tv & movies

Priyadarshi: The collective trauma of the pandemic got to me

Actor Priyadarshi talks about treading a dark zone in Telugu web series ‘In the Name of God’, the success of ‘Mail’ and ‘Jathi Ratnalu’ and working during the pandemic

Priyadarshi Pulikonda has so far appeared in comic or character roles that are generally amiable. Imagine him as a protagonist headlining a story of lust, greed and power. The Telugu web series In the Name of God (ING), which will stream on Aha from June 18, will see him in a dark zone. The actor, who was seen in indie film Mail and the box office hit Jathi Ratnalu earlier this year, discusses his new web series and why he likes to takes up both mainstream and offbeat projects.

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Edited excerpts from the interview:

Did you enjoy exploring a darker character in ING?

It was fun to portray a dark character like Aadi. I wanted to be part of a story that looks at the greed and power dynamics in society. When Vidya [director Vidyasaagar Muthukumar] came up with this, I thought it was time to push myself into this zone, away from the amiable characters I am known for. The digital space gives us scope to push the bar. Gods of Dharmapuri (web series on Zee5) whetted viewers’ appetite for darker Telugu stories. Loser (the sports series) also gave me the confidence to do something new.

Vidyasaagar mentioned that your voice would suit a dark character. Has any director told you that before?

Oh, did he? This is the first time I’ve heard such a comment. When Aha approached me, I wondered if the story had been pitched to other actors like Satya Dev and rejected [laughs]. I asked Vidya if he really wanted to cast me in this role. He explained that it would add to the shock value if someone like me picks up a dagger or a gun and kills people. We did a trial shoot for a couple of days and then we were game. He and the series showrunner Ranga guided me.

So who is Aadi?

Priyadarshi in a scene from ‘In the Name of God’  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He is a small-town guy wanting to make it big. There’s a grey side to him. He tries to not give in to love and lust but ends up going down that path. His lust for a woman takes him to a point of no return.

We also wanted to humanise Aadi and show his broken relationship with his father. This is an area that isn’t explored enough in mainstream Telugu cinema. Troubled relationships have a deep impact on a character.

You were part of four well-received films since January 2021 — Jathi Ratnalu, Naandhi, A1 Express and Mail. Does it all feel surreal, in the context of life pausing again due to the second wave of COVID-19?

I’ve been fortunate to have theatrical releases during the pandemic. Mail, despite being a digital release, was received widely and was second only to Colour Photo on Aha. All these films were pitched to me in 2019. Resuming shooting and dubbing long after that meant having to start afresh and relive the emotions.

Was it tough to get into that zone after the lockdown-induced gap?

There were occasions when it would take me a few minutes to get into the mood of the character, especially while dubbing. I believe 50% of acting happens on set, the rest happens at the dubbing studio. I would revisit dialogues if I wasn’t convinced. There’s a line in the trailer of ING on the difference between Satan and God. I had done multiple versions before I figured out what would be apt for Aadi’s character.

You dubbed for it when the second wave began to peak. How tough was it to take your mind off the gloom and focus on work?

The collective trauma got to me. I lost a few people in close circles. I had to push to a point where I had to break away from what was happening, look at the footage and get into character. The minute I stepped out of the dubbing studio, reality would hit me.

Do you consciously strive to do both mainstream and indie projects?

I do. I make myself accessible to writers and directors who want to pitch offbeat stories. Mallesham and Mail are among the films that have worked for me in this space. I am equally game for films like Radhe Shyam where I can be in the company of Prabhas anna, Pooja [Hegde], Murali Sharma, Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar. Doing comedy in such a unit is also challenging. I try to use the visibility I get through big projects to do a few indie films.

Jathi Ratnalu was overwhelmingly received in theatres but evoked mixed response on OTT. Did the film work better as a collective viewing experience?

I think so. Though I was visiting theatres across the Telugu states and the USA to promote the film, I couldn’t watch it entirely with the audience. Later when I watched it at home, it felt comparatively subdued. When Nagi [producer Nag Ashwin] asked us if he should go for a direct OTT release, most of us felt it would work for a theatrical experience where viewers could laugh together. I’m glad he held on; the film helped get viewers back into the cinema halls. When Naveen Polishetty and I visited a theatre in California, the owner came up to us and said she paid staff salaries thanks to the revenue the film had brought in. Even in cities like Vijayawada and Vizag, there’s very little entertainment outside of cinema. Once theatres reopen, films that merit collective viewing will fare well.

After the initial laughs, there were multiple interpretations of Jathi Ratnalu as a social satire and black comedy. What were the conversations while filming?

Maybe Anudeep [the director] intended it to be a social satire, but he never told us that. In his trademark style, he would say ‘life okka zindagi aipoyindi mama (life has turned into zindagi)’ and walk away, leaving us in splits. We wondered if all the fun we were having on set would translate to comedy on screen. After Pelli Choopulu, I saw my mom laughing so much for this film. My dad mentioned that there was a pathos element; my wife pointed at the poster that showed the media interviewing our effigies and drew parallels to the current socio-political scenario. Anudeep never discussed it with us, but these subtexts were there.

What’s next?

I am waiting for Gurthunda Seethakaalam and Radhe Shyam to release in theatres. I’m also looking forward to a film with Sharwanand and Vennela Kishore. The new season of Loser 2 will begin, and a few other projects are in consideration.

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