‘I never wanted to do regular, run-of-the-mill films’
Viraj Ashwin comes across as the flamboyant, confident youngster if one were to go by his characters in both his feature films – Anaganaga O Prema Katha and Thank You Brother. However, off-screen, he’s a shy kid and admits that he feels most liberated when he’s in front of the camera. The film world isn’t any new to Viraj, who is the fourth generation from his family to have entered the industry. Born to an ISRO scientist father, Viraj was an engineering graduate before he gave wings to his acting ambitions.
Despite being well aware of how fortunes in the industry fluctuate every weekend and advice from his uncle (and noted film editor) Marthand K Venkatesh to think twice about working in films, he was committed to giving a shot at acting. From short films to acting school and a handful of workshops, Viraj prepared himself well for the long haul. Thank You Brother, that released on aha, is the first OTT release of his career, in which he plays a rich spoilt brat Abhi who’s on the brink of a transformation. He relives his acting journey in a free-wheeling interview with LetsOTT.com.
You spent a significant part of your early life in Sriharikota amid a township. What were your childhood years like?
Childhood is one side of my life I love revisiting. I was a Chennai born, my father was a scientist at ISRO, Sriharikota - precisely an electronics and instrumentation engineer. We lived in a township that housed all the families of ISRO employees. It had everything that we could ask for, from vast playgrounds to school, shops and more. It's a place I've made the best memories of my life, right from LKG to secondary school. The township was a mini-India of sorts with people from all parts of the country of different cultures, speaking various languages, celebrating all festivals regardless of religion and one where I eventually made friends for life. I still stay in touch with my chaddi-buddies, we went to school together, played like a bunch, attending each other's family functions; the exposure I got was unparalleled.
Given the fact that your grandfather and your elder uncle were editors, didn’t the technical aspect of filmmaking interest you more?
It’s interesting that you ask this. When I used to come to Hyderabad for my summer holidays, I spent a lot of time with thathayya, he was a sweetheart. He returned home from Ramanaidu Studios every day during the lunch hour and I accompanied him back to the studio on many occasions. Those were the days when film reels were used. They used to roll the films and cut the length manually. I enjoyed observing what he was doing and thatha even allowed me to try my hand at editing with the leftover footage, noticing my interest. I was barely six then. There was no doubt that I was inclined towards editing initially but as I grew up, I began going to shoots.
I was eventually bit by the acting bug on the sets of Pawan Kalyan's Thammudu, a film that my elder uncle (Marthand K Venkatesh) was working on. I happened to watch the shoot of the scene where a four-wheeler was on top of Pawan Kalyan's hands. I'm not sure what captivated me about it, but I remember being thrilled. I noticed the effort that goes into filmmaking and understood the reason why fans go crazy about stars. I wanted to be in the shoes of the actor ever since. Before that incident, I must also tell you that a few filmmakers wanted me to cast as a child actor. Being a shy kid, I had my apprehensions and said no. As fate would have it, my love for acting only grew with time and I wanted to make a career out of it after my B.Tech.
You went to Satyanand’s acting school before your career took off. It’s a place that has nurtured the best talents in the Telugu film industry. How do you look at that experience?
Even though I hailed from a film family and I was very used to meeting actors, film personalities, attended shoots regularly, having a practical knowledge of acting was entirely different. There are so many technicalities involved in a performance that it's easy to get confused. When I Satyanand garu's acting school, he gave us a list of 56 chapters that we had to be thorough with - right from the psychological aspect of acting to the dialogues and emotions.
The classes began at 7 am in morning, he taught us nuances of voice modulation, body language, appearance, expressions, overcoming inhibitions and what not. Every batch, lasting five months, had a very limited number of people and there was great one-to-one attention. Practical exposure to acting is necessary but going to a film school is a pre-requisite that'll give you all the confidence to enter a set. An acting school is sure to provide an edge to everyone who wants to enter the industry. It'll tell you where you stand, your strengths and your limitations.
How did your family react to your interest in acting generally?
The reactions were mixed and it’s a well-known fact that my family has a long lineage with films. My grandfather's uncle was filmmaker BA Subba Rao (who was the first director to have offered a solo-hero project to NTR). My grandfather, an editor, yet was on his own to make a mark in the industry and knew the struggles that came with it. My uncle learnt the ropes from grandpa and despite his skill, considered himself lucky to have made it big in a field full of uncertainties. Frankly, both my uncles (editor Marthand K Venkatesh and director Shankar Marthand) have been my pillars of support.
In many interviews or conversations, you may have noticed that my elder uncle (Venkatesh) didn't have a great opinion about the industry and discouraged people from entering it, including me until engineering. He knows the industry in and out and having dealt with the everyday stress and politics at work, he didn't want someone else from his own family to go through it. I got a few acting offers after my engineering and he saw that I was keen to become an actor. He wanted me to be professional in my approach to acting and suggested I go to a film school. The biggest surprise was my dad's immediate acceptance, he told me to do anything that makes me happy and give my 100%. I initially thought of doing my MS and do acting later, but decided it would be best to start early. After my acting school and film-based workshops in the US, producer KLN Raju gave me my first film offer - Anaganaga O Premakatha.
What was it like to watch yourself on the big screen for the first time?
Watching my first film on the big screen was an unbelievable moment. It was a big deal to see myself as a lead actor for a film. I was literally on cloud nine. It may not be a big achievement for many, but it meant the world to me. I was waiting for many years desperately for this moment to materialise. It was overwhelmed and I also paid heed to aspects that I could improve upon. I got positive feedback from the crowd and my family felt I did a good job. It motivated me to do better.
Surprisingly, your short film Manasanamaha (directed by Deepak Reddy) gave you a wider reach than your feature film debut. Isn’t it?
Yes, what happened with Manasanamaha was magical. I am always someone who's up for interesting content. Even before my first film, I worked with the team of Ravengers (the group that worked on Mathu Vadhalara) for a short film Breach. I never wanted to do regular, slapstick commercial films. After my first feature film, Deepak (Reddy) and I were to collaborate on a film and we had to do a short. The character was immensely relatable and I always had good vibes with the team during the making and even with the result. During the lockdown, out of the blues, we came up with the idea to release it on YouTube and the rest was history. The short even got dubbed in multiple languages and is on an award-winning spree.
Did it make a difference to you that Abhi in Thank You Brother wasn't exactly a likeable character?
When Ramesh Raparthi was narrating Thank You Brother, I was irritated with Abhi's character. I was confused if I had to take it up after hearing it in the first 10 minutes. As the story progressed, I was awestruck by the transformation of the character. I came to realise he wasn't a bad guy after all but just someone who is on the wrong path. Every one of us has a negative streak and it's life experiences that change us for the better. The character undergoes that transformation in the presence of Priya in the elevator. The story isn't only about the baby's birth in the elevator, I saw it as a rebirth of Abhi. As an actor, I couldn't have asked for a better character in only my second film.
The casting of the film worked big time – you and Anasuya made for unconventional protagonists. Tell us about your working experience with her.
My very first day of the shoot was with Anasuya in the lift. Given the awkward equation between the characters and also with Anasuya's experience as an actor, anchor, I was a little nervous about not giving my best. Eventually, she made me feel very comfortable, there wasn't anything like senior or junior on set and she openly discussed what she felt about Priya's character and Abhi. We became good friends in no time. She used to entertain everyone in the set, crack jokes and I had no reason to feel anxious henceforth.
Thank You Brother was one of the earliest films to have begun shoot after the lockdown was lifted in the previous year. Was there any element of anxiety while shooting in the middle of a pandemic?
I need to thank my team here. I live with my parents and I didn't want to be the virus-carrier in the family. The lockdown was just lifted and we knew very little about the virus back then. They tested the cast and crew before the shoot commenced and the producers took every care to make us feel comfortable. As actors, we couldn't wear masks on sets because it affects the makeup and we were naturally worried if this would work. The producers and the director made sure that the film was shot with a very limited crew and we could breathe easy. Everyone stood by each other in a tough situation.
What impressed you about the director, Ramesh Raparthi, the most?
Ramesh, from the very first day we met, was very friendly and clear about what he wanted out of this project. He explains everything in detail, from why would a character behave like that to why would he want a scene to be shot this way because he had the entire film in mind. More than a director, he was like an elder brother to me and this rapport helped me give my best for the film.
As an actor used to different backdrops and locations for many scenes in the film, was it a challenge to shoot for Thank You Brother in the same location (the lift set)?
Shooting within that limited space for a major part of the film was an entirely new experience. A crucial part of the film is set in the lift. Everyone doesn't take the situation of being stuck in an elevator seriously unless one experiences that claustrophobia and helplessness. The lift set was advantageous because of the access we had to it. It helped our performances also because of the constraints of shooting within a limited space and relate with the characters better. The ambience was just perfect. Frankly, it wasn't the first time I was stuck in a lift. I and my father went through a similar experience in the pre-COVID 19 era. Our minds were filled with all kinds of thoughts and we wondered if we would make it. The film too similarly recreates that atmosphere authentically.