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Interview: Naga Chaitanya on stepping into Bubba’s shoes as Balaraju for ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’

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Actor Naga Chaitanya opens up on what it means to work with Aamir Khan in his Hindi debut ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and how he handles the debacle of ‘Thank You’

Actor Naga Chaitanya opens up on what it means to work with Aamir Khan in his Hindi debut ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ and how he handles the debacle of ‘Thank You’

“You do not plan to work in an Aamir Khan film; it has to happen,” actor Naga Chaitanya had told this writer during an interview on the sidelines of his 2021 Telugu film Love Story. As his debut Hindi film Laal Singh Chaddha, headlined by Aamir Khan and directed by Advait Chandan, gears up for theatrical release on August 11, Chaitanya reiterates that some of his best films were not pre-meditated, be it his debut film Ye Maya Chesave, the Premam Telugu remake or Majili: “When I am recognised and get to work with filmmakers whose work I have grown up watching or whose work inspires me, it fills me with a lot of confidence. In the case of Laal Singh Chaddha, I was sceptical about venturing into Hindi cinema. My language is not perfect and there is already a lot of talent out there; I kept thinking how will I be accepted. I play a South Indian boy in a North Indian setting. That gave me the confidence to take that leap of faith.” 

In Bubba’s shoes

Laal Singh Chaddha is an adaptation of Forrest Gump; actor-screenwriter Atul Kulkarni had written the screenplay 14 years ago. During his recent visit to Hyderabad, Aamir Khan revealed that it took the team eight to 10 years to get the adaptation rights. Naga Chaitanya steps into the shoes of Bubba or Benjamin Buford Blue (played by Mykelti Williamson in the English film) who befriends Gump in the Army and dreams of starting a shrimp business back home: “I joined the Laal Singh Chaddha team when nearly 75% of the film was in place. When they called me, the friend’s character was defined as a South Indian. Depending on whether a Tamil or a Telugu actor enacts it, they planned to work on details such as his roots.” 

Naga Chaitanya as Balaraju in ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Chaitanya’s character named Balaraju Bodi hails from Bodipalayam in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh and meets Laal Singh during the Kargil war: “I found it beautiful that my character has some South Indian flavour in a North Indian setting. Unlike someone who grows up in the North, some South Indians might speak Hindi a little differently. The character has an accent and occasionally slips into Telugu.”

The actor had watched Forrest Gump as a child and remembers his mother listening to the soundtrack often. Chaitanya says, “The album cover was the iconic image of Tom Hanks seated on the bench, looking sideways.” He revisited the film after he got a call from Aamir’s office: “They weren’t sure if I would agree to play a brief part. Rewatching the film made me say yes. Balaraju might be on screen for 20 to 30 minutes but emotionally he influences a large part of Laal’s journey.”

Blank canvas

Naga Chaitanya on the sets of ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’

Naga Chaitanya on the sets of ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’

Starting on a blank canvas in Hindi cinema, 12 years after his debut in Telugu, is something Chaitanya was game for: “When I look back at my work, there are times when I am embarrassed; that is how I have grown as an actor. I have had successes and failures and they have taught me immensely. This film will give me tremendous exposure and I am happy to present myself to a larger audience at this stage of my career.”

However, there was initial nervousness. He received a copy of the script six months ahead of filming. The pre-production workshops and conversations with Advait, Aamir and others helped him shed inhibitions and be clear about his character: “On set, I did not have to worry about getting my lines right. It flowed easily. We had discussed everything including costumes to locations and specific scene breakdowns.”

Each day, they would take stock of the day’s footage, which Chaitanya says is rare in most film units. “Normally directors would not show us the footage till the film is over. But watching the day’s footage helped me observe where I needed to improve and the following day would be better.” Given a chance, he would love to work with such precision and planning for his future films.

Naga Chaitanya with Aamir Khan

Naga Chaitanya with Aamir Khan

For his Hindi debut, he is glad that Aamir Khan will be doing the heavy lifting as far as box office pressure is concerned: “I am fortunate that Aamir is taking that responsibility. I am sure there is huge pressure on him, but who better than Aamir to take it on?”

Talking about box office reception, broach the topic of his new Telugu film Thank You which opened recently to a cold reception and Chaitanya disarmingly concedes, “Frankly it has been shocking and scary. I haven’t had much time to process it but as far as I can see, there were some flaws in the writing, the way we packaged the film and how my character turned out. We have to accept that the audience is comfortable watching certain kinds of films on OTT. Unless there is phenomenal talk from the morning show on day one, people do not visit the theatres. We learn and move on.”

Theatrical and digital formats

The recent Telugu film Thank You was his second collaboration with director Vikram Kumar after Manam. The duo have also been working together for Dhootha, a web series for Amazon Prime Video: “I loved the long-form of storytelling with room to showcase different layers of a character. I had always wanted to play a part with grey shades and was able to do that. As an actor, I crave maximum exposure and I am keen to explore both theatrical and digital formats.”

Ask Chaitanya how he would urge someone who has grown up watching Forrest Gump to watch Laal Singh Chaddha and he says, “Just watch it. The framework is the same but the events in the adaptation are true to Indian culture. You might walk into the theatre being aware of Forrest Gump but you won’t leave the hall thinking only of the original. I am confident that India will connect to Laal Singh the way America connected to Gump. I would rather not debate now, one has to watch it to understand.”

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