. There were times when I did 20-25 takes. He kept asking for take after take , and I just did them. It took about a week for me to get used to the wheelchair. But one thing remained constantly unusual throughout the shooting.
What was that?
Usually after a shot we look for a chair to rest our feet. Here in Oopiri it was the other way around. After every shot I was on my feet ,walking around the set trying to get the blood circulation in legs working properly.
What was Karthi like as a co-star?
I’ve found a younger brother and a friend in Karthi. He is a wonderful actor. For me the director is top priority, then the script. Co-stars are the least important decicing factor for doing a film. But I must confess I thoroughly enjoyed working with Karthi .We share a special bond in real life now, as we do in the film.There was no sense of oneupmanship between us. There was only mutual respect. When you see the film you’ll realize how comfortable we are with one another.I don’t think actors get insecure about one another any more. They work in harmony.
To play a man with so much spirit in spite of his inability to move, was it inspiring?
It was very inspiring.I’ve seen my mom confined to a wheelchair in the last three years of her life. Both her knees had given way, and there was no way she could undergo surgery at her age. Though I was concerned for her, I didn’t know at that time what she had to go through.
Did you try to share her suffering?
Of course I’d sit with her , try to understand her pain. But it’s now after playing a paraplegic in Oopiri have I understood what she must have gone through, how frustrating it must have been to not be able to do what she wanted to, not go where she wanted to. Even if you want to go to the restroom you’ve call for somebody. You want to sleep you need someone to put you to bed. Somewhere I’ve learnt to be grateful to God for blessing us with health . Please don’t take your body for granted. You better take good care of it. My salute to all the physically disabled people in the world. For coping, smiling, living life to the fullest.
Tell me about your next project?
I am immediately starting Hathiram Baba a 17th century period film. It’s based on Lord Balajee’s life. I play a devotee named Hathiram Baba who came from Rajasthan when God summoned. I chose this because of its spiritual theme, almost like conversations with God . Legend has it that Lord Balajee used to come down to earth to play dice with Hathiram every night.
Have you done something similar before?
I had done a mythological costume drama Annamaya way back in 1997. K Raghvendra Rao who directed that film is directing Hathiram Baba.Raghvendra Rao is completely spiritual. I am looking forward to this as it is a complete change from Oopiri.
Are you looking at doing roles that take you away from what you’ve done so far?
Oh, absolutely.I wouldn’t say I am at the fag-end of my career. But in the second-half of my career I want to make sure every move and movie makes me happy an artiste.
Your two sons are doing well. Are you guiding them?
Yes, I am guiding them. The first one Naga Chaitanya is settled in his career. The second son Akhil is finding his bearings. I am guiding him with his second film which is starting now, as the first one went wrong.Now he’s finding his groove. Run of the mill films won’t work.A new phase has started in Telugu cinema.
Are you looking at more projects?
It’s a very exciting time to be an actor.I am looking at quite a few scripts.My last film Soggade ChinniNayana was a bit of a blockbuster. So we are looking at the potential for a sequel.Provided it works.
Oopiri is coming in two languages Tamil and Telugu. Added pressure?
None at all. I haven’t done a Tamil film for some years. I am there for Telugu cinema. Karthi is there to ensure Tamil audiences like the film. But I’ve done my own Tamil lines. Oopiri is a very special film. It’s been a life-changing experience for me.
Batman Versus Superman releases with Oopiri. Your comments?
Well, my character is a bit of a super-hero himself. He is confined to a wheelchair. But his spirit flies. Seriously,I am a big Batman fan, not so much a Superman fan. I am looking forward to seeing it.