Jiiva has portrayed a range of characters in his two-decade acting career, from a man next door to a superhero in Tamil films. He was also cast as former cricketer Krishnamachari Srikkanth in the Hindi film 83. He was surprised when asked if he would be willing to act as Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in the Telugu biopic Yatra 2. “I am always game to take up films that require me to be an actor rather than a star,” says Jiiva, speaking to The Hindu about the film scheduled to release in theatres on February 8.
He reveals that a photo shoot was how it all began. “A couple of years ago, I purchased new cameras and lights, and did a photoshoot, which was shared on my Instagram account. A week later, Gnanavel Raja (producer, Studio Green) got in touch. He knew Mahi V Raghav, director of Yatra 2. I learnt that the photographs made the director consider me in the role of Y S Jagan.”
Jiiva had two concerns — he did not know Telugu and was hesitant about portraying a present-day political leader. He sought the advice of Mammootty, who had played the late chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in Yatra. “Mammootty sir told me, ‘why not? We are actors. We might act as a politician in one film, a cop in the next and maybe a murderer in another. That does not mean we are a politician, cops or a murderer’. That took the pressure off my shoulders.”
Jiiva watched Yatra and was impressed by Mahi Raghav’s craftsmanship. Politics aside, he felt that the director had narrated a human story convincingly. “For two to three years that I was working on 83 — since the film shoots were paused during the pandemic — I was absorbed in getting Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s body language right. After that, I thought Yatra 2 would be an interesting film to take up.” Jiiva’s Telugu-speaking neighbour accompanied him to the story narration of Yatra 2. “He was impressed with the dialogues and the emotions.”
The hurdle of being unfamiliar with Telugu remained. “I can understand a few words and sentences but the political speeches were tough. The more I saw the video footage of Y S Jagan, I realised I had a tough job.” Weeks before the shooting schedule, Jiiva trained with a tutor. “I would learn my Telugu lines all morning; post lunch I would record everything I had learnt in my studio. We would then listen to the recording and make corrections.” When the shooting schedule began, Jiiva could pull it off. However, he admits that he did not dub for the film since he could not crack the Kadapa accent.
Apart from the physicality and the language, Jiiva also had to understand the character’s psyche. The actor never met the AP chief minister but the ample video footage helped. “Mahi’s story is about a father, son, a promise and how people connect with both the father and the son. A predominant reference point was The Godfather 2, in terms of the tone of the narrative. There are a few silent shots in which the emotions are conveyed through the eyes; and not everything is dialogue-oriented. I also found the conflict points interesting, like in The Godfather series and Thevar Magan.”
While Jiiva is keen to see how the Telugu audience will receive the film, he is also open to scripts that come to his family’s production house Super Good Films established by his father R B Choudary.
Tapping new talent
Jiiva also recently launched Deaf Frogs, which he describes as a music label and a content company that will design projects, take up marketing and promotions of films, and more.
The frog that refused to give up
Deaf Frogs gets its name from a short story of a group of frogs that were trapped in a pit. Among them was a deaf frog, which could not hear the discouraging remarks of the other frogs who had tried and given up hope to escape from the pit. The deaf frog continued its efforts and managed to leave the bit, unlike the others. “Rajini sir (Rajinikanth) once narrated this story at an event and it stayed with me. I thought it would be an appropriate name for the label,” says Jiiva.
The label released its first music video last week and Jiiva says plans are on to tap emerging indie artists from South India and eventually other regions. “There are several talented artistes out there and Deaf Frogs can help them make new connections. We will come up with indie music videos and promotional videos for films; through these music videos, we are honing talent in music, cinematography and editing.”
While Jiiva is accustomed to watching aspiring writers, directors and technicians approach his family production company seeking offers, he also realises the need to tap fresh talent through social media.
Music is the starting point for Deaf Frogs, says Jiiva. “In art, you need to begin somewhere. In Tamil cinema, I have witnessed how the making of a film used to begin with music.” He recalls the practice of filmmakers giving an advance sum to music composer Ilaiyaraaja and on the day of the song recording, the project is considered launched. “Simultaneously, the unit will begin filming in Pollachi. As soon as Raja sir records a song, it will be shared with the unit and the shooting will continue.”
Since the launch of Deaf Frogs, more indie music artistes are expressing interest, says Jiiva. “This is a start and we are keen to see how things shape up.”