Q & A with Naveen Polishetty
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6 October 2019

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Tell us about your tryst with acting?
I was actually forced into it. I’m from an all boys school. Every year in our annual play, people used to be acting in the play and I was this backbencher, sleeping in the last bench, not interested in anything. There was a teacher called Kumsum. One day at the beginning of the class she said come here and smile in front of the class; which was weird. No one’s every told me to come here and smile so I had this awkward smile. She was looking at another teacher and said, “See he gets dimples so he’s perfect for the woman.” I was like what logic is this but I was cast as the woman at railway station who loses her baby. I was like first of all who is this woman who drops her baby at a railway station so I couldn’t connect to it. My mom always wanted a girl child and she got me so she was like this is my moment to finally just make him a girl. She took me out shopping, bought a skirt, put lipstick, and bought a hat. She even got a camera. Made me sit in the front row and I had only 1 line in the play. It was ‘my baby’. I just say my baby my baby. In the second half there’s an inspector and I say the same thing, ‘Inspector, my baby, my baby’. I vividly remember that was my first ever tryst of acting and my mom was super excited. The worst thing about dressing up like a woman is when compliment you for it. “Your son so looks pretty as a girl,” and I was like ya! I was waiting to get out of that costume and it so happened that because it was a boys’ school for the next 2-3 plays I was only getting girl roles. Finally I got sick of it and I said to my teacher that I need to play a man so in 7th or 8th grade I got my first role as a bartender.

That’s how I started feeling comfortable being on stage. Somehow I couldn’t connect with academics in school even though I was doing very well in school. So I started finding this drama class and annual play to be a very interesting activity that I would really look forward to. By 9th or 10th it became so that if there was a play in school I’d supervise the rehearsals, backstage and got into the rhythm of performing on stage. Unfortunately for me my dad’s brother, his kids, everyone is an IITian, probably even my maid was IITian. My whole world was people asking me what is your physics score. There used to be mock IIT exams and people would ask for my marks in phone calls from relatives. It took a lot of courage for me to tell my parents that I wanted to go to NSD Delhi. I had heard of this drama school. My mom started laughing, she was like, “What is wrong with you; what acting?” Then my dad! I don’t know why parents don’t do this anymore. My dad’s only communication was if I said something and he didn’t like it he’d just beat me. Like there’s no conversation. The other day I saw my cousin talking to his father; he was asking what are your interests, hobbies, what do you want to pursue in life. I’ve never had this kind of a conversation with my father. I tell my dad something and if he likes it then he’s like ya. If he doesn’t then his belt would let me know he didn’t. This whole belt equation happened. Then I did the IIT and AIEEE exams (now they’ve merged those 2 actually) and I got good ranks in both. I had to go for counselling in Chennai but I lied to them that I’m going for it but didn’t go. Then my dad found out from the counsellor then again he asked me to meet his belt. Then he said that I should do AIEEE and that’s how I ended up at IIT. That’s when my initial acting dream came up in my head and Engineering became a villain in my story.

Engineering became the villain as I entered college. I had the clarity in my mind that I wanted to do acting so I was like bah! But in the first 2-3 weeks I found out that there is so much free time; there’s just the hostel and internet connection so what do you do? That’s the first time I realised there would be so much free time and no belt and no parents. That was also the first time there were girls. Suddenly there were girls. Even if there were 4, that’s 4 times the number of girls I was used to in my boys school. I would participate in events because the girls would show up. I formed a band, and then a theatre club and we used to put on plays. That’s how my college had a theatre club. Sometimes there would be 20-200 people. The cultural aspect of college became my main thing. I used to tell the lecturers I had events like Kshitij so I need to go here or there for the performance. I knew that for months there was nothing to do and then I had to study for a month before the exams. I had a setting at the time with a boy Nishant who was a topper. 1 month before the exams I would go to him. I would stay with him, give him beers. I was just messaging him, he messaged to say he saw my film and I said thank you for letting me pass otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten a degree. You’ll have to blame my friend circle for putting the idea of Bombay into my head. Actually the credit and the blame!

Pressures from cousins
I hate all my cousins and relatives. Acting is a challenging journey but it is not so stressful. I’m happy finding the next audition, role etc but these people getting married, having kids, getting a green card, houses and posting on FB. Then they keep sending the photos to my parents and they start worrying and becoming disillusioned by the comparisons. Then you start feeling the pressure of your parents not being proud of you. I can’t show immediate results in this field. If I do a masters in USA I can get a job and then it’s a tangible asset. But in acting there is nothing to really show I’m better off than 3 years ago. I used to call and tell my cousins not to have kids because it would be a stress for me. It takes a while for the parents to understand that your kid has a different journey. When that stops then there is a . If people are watching this, please stop getting green cards and putting up photos of your babies online. It’s making life difficult for actors.

Life Is beautiful
Someone saw me in a theatre play and then auditioned for Life is Beautiful. They said I look like a Jubilee Hills batch, billionaire face. I said I’m proper B phase guys please come and have a look. They said Shekhar garu feels you are like that. Me and Vijay auditioned together for it and they said the same to both of us. We were looking at it and thinking what! They are calling us rich. Initially we said no then but somehow we liked Shekhar sir’s work, then the pressure of the family. Then I thought I’ll learn how to be on set and understand film making. Sukumar garu also. I thought if we learn film making and storytelling from them we will be better. Once I got that knowledge I thought I should wait for a good story. My aim originally was to be a lead. So then I thought I should focus on other things. Luckily YouTube happened to me. I got offers like supporting parts after that but there wasn’t much to do with the character so I thought why go to set and then feel I should be better as the lead. I don’t do this for money, it’s my childhood dream. Unless it excites and motivates me I feel I can’t give a 100 percent.

Mumbai life and struggles
Even before Life is Beautiful I was in Mumbai. From college I went to a job and then left it and went to Bombay for theatre because I knew the base for theatre was good there. But even there I did backstage for 6 months because they don’t immediately give acting opportunities. Then there’s Bombay auditions. There’s a lot of cinema kashtalu that you see in films but once you are there you experience it and find out it’s really true. Finding a place to stay, paying bills. It’s cut throat in terms of money in Bombay to survive. I couldn’t survive. I needed 4-5 day jobs to make money and had to parallelly do auditions. Bombay taught me how to chase your dreams and make money doing other jobs. I’ve done a lot of things. Those are my favourite memories. On 1 day I came across something about Deepika Padukone eating quinoa. I googled it and found that it’s the rich peoples brown rice. Incidentally a week after that I got a call saying I’m manufacturing quinoa and we are trying to sell it in Bombay so can you help us get orders. I said ok. I made a list of all the restaurants in South Bombay and then I used to go to them and say, “I’ll have a quinoa burger.” Then I thought I’ll say do you know Deepika eats quinoa and then do an initial pitch. Then I’d get the company guy to call this guy. That’s how we started selling to 20 restaurants. That’s how I used creativity.

Then there were these Astrology fairs in malls. People look into a crystal ball and see your future. They need a host to engage the customers so I would go host. I would hate it. I didn’t understand why people were coming to this but it was good money and I needed it. Then I did voiceovers; when you dial a company and you get the instructions to press 1 for English, etc. they need someone fluent in Hindi and English and has a good voice. I went to some dubbing studio, and they said I have a good voice so I used to do jingles. Auditioning was the toughest part. In Bombay it’s the only way, unless your father is a movie person. During day time I’d do this and work evenings, then the rhythm set. Auditions don’t have a system. There’s an established process for IIT. There’s nothing like that, there wasn’t back then. Now there’s more casting directors etc. In Andheri, you stand outside production houses and leave your photo and give your details. No matter who calls after that you feel like maybe Karan Johar or Yash Raj is calling. But till now it’s only credit card calls and bill payments. But that hope is very important. That’s what makes us get up and go to the next audition.

In Bombay they don’t give houses to actors or bachelors. Then I said I’m a software engineer who’s married with 2 kids. Subletting is another thing. I started with PG. Suppose there’s a 2bhk. They’ll put 4 beds in each room and charge 20-10k each. I’m 1 of those 8 so I din’t know this subletting system. I took the place from Hameed. Every day I’d see new guys in the room. 1 day a new guy came and asked who are you? Who is Hameed? Hameed got it on rent from another guy who actually took it from another guy etc. PG life is a film by itself. Hunting for a home in Bombay, basic necessities, so many other things we take for granted here but after going there, to have a house and 3 times food is so hard. My parents were so stressed that I studied so much, did a job in London and is it necessary that I struggle like this. Even I used to feel sometimes - is this going to change? I would have doubts. Somehow in those moments I found people who believed in my skill set. They’d say if you dint have it we wouldn’t believe in you. There was an amazing couple who kept me in their house. All you need is someone believing in you. But you shouldn’t expect it. That whole dream collapses as soon as you don’t believe in yourself. Touch wood it never happened to me. I knew working hard and improving myself I knew I’d do it.

AIB and Youtube happened
Even in auditions you come across people that don’t know what they are doing themselves. 1 day I was telling the story to my friends and at the same time there was a Canvas Laugh Parade a competition. They said I should go tell the stories there instead of to them. I thought, “ya,” and registered for that event. We had a 5-6 minute slot. I was talking about the owner of my house. That’s the first time in my life when I realised that your tragedy is people’s comedy. I didn’t know people would find it so funny. The winner got to perform in an actual comedy show on a Saturday night 10.30 show. I found out that AIB was performing for 30 minutes at the same event. I got rattled and told the organiser I was just doing time-pass and this is too much but he said no no. Then the team of AIB spoke to me backstage. I do impressions of singers and celebrities so I did that for them. They laughed and asked me to come to their office the next day. I joined them as a writer the next day. Then we got a brief to write for a roast that was being hosted by Karan Johan. I started with that. From there started writing for YouTube comedy videos and then acting started. We did Honest Weddings which was the first big viral video. This was in 2014-15 before JIO. 15 million is big back then. We were over the moon with the response. Then the casting directors who wouldn’t even let me into their offices would start calling me for ads and others. Then people started thinking I was good online. We went for a show in Bangkok and even there people would recognise me. That’s when I realised that internet has a massive reach; I felt even though till then we were only concentrating on cinema, this is also big. There’s also no box-office pressure. In 10-15 minutes you can play many characters. Then on the internet there was perception that I was doing well. Then the Engineering series happened; there was a climax monologue. We didn’t know where it would go. As soon as we did it in 2017 May. On the day itself it went viral phenomenally. In WhatsApp etc. there were videos being shared. Even in my uncles group they sent it to my dad. My dad called me and asked what did I do that they are sending WhatsApp videos of me. I was like dad watch it, it’s really good. Lots of people started to notice me then. I also got to a point of what next? Even people from here were calling me. Correctly then Swaroop RSJ messaged me on FB and he told me about ASSA. I was wondering how to transition from YouTube to film. Somehow came to a point where the transition to cinema came in the way of ASSA.

Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya
How it happened was I was in Kashmir for a month. Swaroop had messaged me and thought I didn’t like the idea. Then when I got down I saw it and called him. In my mind agent is like set in Bangkok or Malaysia but then when I spoke to him he said Nellore. FBI Nellore! I started laughing and then asked him to send the synopsis. He then narrated and I was totally taken by the detective character. If I try to do lover boy roles it might be different. By then I was writing so I said I’ll join you as a writer and moved to Hyderabad. Then luckily our combination synced and we worked on it for 6-8months. Anywhere in Jubilee Hills, all the places with internet WiFi and no customers, we were there. Where ever there is bad coffee, it would be our place. Around 11.30 we would go to hotel coffee shops. All the rich people go there. On the first day Swaroop was very worried and I said it’s ok. When the waiter came I said Rm 611 and he went away. We would be there working from 11.30 to 3.30-4 in the night.

ASSA’s best memories were sitting with him during the writing. I would act and show while we were there. He finds it very embarrassing; he’d be like everyone is watching. You know the character in ASSA is eccentric and quirky. We discovered a lot during that process. We had to get the thriller format right because with Netflix and Amazon everyone is very smart. How do we reveal with screenplay so the story is still interesting? How do we maintain thrill and humour? This process took 8-10 months. Then we were 90 percent satisfied and thought if we pitch then the producer would say great story but let’s take this hero or this director. We thought no matter what the producer says it has to be us as a team. Within 1 hour of narrating the producer said yes. I was like are you sure, we are talking about me! He said he saw my YouTube videos and had faith in us and then the journey started. In the end of 2018 it started. The process took 2 years. We were really excited that we did the script as we thought. Then I didn’t expect the reactions I got from people. They said it’s a detective story, who will see without a love story. We are all new comers. If a big production house comes and the marketing buzz was made it would be totally different but it didn’t happen in our case. We were stressed but then we released the trailer. It had an amazing response. Lot of parts from it became memes. Then we thought the audience is connected. But until the day before our producer was negotiating with many theatres to get 1 show. Everyone who saw the film said it’s good but we were disheartened by this response; only getting 1 show in multiplexes.

On the 20th there was a premier in US. At 3AM me and Swaroop were sitting together, sad. The theatre owner from San Fran called and said, “Bro the audience are ecstatic. They are laughing and clapping.” I was like sir are you talking about the right film because a couple of other films released on the same day. He said, “ya, Agent something that you guys sent. Everyone gave stand ovation.” I was like are you sure? Sometimes people get up and leave; I hope it’s not that. He’s like no! They tweeted about it. In Prasads the opening reaction was great. By evening show everything changed. Don’t know the exact numbers but 180 shows got added at the end of first day. Within 24 hours our emotions went from 1 side to another. It was so stressful to work 2 years, have a good product and then people still not believing in you. And then it just changed. We were told from a theatre that by the second show they’ll take out our film. In the same theatre it ran for 50 days. I don’t feel vindicated but I’m saying that sometimes the audience can do magic. We had no marketing budgets, no big studio support, no industry bigwigs saying watch it, no songs, no love track, nothing commercial. Even then the cinema got such a response. In prime when it released it felt like another release. So many places we couldn’t release because of restrictions so we could reach so many more through this. Sometimes if the audience decides they like it they like it.

As long as there is internet people will be able to see this. We were reading the comments after prime release. In fact I’ve noticed that even from other states and industries there’s people recognising it and messaging us. Even from Tamil, Bengal; it’s become like a world cinema. It’s a big advantage. This whole experience, right from the day I got the message from Swaroop to this point I can’t ever forget these 2-2.5 years.

Acid character in Chhichhore
I was shooting in Nellore for ASSA. The same casting director from Dangal I got a message from Dangal’s director. After watching it I wanted to debut with this director, I even said it to my mother. I want to work with him ane feeling. She said it’ll happen chudu. He said do the audition for the director. Then I was like oh damn! The pressure! Somehow I went and gave the audition. Actually he wanted Nivin Pauly. Then he saw my audition and said he looks different. The casting director said it’s Nivin Polli. The director said the audition is very good and they thought I was him. I didn’t hear back from them for 3-4 months. When they were doing corporate videos, a writer showed one of my videos to Nitesh. He said Nivin Pauly but then realised it’s he. He said I’d be good for ACID and they called for a second round of audition. Then I got a call that Nitesh sir wanted to meet. When we met he hugged me and said you are on for the film. I asked him what it’s about and he said it’s set in IIT Bombay. I was like oh no! My dad used to put posters on the wall saying ‘Target IIT Bombay’. Then I thought of how life came full circle. It was a surreal moment. He explained the character then. I thought wow this is a perfect angry frustrated angst engineer character that would be a great follow up after ASSA. And I had the confidence in the director. He narrated shot by shot for 3 hours. It’s a film about 6 characters, not about 1. So for me I used to get parts in Hindi films but there were no meaty parts so I felt this is that story and part I was waiting for where the story has equal importance and arc for all characters. With that gut feel I started working on it. It was a lot of fun. After Dangal there would be expectations so we were all very nervous. In ACID’s part there were many censorable parts so I was wondering how much was left in the film. Even till the premiere I didn’t see. ACID and Sexsa, people were taking home the characters and identifying with them that there was someone like that in their group. It was an extremely thrilling and satisfying experience.

Current projects
Now I’m doing Vyjayanthi movies; it’s the same team of Mahanati. I’m waiting for them to formally announce. It’s an out and out comedy from start to finish. I got a lot of feedback about the humour of the character in ASSA but there’s a thrill factor and seriousness to it. When I heard this I thought it’ll be good to do a lighter note. After that there’s 2-3 projects but I think they should announce; in Telugu and Hindi. Right now I’m listening to all stories whichever industry.

How is your dad reacting to your success?
From Chichore’s 150 crores, probably my parents contributed 100 crores. They go every day. Once with this group, that group. My dad did more screenings for it than the film team. He’s in the ‘Ma abbai’ zone. For me box-office is not the motivating factor. I’m happy for them. Their mental stress is gone. In the film industry the numbers are our H1B, green card; according to our industry parameters. Atleast they are happy. I’m always happy even otherwise. Even with or without these 2 films’ success my process would’ve been the same. Of course I’m happy to have the success because now my parents have some answers when the relatives ask. My dad is like ‘Teyyara bandi, tippera meesam!’ He’s in that zone.

I was telling my parents also. They got into a phase where they decided that he’s married to work. Some lives are like that. Sometimes we have to make those choices. During my Bombay struggle I would’ve had to do some things for money for wife or girlfriend. Then I only had my bills. With marriage it’s double responsibility. Not just finances but also responsibilities. When we have a journey like this, its unnecessarily complicating things. I can’t take that responsibility. When you have the passion on an art form, we have to make some sacrifices. IITians or entrepreneurs have a checklist; I’ve already accepted that their checklist won’t be mine. My journey or goal reminds me of the line in Rang de basanti ‘meri dulhan to azadi hai!’ Meri dulhan cinema hai.

Any suggestions to writers and actors who are struggling to get chances?
I think in showbiz even if it’s an actor, director or writer, the process is same.. Hit or not. Successful or not. The process is the same. These results are not in our control. ASSA or Chichore, we shouldn’t wait for what is not in our control. Whoever is out there, the only thing we can do is improve our skill. If it takes 1.5 years, it might take 6 months or 6 years. If someone thinks 1 month I’ll write and shoot in 15 days instead of 50. If the process is cheated then maybe the results won’t be there. You shouldn’t compromise on quality. We should think we did good work when we sleep. Apart from that even I don’t know why some are successful and some are not. I don’t know why some get success and some don’t. Unless we are totally merit based, then some can be successful even coming from outside. Those cases are less. In this generation there are few. Once that list expands then it’ll be merit based and democratic. I’m hopeful it’ll happen. Just like in elections where you choose your leader and party. The Rs.150 is a button to vote for that actor, singer, director, etc. The producer gets the message. Then the producer will go put money in them because they know the audience wants to see these people. If he’s getting profit then he’ll also put money on the new talent. Everything is in the hands of the audience. They only look for good stories.

ASSA had very rich look though shot in a minimal budget. What’s the secret?
Even ASSA doesn’t look like shoestring budget. That’s the cinematographer’s magic. We used the mother house, we changed the interiors and used it for a police station. Actually the cinematographer’s is also a funny story. About 10 years ago he said he’ll take photos, don’t need to pay and we’ll use for portfolio. At that point he said I want to be a cinematographer. We weren’t in touch after that but when me and Swaroop were scripting I found him on FB and messaged him. Do you remember you said you wanted to do cinematography. He said he’s learning it in Prague Film School. I was very happy that he was still on the path that he dreamed of a decade ago. I asked him when do u graduate? He said next month. I said please come and join us. We showed the producer his show reel. It’s his debut film as well. There was something about him when we did a shoot next to a rubbish bin 10 years ago. Today he’s shooting so many films. I’m very happy for him.

Q & As:
Harish Shankar (Gaddalakonda Ganesh)
Nani(Gang Leader)
Adivi Sesh (Evaru)

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