As an actor, my biggest takeaway from Kshanam has been, “less is more”: In Conversation with Actor, Writer and Director Adivi Sesh

Adivi Sesh is an actor, writer and director, popular for his Telugu films including Panjaa, Run Raja Run and Baahubali. His latest film Kshanam has taken the industry by storm,proving to be commercially successful and critically acclaimed as well. In a free-wheeling chat with MAM, Sesh talks about the kind of films he believes in, how Kshanam happened and many other things. Given below is the excerpt from the conversation.

Adivi Sesh 3You started off in films with “Karma: Do You Believe” which was also written and directed by you.How did that happen?

I didnt come from a film background. I wasnt sure if the audition process in India was fair or if I’d know how to navigate the industry. So, I ended up working on a script and rounding up finances from my friends and family instead. I had studied film by then. So, I went ahead and took the plunge with ‘Karma’.

In a period of 6 years or so you have already done nearly a dozen films or so including a few as writer/director. How has the journey been so far?

It’s been a five year journey. Just started my sixth year. I’ve seen some highs and lows and that has given me good perspective on how to approach film in general. It has taught me to be honest with my choices. I’m proud to say that the quality in my filmography has gotten better with time. I feel that 2014 was the beginning of a new approach to my career. That comes from having an honest approach to the kinds of stories I’ve heard and the characters I’ve played.

Very few actors turn to writing and/or direction so early on in their career but you have already been doing it. How do you balance all 3 functions & what do you enjoy the most (acting/writing/direction) & why?

I’m an actor first. Acting was my first passion as a child. I’ve always had a natural knack for telling stories, so I feel that’s where my passion for writing and filmmaking comes from. I have to admit that the script of ‘Kshanam‘ is something I’m quite happy with. In hindsight, there are a few points that I would make better but I feel its a piece that has given me immense credibility as a writer.

You have a good personal & professional rapport with director Sai Kiran Adivi (your cousin brother), any learnings from him that you picked up on the way to becoming a successful film personality?

Every decision I take is with the full knowledge of Sai Kiran Adivi. Interestingly, though we’re first cousins, our journey into film was on separate platforms. Our struggles were separate and so were our successes. Frankly, our taste in film is quite different as well. We actually ended up bonding after we entered the movie business. Though we’re first cousins, I believe it is film that brought us together. While it was the formality of family before, it is the bond of brotherhood now. We live together.

Kshanam has already become a big success. How was the film conceived? What brought you & director Ravikanth Perepu together for it?

I once saw a little girl in a school uniform standing by the side of the road in Jubilee hills, she had her hand up in the air like she was asking for a ride to school. She would’ve been all of four years old. The prospect that she would get onto a stanger’s bike or car scared me. I immediately put her in my car, drove her to her school and ended up yelling at both the principal and her parents (over the phone) about the perils and dangers of letting a child go out onto the street alone like that. Funny thing is, it wasnt that they didnt feel responsible toward her. It was a lack of awareness. These were people who grew up in villages and that’s how they went to school their childhoods. This experience served as the catalyst for the story. Once I had the idea for the story in place, I ended up calling a talented young friend of mine to direct, Ravikanth. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in common sense and practicality. That approach greatly benefited our budget and our story. He’s a real find.

Adivi Sesh Kshanam

Telugu Cinema is known for grand productions & even one of the producers of Kshanam (PVP Cinema) has been making big films so far. So did you both manage to make Kshanam on such a controlled & tight budget and yet manage such a good output?

Telugu cinema has a wide variety of film. Unfortunately, concept cinema hasnt shone as brightly as it could have for Telugu. However, I’m proud to say that I’ve seen some really good stuff come out, especially in the last couple of years. I was a part of Run Raja Run and the lead in Ladies & Gentlemen, both concept films. I really liked the success of ‘Bhale Manchi Roju’ for example. Its good times now. As far as ‘Kshanam’ goes, being able to pull of the film in such a tight budget was the result a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of sacrifices. Planning was critical. We had reservations about Telugu audiences accepting this kind of a genre because we couldn’t find references of past hits. So, it made sense that we were working with such a small budget. We literally couldn’t find a modern reference point when we were trying to gauge the possible success of ‘Kshanam’. We’d seen horror comedies, or thriller comedies but ‘Suspense Dramas’ are an entirely different segment. I’d last seen such films in the 80s in Telugu – a golden era for creativity.

What according to you is the USP of Kshanam? Why do you think the film has connected so well with the audience as well as the critics?

Every film at the outset is a risk. I think that we trusted ourselves to be honest when we told our story and that is ultimately what connected with the audience. Even as an actor, I didn’t aspire to be heroic in the film. It was ok for me to fall, be fragile and vulnerable. It was ok for me to have flaws. These choices lend a sense of credibility to the entire film. Kshanam’s USP lies in it being a genuinely fresh concept. It helps that we didn’t “copy” the film from anywhere.

As an actor you probably got a lot of recognition from Baahubali, but Kshanam is perhaps your first success as a lead actor. How do you look back on your learning curve as an actor so far? How has Kshanam helped you as an actor?

I’ve had a few successes as a lead, last year’s ‘Dongaata’ for example. However, ‘Kshanam’ has changed the nature of my credibility as an actor. I think that has more to do with the kind of respect it got. As an actor, I feel Kshanam is my most natural performance yet but I feel like I’m miles away from what I originally intended my performance to be. As an actor, my biggest takeaway from this project has been, “less is more.”  

Adivi SeshAs the co-writer of Kshanam do you think there’s anything about the screenplay of Kshanam that you would like to improve upon if you got a chance to do so? If yes then what & why?

I’d love to answer this question but I feel it opens itself up to spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. I’m not sure the words, “Spoiler Alert!” really help either! I know that when I read those words, I go ahead and read the piece anyway, because I’m all the more tantalized. But yes, there are some places where I feel we can strengthen the script even more. 

What are the challenges involved in coming up with a subject like Kshanam in Telugu Cinema?Why do you think the industry is not seeing too many genuine slice of life films?

I think that regional cinema has limited choices to experiment because the audiences are more homogeneous. Moreover, the gap between intellectuals and the so called, “small town sensibility” becomes more pronounced for regional cinema. If you cater to a multiplex audience when you don’t have 500 multiplexes showing Telugu films, your budgets become smaller, the canvas becomes smaller. So, you end up having an urban “slice of life” film with new actors and a tiny budget. Therefore, not many people watch it. It becomes a matter of visibility. I think that has more to do with it, than the dearth of quality or talent. Essentially, the size of the “niche” audience is much smaller for a Telugu film, than it is for Hindi. Even in Tamil, the TV market (an important source of revenue for smaller films) for a Tamil film is almost double that of a Telugu film. So, a more diverse overseas audience with international sensibilities can appreciate a ‘new age’ film in Tamil, despite Telugu films having a bigger domestic theatrical market. Whether we like it or not, the people who fund films will ultimately back something only if it doesn’t hurt their pockets. On a positive note, 2015 has been a banner year for both big and small films in Telugu cinema. I’m seeing more and more of concept film being made in Hyderabad at the moment, than at any time since I’ve been here. 

As an actor what kind of films give you utmost creative satisfaction and why?

I like to act in films that I’d like to watch as an audience. I personally prefer watching films that are plot oriented with a mainstream sensibility. I think a lot of early Mani Ratnam films were ground breaking for that reason. You take a film like Roja or Nayagan, they have such a vivid and creative method of telling honest stories, but they are still accessible to a mainstream audience. I have to admit that I’m able to admire films that aren’t necessarily labelled “commercial” as well. While I loved both “Queen” and “Shahid” for example, I enjoy watching “Queen” more because of its accessibility. “Talvar” and “NH10” are further examples of brilliant films that I’ve seen in the recent past.

What would your advice be for young actors/writers/directors who are trying to enter the magical world of films?

I’m not sure I have the authority to advise anyone but I’ve noticed that the idea of “working hard” is discounted by too many newcomers who enter the business. It’s not just networking you know. The craft is just as important. In an era of instant gratification, there seems to be too much focus on the nature of making a celebrity and not enough emphasis placed on making honest films or giving a good performance. For example, I’ve seen a lot of short film makers be more concerned with how they design their posters or how they cut their trailers, rather than the quality of their content in its totality. For me, it’s a common sense approach. Keep doing good film and deliver honest performances, fame and fortune shall follow automatically.

We at MAM wish Adivi Sesh all the very best for his forthcoming films.

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