His film cred is gold, but over the years, he’s built a name for himself. Actor Nagarjuna’s son Naga Chaitanya Akkineni — whose paternal grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao and maternal grandfather D. Ramanaidu were stalwarts in Telugu cinema — has been in the business of acting for more than a decade now. However, Chay — as he is popularly known — is looking at August 11 as his “real test” as he readies for the release of his Bollywood debut Laal Singh Chaddha.
The official desi adaptation of the landmark Hollywood film Forrest Gump has Aamir Khan in the title role, with Chay playing an important character, alongside Aamir, named Balaraju Bodi aka Bala. The Telegraph chatted with Chay on why he feels like a “debutant”, his biggest learnings from Aamir and the experience of making the film.
You are no stranger to Fridays but Laal Singh Chaddha is your big Bollywood debut. What are the emotions as we approach D-Day?
Honestly, I feel like a debutant. I am looking at this as a fresh start. Laal Singh Chaddha is a great opportunity for me to spread my wings and explore more as an actor. A large number of viewers will hopefully watch this film and I am craving for that acceptance.
We have done screenings for a number of people from the industry, and even for viewers who are not related to films in any way. It’s been shown to different age groups.... And everyone’s given us very positive feedback. They are loving my character Bala. I am very happy right now, but I am also very nervous because the real test is on August 11. I am curious to see how that goes.
Aamir Khan has traditionally had the habit of showing his films to many people before release, to gauge reactions both positive and negative. How comfortable are you with this practice?
This is a process I have always been in favour of. I think all kinds of opinions are very necessary. We listen to a script, we makeca film and we really get used to a film by the time we finish making it... we kind of get stuck in that bubble, we get lost in the process of making the film. So, a fresh opinion from a neutral space is very crucial for a film.
Of course, a lot of people here don’t like to show their films because they are scared that negative talk may spread. It’s up to each maker to decide how they want to do it. But personally, I am all for Aamir’s process. A fresh pair of eyes, even someone playing devil’s advocate, will always see something that pops up and which we forgot earlier, enabling us to fix it before the film’s release.
Apart from the set-up, the names attached to the film, the scale of production, what made you pick Laal Singh Chaddha as your Hindi film debut?
The obvious reasons are the boxes that you just ticked off for me (laughs). Which is working with Aamir, Advait (Chandan, the film’s director), the production house (Aamir Khan Productions).... It’s not every day that an actor gets this kind of an exposure and opportunity.
I have always looked forward to working in Hindi cinema. I needed one transition sort of a film. I knew that I probably couldn’t step directly into a Hindi film as a lead because the Hindi film market is saturated with so many talented people around. To penetrate immediately is not easy. The audience has to own you first, and after that ownership comes in when you can start spreading your wings. Laal Singh Chaddha is a good transition point for me.
Bala is not there throughout the film, but he is there substantially enough to leave a mark. Bala’s essence travels through the script... my purpose is there till the end. I speak Hindi but I play a south Indian. So the transition was very organic. This was a key factor that made me want to be a part of this film.
Chay with Aamir Khan on the Kargil sets of Laal Singh Chaddha
But isn’t the divide between Bollywood and the south Indian film industry completely blurred now, given how well content from the south is doing across the country and so many big Hindi films are falling by the wayside?
It’s a phase, you know. Down south, we have always been making these kind of films. We are now getting this exposure pan-India and pan-world because of technology, because of OTT.... It’s only a matter of time before Bollywood delivers a blockbuster and things will balance out.
The crucial thing now is that finally emotion and content have become universal. Whoever gives the audience that, that’s the way the ball is going to swing.
Coming back to Laal Singh Chaddha, you shot with Aamir in Kargil for a substantial period of time. What were the learnings from watching him on set every day?
We shot in a very high-altitude location where the oxygen levels were very low. In fact, there was no road there... the production took two months to put up a road. It was a 45-minute trek every day to the exact shooting spot. I thoroughly enjoyed myself because I was cut off from the world... there was no cell phone network. I was with Aamir and Advait and the whole team and all of us vibed so well... we were having so much fun.
I would ride with Aamir to the location for two hours every day for 45 days. I learnt so much talking to him on these rides. I would have breakfast with Aamir in the car every day... he would tell me many stories, he would tell me about his process.... To be honest with you, that was the reason why I decided to do the film. I wanted to understand how this man works, what makes him so special, why he is such a perfectionist. I got to see that right in front of my eyes. It was such a blessing for me.
I always had this impression that he’s a perfectionist in terms of his acting. But working on this film made me realise that he’s tuned into every department. It’s amazing... he looks into the camerawork, the art design, the music, the VFX.... That’s why all his films look so perfect all-round, and not just his performance.
Aamir has said that he enjoyed working with you so much that he called up your parents to praise you. That must have been special....
Oh, that’s really special! I grew up watching Aamir’s films. To get to work with him and to end up being praised by him... this whole journey gives me a lot of confidence, both personally and professionally. Every actor goes through highs and lows, but it’s moments like these that stay with you and keep you grounded.
He knows dad (Nagarjuna) well, but mom (Lakshmi Daggubati) was someone he spoke to for the first time when we were shooting together. In fact, he asked her to come down to Srinagar and he spent a couple of days with us. It was very nice.
Coming from the family that you do, was acting always the dream?
I was quite clueless till I was 18. I went to Hyderabad for college and hung around a lot at film sets and got familiar with this whole world. Something triggered me enough to make me tell my parents that I want to give acting a shot.
They asked me to be sure because it looks all glamorous, but this is a profession that requires a lot of hard work. I was sent to acting school and when I came back after a couple of years, I was sure I wanted to give acting a shot.
Growing up, did you visit your dad’s sets?
Not too much, just here and there. When he would go on outdoor shoots, I would use that as an excuse to take a holiday from school! (Laughs) But it was only after I turned 18 that the whole acting thing started influencing me.
What I have learnt from dad is consistency and the fact that every single day, for 20-30 years, he has put in the same effort in his work. That’s what inspires me... that he and his contemporaries never give up.
I am someone who tends to get influenced a lot by my Friday releases. Success and failure both affect me. Ups and downs are a part of this profession... we go through extreme instability. The kind of grounding my dad has maintained despite seeing so many changes is so inspiring.