You are doing good in Hindi. Normally, one comes down South when the going is not good in Bollywood. What was the main reason for you accepting a Telugu film?
I was always getting offers from Telugu and Tamil. Also, since my surname is Rao, people assume that I am a Telugu girl. But all along, I was very clear that I would first get a strong foothold in Hindi before I ventured elsewhere. This year, when I was offered Athithi, I felt elated that in an otherwise male-dominated Telugu industry, there was a good character for an actress. Naturally, at this point in my career, it was important for me to ensure that it was the best offer. Then there was Mahesh, the current heartthrob of the Telugu industry from the Padmalaya family. Incidentally, the film is also produced by the Padmalaya Banner. I was really happy when I heard the script and about my role in it. Though I play a Telugu girl from Hyderabad, the character has different layers to it which attracted me to play her. There is this imaginary bit when I got to do Matrix-like stunts. Since itís a south film, there were bound to be elaborately shot glamour songs. There was a whole range of emotions which I got to show as it was a love story, including doing some good comedy. I got to work with some leading Telugu comedians such as Brahmanandam, Venu Madhav and Sunil. The climax especially is really nice as it shows the complete transformation of my character. So I think waiting for the right role has paid off. The first day collection of the film is apparently Rs 6 crore 50 lakh, which is really huge for any film. I am happy that I have been accepted in Telugu and it has been a very satisfying experience.
How did the offer come about? How long did you take to decide to say yes?
I got the offer from Manjula from Padmalya. In fact, I had met three years ago when she came along to offer a Telugu film then. But due to my Hindi commitments, I couldnít give her dates. I was a little ignorant too at that time as to how the Telugu industry functioned, who the big actors were. I didnít know how popular or big Mahesh was in south. It was sheer coincidence that I was given a DVD by a producer here who wanted to remake one of Maheshís hit films in Hindi and around the same time, I got a call from Padmalaya. I was spellbound when I saw his action and I told my family that I must work with such a brilliant actor. Though at that point, I didnít realise, I was becoming a part of one of the biggest productions of south. I must say, I have really learnt a lot from Mahesh.
Was the language or working in Telugu a matter of concern?
Telugu is not my mother tongue. I actually come from the south of Karnataka. So I had to work that bit more as I wanted to understand what I was saying before I did the lip sync. I used sit with assistant directors and ask the meaning of each word as it was important for me to know the meaning of each word I was saying. Given the response I have got and the fact that people are convinced that I am a Telugu girl, makes me feel elated.
Mahesh is a leading star in the Telugu industry. How did you find the experience of working with a top star from here?
He is one of the biggest actors and the leading stars in the Telugu industry today. One of the most amazing things about him that I think all actors should embody is the fact that he was very particular that I looked good, that I did a good job. Especially during the climax, he constantly told me that I had a lot of scope of performance there and that I had to put in my best. He was also very involved and aware of how he wanted to present his heroine. And that I think was not selfish attitude. Mahesh has a tremendous screen presence and a reputation of dominating his heroines given his good looks and performance. For me, it came both as a surprise and an inspiration that an actor of his standard and of his calibre was also giving importance to his heroine.
It is said you are friends with Namrata and that she played a crucial role in making you accept the film. How was it with her around during shooting or socialising in Hyderabad?
Namrata Shirodkar is a very talented actress and Maheshí wife. When I was shooting with them, I had the advantage of her expereince with me as she gave a lot suggestions from make-up to presentation to costumes, as she was my senior. I imbibed a lot from her expereince and she went out of her way to ensure our styling was fantastic. She really neednít have done that but she took the extra effort to keep an eye on everything to ensure that the production was going well and that was really nice of her!
Whatís the one difference between Telugu and Hindi that you have found, in terms of work ethics or ambience?
The only radical difference that I found between the Telugu industry and Bollywood was that they were very successful in taking their first shot of the day at 8 am in the morning, which we at Bollywood should really learn from. Also, they have the best technicians down south. Bollywood has always hired south technicians to do cameram and lighting. I must mention my cinematographer Sameer Reddy who gave quality work in very little time.
Anything that you had tried in terms of your look in the film?
I had to look like a regular girl from Hyderabad in this film. The songs of course were glamourous. Then I had this fictitious character where I did some Matrix action, so I had to look like that, which was novel to me. Otherwise, we tried to give this girl a regular look, as a girl next door in Hyderabad. So we decided to pick up the clothes from the regular malls like Hyderabad Central and other outlets. We wanted the girls sitting in the theatre to probably wear something like what I was wearing in the film, so there is this instant connection.
One incident that will always remain with you vis-ŗ-vis Athithi, both in terms of shooting or during the shoot?
One thing I would like to fondly mention is that I play an art student in the film and when I mentioned the same to Hussain saab, he was very happy to know that I was doing a Telugu film. He has connections in Hyderabad, as his wife is from there and he has his very own famous gallery called Cinema Ghar. There is this sequence where we had to shoot in a gallery and Hussain saab allowed us to shoot there and said everything was on the house for the entire unit during the shoot. So I am really really thankful and grateful to Hussain saab for being big enough to allow us to shoot there.
What to you is the most difficult bit when it comes to acting in a film of a different language?
I think the most difficult part for me was the whole process of speaking a language that I did not understand at all. Although I knew what I was saying, I did not understand the exact pattern of the words I was saying. I havenít been formally trained as an actress, so most of my responses are highly dependent on the actor opposite me. For me to react to lines in a language that was alien to me, synchronising the responses and remembering my lines was all very challenging. I had to put in a little bit of extra effort here. But it was fun as it was a bit of a different experience for me.
How was it working with director Surender Reddy?
What I liked about him is that he has presented a known formula in a very stylised package. The action sequences and the way they had involved some techniques are very similar to Hollywood. The Telugu audiences internationally too have felt that some parts were just as in Hollywood, especially some stunts, action sequences, the treatment and the background music. When I watched the film, I could see the directorís work. Usually, if you arenít well-versed with film-making, you just see the hero and heroineís work. But here, you can see the cinematographerís input and the directorís input. I think that really helped the film.
Are you game to doing more films in Telugu? Are there more offers you are considering?
Right now, Athithi is one of the biggest and best films I have done. For me to do another Telugu film would mean that I should get something that is as good or at least similar to Athithi. So, I will take my own time. In any case, I donít rush while selecting my films.