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Interview Hindi Telugu

I am in love with the business of storytelling: Naveen Polishetty on the transition from social media to the big screen

The Chhichhore (2019) actor revealed his journey from a corporate job to sketches with AIB and, finally, the big break with Nitesh Tiwari's ensemble drama.

Shriram Iyengar

Like many a millennial, it was a viewing of Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan (2001) that was the seminal moment for Naveen Polishetty. After seeing the film that defined the beginning of the third millennium for Indian audiences, the young man knew he wanted to be a part of that experience.

"Whatever the art was called, cinema, acting, storytelling, I wanted to do that," he told Cinestaan.com on the phone. But the path was not easy. An engineer from the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal, Polishetty went on to a plush corporate job in London, England, before finally gathering the courage to drop everything and return to India and hit the audition circuits in Mumbai.

"It is challenging from the day you land in Mumbai," he said. "For one or 1.5 years, I was trying to figure out where to go. I ticked off all the places in Aram Nagar and Andheri for a thousand auditions before realizing the way things work."

Things really started to change when Polishetty was approached for skits and sketches by an upcoming comedy group called AIB (All India Bakchod). With the sketches going viral in a big way, the actor soon began to get noticed.

That, he emphasized, was the result of determination. "When you are good at something, you have to keep bettering yourself. Till the point that people feel that they can no longer deny you your chance," he explained.

With the coronavirus hampering any good start to 2020, the actor is working on his writing skills while staying determined to not let the pandemic prevent him from learning new things. Excerpts from the interview:

You went viral much before the meme culture and social media became a truly mainstream thing. Was it strange when these AIB videos went massive?

It was kind of what corona is (laughs). We did not think it would spread that much. It exactly spreads like a virus. Two or three people watch it. They show it to some other people. And it goes on. You wake up the next morning and you see seven lakh people have watched it already.

It started at a time when there was no Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. It was just a bunch of guys from middle-class families, not knowing what to do, just passionate about our skill sets. There was no Yash Raj Studio or Dharma Productions sitting around to put their money and make a film with us. Then, what should we do?

The internet was a godsend at that time. It just brought all of us likeminded people together and started a trend. To be honest, when the first video went viral, I was clicking on the refresh button every half-hour.

I remember when we put up the Honest Weddings skit, a satire on Indian weddings. It hit the 2 million mark in 2013. That was a big thing then. This was much before 4G and the internet was not accessible to most people. I remember, I had to take a flight out of India to attend a wedding somewhere and someone at the airport spotted me and recognized me. I was like what?? That's when it hit me. The moment of epiphany where you are surprised that people are watching you from across the globe. That's when we started understanding the reach of the medium, and got disciplined with our writing.

The Campus Placement was in writing for almost six months for a 15- or 30-minute video. It is not as frivolous as it looks. There was a lot of work that went into making these videos. Honest Weddings took about four months. Since we were competing with shorter attention spans, anything we put out on the internet had a better option.

When we started, the digital world had people from the middle class who were unable to break into the movies trying to do something to complete their art. Now, with the money and studios, it is a very similar culture like the movie industry.

Did you ever ask yourself why the big break continued to elude you, even though you had popularity through these skits? As in, why were you still unable to get a movie?

The struggle is always there. I don't like to use the word struggle, because this is something I love to do. It is something I have cultivated over the years, from being a kid. It is like playing cricket from the age of five and wanting to be in the Indian cricket team. Replace that with acting, and you have my story. 

For me, the struggle was when I had a corporate job right out of college, living in London, with the best cuisine, in one of the top cities of the world, but it was a big struggle. I hated it the most. The moment I decided to quit that and become a full-time actor. I started doing theatre, plays, no matter what the challenges are I did not feel that to be a struggle.

The challenges were extremely difficult. Look at the odds of it. If I want to be an engineer or a doctor, there are entrance exams and institutions which might guarantee you a job. NSD [National School of Drama] and others might train you as an actor, but for your employment as an actor there is no guarantee of work after graduation.

It is challenging from the day you land in Mumbai. For one or 1.5 years, I was trying to figure out where to go. I ticked off all the places in Aaram Nagar and Andheri for a thousand auditions before realizing how things work.

After a year and a half, I realized that some of these auditions, like for a commercial shoot or a short film, might get you noticed for some better projects. You keep doing theatre and giving auditions and slowly a rhythm sets in. Once the casting directors start noticing you, they reach out to you.

When you are good at something, you have to keep bettering yourself. Till the point that people feel that they can no longer deny you your chance.

Knowing all this uncertainty, what was it like when you announced that you were quitting a well-paid corporate job? What was the reaction back home?

I have to tell you it was a tough time. I did not tell my father for six months that I had quit my job in London. But what would I do? I did not want to do anything else. I accidentally went into engineering from acting. From the time I was in tenth grade, I was clear I did not want to do anything other than acting.

I am in love with the business of storytelling. I remember when I had seen the film Lagaan and wanted to do what this film had done to me as an audience. I walked out of the screening and there were 200 people standing on their chairs clapping. For three hours, they forgot who they were. They were clapping, whistling, had so much joy on their faces that when they walked out of the theatres, it was thrilling. Whatever the art was called, cinema, acting, storytelling, I wanted to do that. 

Quitting the job and coming back to India was not at all difficult. It was difficult for my parents. For him [his father], it was like the answer to the question, 'What is your son doing?', went from 'Oh, he works in a job in London'... For Indian parents, that is quite important. The second is that they are very scared for you. They think, 'I educated him, sent him abroad, to see this day that he spends every day going from one audition to another?' There is no guarantee of what he eats, where he lives.

My mom was slightly more supportive, but my dad was extremely stressed. Every year, he would send me a message at the end of the year. He would say, "It's not too late. You can go back to London and start anew." For me to get out of that phase was very difficult.

In view of that, last year, which saw Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya and Chhichhore being released must have felt like vindication...

Yes. You know the film, The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006)? It's like that scene when he gets the job, where he says, "This little moment right here is called Happiness."

I remember Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya was a film I co-wrote with my director because no one is writing a script for outsiders. No one is here to launch me, or give them guidance. With that kind of reality, we sat down and wrote the script. It was a one-and-a-half-year effort when I stopped doing YouTube. I was cut off from everything and wrote this detective comedy. Until the trailer came out, nobody knew anything about the movie.

It was released in the morning and we started at five screens. By evening we were at 150 screens and went on to 300!

While writing it, were you apprehensive about the nature of a Telugu film audience and how different they are to the usual demographic of what you were part of till now, say an AIB sketch?

When I started writing it, it was the story of a detective in a small town where people don't know the meaning of 'detective'. For me, that alone was hilarious. When the setup itself is so funny, I felt that there was a lot that could be done in exploring the humour of the character. The thrill part of the story was a different challenge, where we could not reveal all our cards. We had to sit on the ultimate revelation.

The audience today is watching everything from everywhere. I did not want them to come in and within the first 15 minutes figure out what the story is and who the villain is. You cannot afford to have that. For us, that was the challenge.

When we wrote it, we did not know if the audience will accept it. If this film had not done well? It would have been a stressful thing. The fact is that it did so well. I remember me and Swaroop at Prasad Imax, after the first show, and there were people on the escalator clapping after the film. We just cried. It is my go-to video, for anytime I find myself facing the odds against something challenging.

Chhichhore (2019) was another such film. After all the years of struggle in Mumbai, I was beginning to wonder if my big break would ever happen.

A still from Chhichhore (2019)

When the audition happened, I did two or three rounds. I knew Nitesh [Tiwari] sir was doing this, and I had loved Dangal (2016). So I wanted to be a part of this so much. So, when Nitesh sir finally called me over and said I am on for the role of Acid, that's when I got my first big opportunity after so many years of the hustle in Mumbai. When that first film is released and does 150 crores+ at the box office, it is not something you imagine. These are things that don't happen with every actor and are not to be taken for granted. It is a gift that I have received, maybe for all those years of keeping my head down and working.

Do you worry about the difficulty of trying to establish yourself in two very different industries?

It is a good thing to be a multi-lingual actor. Right now, what we are seeing with a lot of films in India is more of a pan-India movement. Releases happen simultaneously in different regions, and even if the release happens in one language, audiences are watching it on OTT in different languages. I have always wanted to be a multi-lingual actor, so that wherever there has been great storytelling happening, I can be a part of it. I want to be in that pan-India space so that I am never out of work.

You also did a French series.

That was so weird. It was basically France's biggest television show and they were in their final season. So they wanted to go to a new country for their audience. The writers wrote the story in such a way that the central cast of the show moved to India. I did the audition, and I lied in the audition that I can speak French. My brother's wife is French, I did pick up a little bit of French. Also, while in London, I used to visit Paris and could get by with a little. Then the director came down from Paris and did another audition. That's when I got to work on that show. It was intense, and an amazing experience.

This year has not got off to a great start, but what are, or were, your plans for the year?

This has been a disastrous start. It has been that sort of year where anyone from the industry, or otherwise, that I meet is saying let's just survive, then we will look into the rest. Then think of an economy or other things. It is not just the movie industry, this is just the world in general right now. Every industry is bleeding. The world is bleeding.

Somehow we have to put an end to this, whether it comes through patience or resilience or quarantine, so that we can get back to that space from the learnings of this experience. This self-quarantine should also teach us a thing or two about our own self. In the hustle of Mumbai, we don't get this much time. We don't even realize that we can sit around at home, not think of making money, not think of ambition. It is still possible to have a life.

There are a couple of projects I am doing. One is a big series in the OTT platform, which they will reveal once the whole corona thing settles down.

Chhichhore and Acid have opened up a lot of interesting narrations. I am the kind of person who takes time to pick a project. Even on YouTube, the videos were often infrequent. I believe in doing content where the writing has taken time. It takes time to pick a project.

I am doing another film down South with the makers of Mahanati (2018). I am playing the lead in their next film. It is going to be released after the whole coronavirus thing dies down. I just saw the first half the other day and I just laughed out of my seat.

So, it's a comedy?

Yes, it is a complete comedy entertainer. Even while shooting we had a blast. The team behind it has National award-winners and I am very excited about working with them. There is another film which is still in narration, and we will be announcing it after the coronavirus break. I am also meeting writers who write content I enjoy. I want to be part of any film in Hindi where the writing is really good. I like the kind of cinema Nitesh sir makes, and Raju [Hirani] sir make, where the storytelling is accompanied by humour.

Are you writing yourself?

I am writing something myself, but when I write something it takes a year at least. I am a slow writer. Maybe now that I have time I will be able to write faster.