Naga Chaitanya on 'Laal Singh Chaddha', Samantha and more

Naga Chaitanya is turning a new leaf in both his professional and personal lives. One of those he talks about excitedly, with the enthusiasm of a rank newcomer. He is all praise for Aamir Khan and his debut Hindi film Laal Singh Chaddha (LSC). But when you ask him about his recent separation from Samantha and all the speculation and conjecture around their split, he regrets being under the spotlight. But, he’s a thorough professional and in an exclusive chat with ETimes, he reveals everything there is to know about his new film and his preference to keep his personal life protected. Read on…

Laal Singh Chaddha is going to be your big debut in Hindi cinema. How excited are you about the prospects of the film?
I know the content inside out and I really know that the film will touch hearts all over. I am also nervous because it’s my first Hindi film. I am curious to see how and if I’ll be accepted. I want to see if the audience likes me or doesn’t like me. It’s almost like a fresh start in my career. It’s “take two”. Starting all over again with an all-new audience. I just can’t wait for August 11.

You’ve revealed in the past that Aamir Khan personally called you to offer the role in LSC. Did that put any pressure on you?
When I first got to know that Aamir sir was going to call, I was almost a nervous wreck. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what I should look like. There were so many emotions running inside all at once. And then suddenly, I was in front of him on a video call. When he was talking to me he was being so casual, being humble. His warmth transferred onto me and it kept me at ease. Aamir has that power of keeping people at ease, putting away that superstar aura. He behaves just like any other person in the room. I got comfortable with him immediately and within a week I went down and met him in person.

I have grown up watching so much of Aamir sir’s work, it’s inspired me in so many ways, I’ve learnt so much from it. When you finally get to work with such people, it’s a huge vote of confidence for you personally. You want validation from the people who you’ve learnt from. Finally when you get to collaborate with them and they give you inputs on what you’re doing right and what you’re not it means a lot. It stays with you forever. I have come out of Laal Singh Chadha so much more confident. I’m grateful for the experience.

They say, you should never meet your idols.
It happens when some people are utterly disappointed after meeting a person they had idolised. But for me, I am so happy that I met Aamir sir.

Your character in LSC is based on the character essayed by Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. How did you prepare for such a fascinating character with so much emotional and physical drama?
Just like in the original, Bubba and Forrest meet in the army and Bala and Laal, in our film, do the same, but our meeting happens during the Kargil war. We did a lot of training before we got into the shoot. The most extensive part of the training were the workshops and the reading sessions. I had received the script about six months in advance. Our director Advait (Chandan) took me through the lines because my Hindi wasn’t too good. Fortunately for me, the film required a Telugu boy who can speak Hindi. So, even if my Hindi slipped into a Telugu accent it was exactly what was required. They wanted me to drop a few Telugu words here and there. That was part of my character.

When it came to the look of my character, that’s something that Aamir sir was shadowing constantly, all throughout the months of prep. I had to wear a mouth-piece to make my jaw look a little different, which will be visible in the movie. That took some time to crack. There were also 2-3 look changes that my character goes through in the film. We also had 3-4 days of training in the Army camp which took place in Srinagar. While the training was intense, I loved the process, because I got to spend time with these people. With Aamir sir, I always wanted to be next to him and observe what his process is. Advait and the entire direction team became close friends.

Was the language barrier the reason why you didn’t make a foray into Hindi films for so long?
My Hindi has never been perfect. I grew up in Chennai and then shifted to Hyderabad. So Tamil and Telugu are the languages that come most naturally to me, we speak them at home as well. Hindi was always a little far away. Whenever I got a call for a Hindi film, I was always a little skeptical as to how I would fit in that texture and canvas. I always wanted to be presented to the Hindi audience through someone else. Like, in Laal Singh Chaddha, I am going to be next to Aamir sir. I always wanted that kind of guidance for my first Hindi film. Playing the lead wasn’t something I was too concerned about, but I wanted to play the right character in my first Hindi film. I can’t really try that in Telugu cinema. Here, what happens is everyone, including the fans and filmmakers, expect a certain kind of cinema from me. That’s because there’s already a preconceived impression since we come from a film family, that’s been making a certain kind of cinema. There’s a lot of expectation over here but I am coming there and presenting myself to a new audience so I can truly freak out. I can’t do that in Hyderabad.

Are you wiping the slate clean and in doing so, how will your Telugu fans react to the creative risk?
I am wiping the slate clean. I am not the hero or the main character. I am playing a supporting character who contributes to the progress of the film. When the fans know that you’re doing a special character, their mindset automatically changes. They come into the theatre with an open mind to accept whatever you’re going to present. The Telugu audience will hopefully come from a more accepting space. The Hindi audience doesn’t know me too well to have any expectations. They’re going to form an impression based on this film.

During your interviews for Thank You, your co-star Rashii Khanna revealed that your screen time for an entire day was just four minutes. That sounds insane for a young film star based in 2022. Are you totally detached and don’t you want to know what the world is talking about?
Of course I want to know the world’s opinion and I want to know what’s happening in the world. But that doesn’t mean I get through Instagram or Twitter. During the pandemic, sitting at home, we all spent a couple of years thinking. When the pandemic started I didn’t know what to do with myself. I used to sit in front of the computer or sit on my phone and keep swiping all day long. I used to spend all day on social media and at the end of the day I used to feel mentally drained. And if I reflect on that today, I didn’t gain anything from being on Instagram and Twitter all day. I realised there’s so much false projection on social media as well. There’s so much for a person to get carried away with, too. The entire system is based on people projecting themselves. Yes, there’s a lot of genuinity as well, but there’s more of that projection. It can consume you and put you in the wrong direction.

Everyone depends on the internet for their daily fill of information. Don’t you?
I know what my interests are and what hobbies I want to pursue. I don’t need to be on social media to gather that relevant information. I can directly go to a relevant website and read about what I want. I can refer to an article on the subject. I wanted to detach myself from things that consume me but don’t give me any benefit in return. I am on social media during film releases and I am reading twitter comments and reviews during the one month window of before and after the release of my films. But after that I cut-off from it. I just like to stay in my zone with the films and characters I’m doing and focusing on people around these pursuits. I have a select few hobbies and I just want to go online to get information on them.

Surely you’ll agree that there are also advantages to being on social media. Your peers have often spoken about how social media has given them direct access to their fans.
Our fans reach out to us through social media, it gives us direct access to them. As I said, I consciously want to engage and listen to what the fans are saying during the one month of release, but consuming too much data can also throw you off. It can send you down a spiral. Sometimes, when you’re in the process of making a film or selecting a script and you’re listening to too many opinions, it can throw your balance off. One should dedicate time to engage with that data and then switch off and let that data marinate in your head to help you form your opinions and set your pose straight. I prefer having a healthy distance from the online world.

Social media is also the place where your personal life can be dissected, quite openly. Does that frustrate you?
It is frustrating. I am here as an actor and I want my professional life to do the talking. I don’t want my personal life to be the topic of discussion. We all have a personal space and there’s a reason why it’s called ‘personal’. Unfortunately, it’s a part of this job where your personal space also becomes a narrative. That’s the baggage that this job carries. It’s my responsibility to be affected by it or not. Every celebrity needs to take that call, actually. It does become frustrating that my personal life makes for a bigger headline than my professional achievements. But I guess, I just need to keep working harder on my profession. The personal life bits will come and go.

Is that why you’ve chosen to stay silent on your separation from Samantha?
Whatever both of us wanted to say, we both put out a statement regarding that. That’s what I have always done with my personal life anyway. Things that I feel are crucial to be shared and put out, I do inform the media about it, whether it’s good or bad. I come out, tell the people about it through a statement and that’s it. In our case, Samantha has moved on, I’ve moved on and I don’t feel the need to inform the world about it, more than that.

My friends, family and the people who matter, they all know. And you see, news replaces news. All the speculation and conjecture is all very temporary. The more I react to it, the more news it will make. So I just stay chill about it, let it happen and it will all fade away hopefully.

Your previous releases like Love Story with Sai Pallavi and Bangarraju with your father Nagarjuna turned out to be successful, but your recent release Thank You, where you shouldered the star responsibility alone, hasn’t done all too well. How have you reacted to the film’s reception?
Thank you has been an eye opener for me. I’ve learnt from the flaws of the film and I will make sure I don’t repeat those same mistakes in the future. But you know, times have also changed. Thank You is a film that I had signed four years back, before the pandemic. The audience, their perception and the way people look at cinema was so different back then. I feel the pandemic has brought about a shift in the audience. They’re now very clear about the kind of cinema they want to watch in theatres and the kind that they prefer to watch from the comfort of their homes. There’s no disrespect, but there’s just been a shift in their priorities. Today, if I make a soft, honest, love story, regardless of how well written or made it is, I would be worried about its reception in the theatres. Because the audiences are happy consuming that kind of content at home. Today, if I have to bring the audience to the theatre, I have to give them an ‘x’ factor promise that they’re going to enjoy and it’s going to be worth their money and time. It has to be an immersive experience that can only happen in a theatre. That’s been a huge learning for me from Thank You.

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