Actor Adivi Sesh, the star of 'Major'
Actor Adivi Sesh, the star of 'Major' Image Credit: Supplied

South Indian films are storming the box-office and often giving their flashier counterpart Bollywood a run for its money.

In the last few months, blistering box-office hits such as director SS Rajamouli’s monstrous hit epic ‘RRR’ and actor Allu Arjun’s Telugu-language blockbuster ‘Pushpa: The Rise’ have captured the collective imagination of millions of movie-mad Indians.

Telugu actor Adivi Sesh, who spearheads the fierce soldier tale ‘Major’, out in the UAE cinemas on June 3, has an interesting theory about this shifting dynamics. ‘Major’ also marks his first Hindi film debut.

“What I am starting to realise now is that somebody from Bhopal is more connected to the tale of a middle-class struggle of someone in Madras [Chennai] than someone in Maldives. There seems to be a fundamental emotional disconnect with a lot of mainstream Hindi cinema,” said Sesh in an interview with Gulf News, while citing Varun Dhawan’s ‘Badrinath Ki Dulhania’ as a popular feature that had relatable characters. But even Sesh acknowledges that South Indian heroes are now having an IT moment.

“We are now being accepted for who we are. I always found it ironic that Sridevi gaaru [a Telugu term used for someone older or respected], Rekha gaaru, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai were all accepted, but our guys were not accepted. I have always wondered why those good genes go only to the girls and not the guys,” said Sesh with a laugh.

His observation isn’t wholly untrue. The actors that he has listed are all Bollywood A-listers with South Indian roots who found gargantuan success in Hindi cinema. Perhaps, South Indian cinema is rolling out relatively more relatable content; Sesh certainly seems to think so.

“There’s a small town in Andhra Pradesh called Padugu, but what’s the point in setting up a [fancy hotel] there for a guy who doesn’t want pasta alfredo?,” asked Sesh.

Telugu film folklore has it that Sesh, who has no film industry connections, shifted to Hyderabad from San Francisco to take a stab at acting and writing. The ‘Kshanam’ star has always gravitated towards Indian cinema and was wary of playing the token brown guy in a Hollywood film. He’s often asked why he chose Telugu films over Hollywood, and his answer is simple.

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Adivi Sesh in 'Major' Image Credit: Supplied

“I have always loved Indian films when I was growing up in San Francisco … A lot of people why I didn’t move to Los Angeles? But the question remained if I was going to play that guy at a gas station, or that software developer or play the [extremist]. Even the most successful Indian actors end up playing that funny guy in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ or something like that … Albeit a fantastic performance, but you never get to be Tom Cruise,” said Sesh.

His wish has almost been answered. In his latest movie which has been shot in Telugu and Hindi, and dubbed in Malayalam, Sesh brings to life the valiant real-life tale of a brave army man who saved numerous hostages during the 2008 Mumbai terror attack at the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The real-life brave heart was the commanding officer of the Operation Black Tornado who sacrificed his life in the line of duty. The film also features Saiee Manjrekar, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Revathi and Murali Sharma.

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Adivi Sesh and Saiee Manjrekar in 'Major'

Excerpts from our interview with the leading actor as he talks about his labour of love, his bond with the fierce soldier’s family, and more:

Why should we watch ‘Major’?

This whole thing started because I am a big fan of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and just like you have fan clubs for actors like Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan, I am probably the president of his fan club. Over the years, I just felt connected to him. When he died, I felt like an older brother had passed away. He looked like so many of my cousins. He saved hundreds of lives at just 31 years of age. And, every year a new anecdote about him come up in the form of an old interview or new photographs. But when I spoke to people about him, their knowledge ended with them realising that he saved so many people and that he was honoured with Ashok Chakra [India’s highest peacetime military decoration]. They had put him in a hero slot and they are done. But his life was so much more than the final 36 hours and I knew once I became an actor of a certain stature, it was imperative and important that I take his story and tell the world about a beautiful life he led.

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Actor Adivi Sesh in 'Major' Image Credit: Supplied

Your intentions are noble, but it’s almost become fashionable to be a part of patriotic films in India now. Every filmmaker and actor seems to be keen to ride the nationalist wave, so how did you ensure that you won’t succumb to making a jingoistic film?

I believe that jingoism is to believe that your country is better than everybody else’s country, but patriotism is to believe that you want to make your country better. Major Sandeep was emblematic of that sentiment. The tagline of our film ‘Major’ is ‘Jaan Doonga Desh Nahi’ [‘Will lay down my life, but not my country] and that’s the philosophy by which he lived and loved.

Our stereotype of an army man is a person who’s ‘kadak’ [hardened] and very straight, but Major Sandeep was full of life and a loving person. He was a fan of Schwarzenegger and his friends called him Sandy. All the girls from his high school crushed on him and he was as handsome as they come. He was a star of The Frank Anthony Public School and he applied for the Indian Navy/Army without tell his parents. He’s the polar opposite of jingoistic. He’s sunshine and he’s like a ‘Suryaputra’ [Son of Sunshine] and he was hope personified.

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Actor Adivi Sesh Image Credit: Supplied

Yes, he was good-looking and radiated immense warmth …

I have to share a funny anecdote about him. People always talk about the fire in his eyes and the smile on his face. So, when he went to take his passport-size photo, the photographer warned him saying he’s not supposed to smile. And, he tries his best to stop himself from laughing. And that’s how that popular picture came to be.

Although he led a brave life, he died in the line of duty …

 I wouldn’t be presumptuous to speak for him. But I don’t think his soul — who’s blessing me at the moment — would even for a second say that he died a grim death. He died for a purpose and a cause.

What kind of legwork did you do and how did you convince his parents about playing their son?

On my first call to them, they hung up on me. When I called uncle [Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s father] again, he hung up on me for the second time. So, for the third time, I got a girl from my team to call hoping he might be a big softer. Uncle took the call and was trying to explain why he wasn’t keen. But before he could hang up, I snatched the phone and convinced him to let us meet him once.

We went to their house and I met them seven times over the course of the new few months. During our seventh meeting, we met up at his cousin sister’s house in Whitefield in Bangalore called ‘Sandeep Vihar’. The building was named after him and when I was walking out of the elevator, they admitted that there was a ten per cent chance of us making a film on him. They were 10 per cent less cynical than when I first met them.

As I walked out of that elevator, they felt I looked like Major Sandeep. And what started off as research became an emotional connection. They have become my family during the course of this filmmaking journey. They were like my leaked question paper for an examination. If I had a doubt, I would call him. There was a scene where I asked Amma [mother] about him being angry, but she said with absolute conviction that he wouldn’t get angry and he would just like. I sought their guidance.

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Veteran actors Revathy and Prakash Raj play the parents of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan in the biopic

Was it tough to detach from his family after the filming of ‘Major’?

We did not detach. I just spoke to them half an hour ago before this interview. There will never be any detachment scenario here.

What was the most challenging part about this role?

I am known for my action cinema and have this James Bond image. But suddenly, I had to go from that to being this proper boy with an upright body language, wide stance, and a right-handed guy who’s firing away like he is doing it for 15 years now. I had to unlearn everything about my own body language and actions.

I had to change my voice modulation. I oscillated a lot with my own body weight. I was 84kg when I began filming, then I went down to 81kg and then to 76kg and finally to 73kgs. I had to then go back to 76kg as I played different phases in Major Sandeep’s life. From being that chill guy in The Frank Anthony Public School to when he enrolls into NDA (The National Defence Academy) and starts becoming an upright man. I did this role with a sense of responsibility, lots of pressure, but never from a place of fear.

Don’t miss it!

‘Major’ is out in the UAE cinemas on June 3

I am practical when it comes to films. In the first film I produced, I lost all my money. So I am clear now that no matter how much you may feel strongly about a film, people should feel the same. I have constantly tested that theory

- Adivi Sesh

Did you know?

Adivi Sesh and the makers of ‘Major’ have shown their film to 1,640 people so far in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Vizaag. The self-titled ‘practical pessimist’ claims that the audiences’ reactions at those previews is filling him with an incredible sense of confidence.

“This is probably the first big Indian film which has hosted nine advance screenings across nine different cities in India before ten days of its release … I say it with the least pretension here that I am being congratulated instead of being wished good luck,” said Sesh.