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South Indian actor Naga Chaitanya, who made his web series debut with the Telugu-language supernatural thriller ‘Dhootha,’ claims he’s now feeling liberated. In the eight-episode series directed by Vikram K Kumar, Chaitanya plays a journalist with a murky moral compass. “Going into ‘Dhootha,’ there were a lot of questions thrown at me, like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this because it’s different from what you people are used to?’ or ‘Will you be accepted in such a role?’ … But when so many firsts in my life work, those questions are naturally answered. I feel so liberated now,” said Chaitanya in an interview with Gulf News.

The son of veteran talents Nagarjuna and Amala had signed on director Vikram Kumar’s ‘Dhootha’ when he was filming for the feel-good blockbuster ‘Love Story,’ in which he played an amiable Zumba instructor, Revanth, who goes to great lengths to protect his girlfriend (Sai Pallavi). But his latest turn as the sly and narcissistic media honcho is a far cry from the benign dance instructor act. But that’s precisely what attracted him to his debut series which sees him play a role that’s a stark departure from his previous romantic Romeo roles. It may come across as a nifty creative gamble, but the ex-husband of actress Samantha Ruth Prabhu believes his sturdy fans have got his back.

“This fan following shows unconditional love whether you are doing well or not doing well or no matter which point in life you are in, they are always rooting for you, encouraging you … Because of my family, I have been gifted with such a following.”

Naga Chaitanya plays a journalist with a murky moral compass in 'Dhootha', out on Prime Video now

While fans love him unconditionally, we wonder if he treats both success and failure with equal ambivalence.

“Both success and failure are equally important in life. It’s not healthy to have a life with only success or only failures … You need to have a balance of both to keep evolving. Failures teach you so much in life. No one can teach you on how to handle failures unless you experience and figure out why things went wrong,” said Chaitanya.

Excerpts from our interview with Chaitanya as we speak about his web series debut, plunging into the dark side, and more …

Congratulations on your web series debut where you have gone dark and rogue on us … Was that the biggest draw?

I was in a phase as an actor where I wanted to come out of my comfort zone. I was doing a lot of love stories and family entertainers, and some action films, but I had never played something grey before or played a character with so many layers. When I heard the narration, Sagar’s character instantly excited me because I thought it was a great opportunity to push myself and showcase myself differently to the audiences. Remember, they are used to watching me in a certain kind of texture and so to just consciously come out of that, push myself and also convince them that I could be convincing with a role like this was an exciting prospect.

Was it disturbing to play such a troubled role?

I look at it purely as an actor. My role as Sagar starts off on a neutral note, then gets dark. But what I like about it is the character arc. There’s a round-off towards the end when he realizes his mistakes. There’s a lot of introspection that happens to him during the course of the eight episodes. He realises the kind of danger he put his family and himself in because of his questionable ethics and his way of doing things. He realizes that [folly] and tries to correct it towards the end.

Naga Chaitanya felt that his web series debut propelled him to step out of his comfort zone

Redemption is present at the end. Were you particular about the redemption arc, considering the darker themes common in web series today … For instance the series on true-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was accused of fetishizing depraved criminals …

Not really. I wasn’t particular about the redemption arc. My director had written it in such a way that all the characters have a character round-offs by the eighth episode. All the plots sort of come together … So my influence was not much in terms of rounding off my character or showing closure to the conflicts. It was my director’s idea.

As an actor, do you believe in separating the art from the artist, especially when taking on roles that may challenge your established image? We often question actors when they take on a certain role that glorify violence or depraved minds …

When it came to OTT, I had decided in my head that I want to completely explore myself as an artist. I put aside all the conditioning and expectations about how the audience looks at me. I just wanted to purely hone in as an artist and push myself because OTT’s a space where audiences are really open to consuming experimental content. I looked at ‘Dhootha’ as an opportunity. When it came to OTT, I put everything aside and said: ‘let me just go with my heart, forgetting all other variables’.

How do you deal with the emotional toll of playing intense roles?

I am able to separate work from my life and that’s just my process. Once we hit 6 pm and director calls ‘pack up’, it’s back to normal life. Of course, certain nuances and traits from my character may linger on during the course of the project, but I don’t think Sagar’s darkness affected my personal space. The most challenging part of ‘Dhootha’ was that the entire series was shot in rain and it was physically challenging. It was draining to film in the rain, but Sagar’s darkness did not affect me.

The rain is a recurring metaphor for life and its players in the series …

We were excited in the beginning when Vikram narrated the story to us. He said it’s going to be a horror series set against the rains and daylight wanes in many scenes. At that point, I felt it was such a beautiful contrast … Rain was a character by itself in this series. But both of us didn’t know what we were getting into until we actually started shooting. By the fourth or fifth day, we realized that filming in the rain was our biggest challenge. But the struggle was worth it because all that hard work feels validated when the audiences throw in positive reviews.

Naga Chaitanya in 'Dhootha', which had a series of sequences shot in the rains

The series throws shade on journalists who are commodifying their work and placing revenue over readers … Did you meet up with editors as a part of your leg work?

No. It is set in the world of journalism, but I believe that the problems we tackle aren’t specific to the profession of journalism alone. It’s a portrait of a situation where ethics are misused by those in power and how lines get blurred … We are not targeting journalists or the decline of ethics among journalists alone.

Coming from a family of actors, what was your family’s response to your unconventional role in “Dhootha”?

My dad has always been encouraging me to try out new things. His ideology is all about being unique and the only way you can be unique is by pushing yourself to come out of our comfort zones and trying something surprising from time to time. And that’s the only way you will be relevant as an actor if you want to be here for the long run. In fact, I was talking to him last night and he was thrilled with the entire concept of ‘Dhootha’. He has been so encouraging and was so excited at every aspect of this series. My mother has also binge-watched it.

Prachi Desai
Naga Chaitanya's character is toxic and selfish while interacting with Prachi Desai's character in the fourth episode. Image Credit: Supplied

The fourth episode in which you interact with your colleague Amrutha [Prachi Desai] was a searing portrait of how selfish and toxic your character was … Did you question the motives of your character in those scenes where you aren’t likable …

I love the layers behind Sagar’s character … In many phases of our life, we all go through all sorts of roller coasters. There are times when we derail from our path and later we realize that the beauty is about how we fix ourselves and come back on track. Sagar’s character gets extremely selfish at one point, but we had to show him go down this downward spiral of him turning grey/black in soul so that we could highlight his turnaround. These are the aspects that excited me when it came to playing Sagar. Going to extreme darkness and then finding redemption was an enjoyable process.

Are you a method actor or do you wing it?

I don’t think we can wing it or afford to wing it, but I am not a method actor either. My director is my biggest strength and it’s all about sitting with him talking about the character and understanding his thought process. I even get them to usually say my lines so I can mimic them a bit. I even make them act out a few scenes because I believe that they have been traveling with that character and screenplay for years and years. The idea is to just grab a bit of that understanding and apply it to my body language. It’s a huge strength. Vikram spoke to a lot of journalists and did a lot of reading up on journalism, and he was my tool to help crack my character.

You made your Bollywood debut with PK starring Aamir Khan who’s a method actor and is particular about knowing every detail about the film he’s doing … What did you learn from him?

Like him, I need to know what’s happening so that I get more clarity on how to perform and approach my work with a clearer mindset. When there’s doubt, confusion, and question marks, then it shows on your performance as well. I have learned so much from him. Those six months spent with him were like going to a school for acting and also being a good human being. He’s a lovely person.

“Dhootha” ends on a cliffhanger. Are you equally excited about the possibility of a second season?

We all want a second season, but we haven’t thought about it yet. We have a few ideas in hand, but Vikram is yet to pin it down. But we are all excited and looking forward to the second season as actors and viewers. Now that we have the encouragement from the audience, I don’t see why we shouldn’t have another season.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Dhootha’ is out on Prime Video now.