Nagarjuna: I had been holding the gun wrong all along

Actor Nagarjuna Akkineni opens up on filming in the mountains post lockdown, and how training to play an NIA officer in ‘Wild Dog’ proved to be an eye-opener

May 2021 will mark 35 years since Nagarjuna Akkineni debuted as a hero in the Telugu film Vikram (1986). Mention this to the actor and he laughs aloud, “I didn’t realise this until someone mentioned it to me recently; it doesn’t feel like 35 years at all.” At 61, with fitness levels that can challenge his younger colleagues, Nagarjuna is among the busiest actors in Telugu cinema.  

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His new film Wild Dog, inspired by an undercover operation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) following the serial blasts that shook Hyderabad in 2007, will release in theatres on April 2. He recently signed a Telugu film to be directed by Praveen Sattaru, is a part of director Ayan Mukherji’s Hindi film Brahmastra co-starring Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, and is also in talks for a web series.

  • Looking back at 2020, Nagajuna says there were lessons to be learnt and room for introspection during lockdown: “In 35 years, I never had so much free time. It was good to bond with my family; everyone is busy that I hardly get to see them in normal circumstances. While being homebound, I also realised how much I love my work. I think the tiny virus gave the world a checkmate, telling us that we are all dispensable. It was as though the virus told me, ‘I can stop the world, you are no big deal’.”

Written and directed by Ahishor Solomon, Wild Dog was in the making long before the team announced the film with its first poster in December 2020. It stars Nagarjuna as NIA officer Vijay Varma and Saiyami Kher as a RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) agent.

“We completed filming the investigation portions in Hyderabad’s Old City, Mumbai and Pune prior to lockdown. In November, we filmed in Manali and Nepal,” says the actor.

After the blasts

Nagarjuna vividly recalls the shock when the blasts at Lumbini Park, Gokul Chaat and near Konark Theatre brought Hyderabad to its knees: “I used to frequent Gokul Chaat in the early 2000s, for late-night paani puri. My car would be parked nearby and I would walk in front of the chaat centre. Two days after the blasts, I visited the place and was devastated by what I saw.”

A story inspired by the aftermath of these incidents, says the actor, prompted him to consider the script. Ahishor Solomon who directed the Hindi thriller John Day (2013), first met Nagarjuna to narrate the story of Oopiri (Thozha in Tamil, co-starring Karthi): “He was a writer associated with [director] Vamshi Paidipally and I liked how he narrated Oopiri. When he came to me with a well-researched story for Wild Dog, I was confident that he would direct it well.”

Wild Dog is in a similar genre to the Hindi film Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), which Nagarjuna says is among his favourite films in recent years: “It’s hard to tell what is fiction and what is real; I liked how they wove in the family drama.”

How much of Wild Dog is fictional? “It’s hard to say, we don’t even know of the NIA officers. One of my dialogues in the film is about how these officers are unsung heroes. If they fail on duty, they might languish in a foreign prison or be executed. If they return successfully, their identities are still kept a secret so they can go on their next mission. Solomon has done his research and I liked the script.”

Combat postures

Nagarjuna was trained by action choreographer David Ismalone, who has worked on international projects such as Fast and Furious 7 and Ong-Bak: Muan Thai Warrior, and Major Ajay who was part of the surgical strike operations. The training included combat postures, communicating with signs while on an operation, and how to hold the gun. Though he has acted as a cop in several films, Nagarjuna says Wild Dog was an eye-opener: “I realised I had been holding the gun wrong all along,” he says with a laugh, “These weapons are sophisticated and the slightest pressure is enough to trigger them. David told me that the gun should look like an extension of my arm.”

Nagarjuna Akkineni in ‘Wild Dog’  

Post lockdown, filming in Nepal and the Rohtang Pass in Manali in winter, was a liberating as well as eerie experience, he recalls: “Liberating because there were no tourists and we could be in a bubble during the pandemic; eerie because it felt like we were in ghost towns, similar to what we see in Hollywood disaster films. We got a hotel to open up since we needed 50 rooms, and they were happy to accommodate us.”

Nagarjuna adds that it was unnerving to fly after the lockdown, factoring in COVID-19 protocols: “Now I got used to it; I fly every other day.”

What keeps him going after 35 years? “I cannot sit at home; I love to work.”

Going digital

Wild Dog was to release directly on Netflix, but the deal was re-negotiated once theatres reopened and Telugu films began faring well at the box office: “It works in favour of Netflix as well, since a film that releases first in theatres generates a buzz.”

Nagarjuna believes OTT is the future of entertainment and says, “A project has to be an event/spectacle film or solidly engaging to draw people to the theatres.” He is in talks for a web series and likes the idea of a story being narrated over several episodes: “There’s scope to experiment. Digital platforms are also a fantastic opportunity for smaller films to find an audience. We are also beginning to see a reverse phenomenon — Money Heist is now being adapted into a feature film. This is an interesting phase,” he concludes.

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