If the reaction of the public at recent promotional events for his film was any indication, Vijay Deverakonda has been clearly overwhelmed by his fans’ unbridled adulation and outpouring of love.
A rank Bollywood outsider, Deverkonda, the hugely popular Telugu film star is still unable to wrap his head around the popularity he enjoys across the country following his recent Hindi release Liger.
The film, a sports action drama that saw him in the role of an Mixed Martial Arts fighter, itself may not have tasted much success but it has undoubtedly earned him legions of followers who arrived in the thousands to cheer him and see him in person at the promotional events across the nation.
Be it Maharashtra, Bihar, Gujarat or Kerala not to mention his home state Telangana, crowds thronged venues to catch a glimpse of the star during the multi-city tour promotions (17 cities in 34 days) for Liger. In fact, so sizeable were the crowds that his fan meets in Mumbai and Patna had to be called off midway after the masses turned uncontrollable.
‘I couldn’t have imagined this adventure with anyone else,’ said his co-star Ananya Panday, while sharing the stage with the star in Mumbai, her eyes filled with excitement and disbelief upon witnessing the star’s popularity.
As for Deverakonda, he admits he is still struggling to understand or come to terms with the love and attention he has been receiving. ‘I wonder what this fan following is for as I haven’t done anything here. I am not able to grasp it. But it has not gone to my head,’ he says.
For the 33-year-old actor, it has been ‘a huge cultural shift’.
He remembers the initial days of the promotions for Liger. ‘When we started [the promotions], I thought I’d have to introduce myself. It felt quite intimidating. But as soon as I entered a mall in Mumbai, people began screaming ‘Vijay, Vijay...’,’ he recalls with a smile.
The same scenario was repeated when he toured Patna, Ahmedabad and many other cities.
‘So when I realised that people already knew me, I decided to just chill and have fun with them. I decided to stop that movie promotion thing and just enjoy the love and affection that was coming my way. What I can give them in return for all this love is great cinema.’
For those who came in late, Deverakonda shot to nationwide fame with Arjun Reddy way back in 2017. Praised for his bold and radical performance as an angry, self-destructive, alcoholic surgeon, the movie bagged him the Filmfare Best Actor in Telugu. One film journal lavished praise on his acting saying it was one of “100 Greatest Performances of the Decade”.
The Hyderabad-born actor’s debut though was in the 2011 Telugu film Nuvvila, a multi-starrer campus drama which he followed up the next year with another campus drama Life Is Beautiful. While both these movies came up short in establishing Vijay as a promising actor, his career and life took off with Arjun Reddy. Almost overnight he shot to national fame firmly marking his space in the starry realms of Indian cinema.
Deverakonda, though, was perhaps not aware of his stardom in Bollywood until he met with Karan Johar of Dharma Productions immediately after the release of Dear Comrade, a romantic action drama and one of his biggest Telugu releases, in 2019. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within minutes of the actor landing in Mumbai, his phone was abuzz with calls from mediapersons and industry watchers even as he received a spectacular welcome from an army of shutterbugs at the airport.
Deverakonda admits that he never planned on entering Bollywood. Liger happened organically, he says. ‘Initially, like immediately after Arjun Reddy, I felt I wasn’t ready [for Bollywood]... ready to do a national cinema. I needed [to continue on] my own journey and reach a point when I can take on the responsibility of national cinema. Liger was the first film I was ready to do because its script felt perfectly right to take to India,’ he says.
That said, the star doesn’t intend – at least for now – to shift base to Mumbai, preferring to work in both Telugu and Hindi films. ‘I don’t see myself shifting to Mumbai. I love the laidback, lazy lifestyle of Hyderabad. Mumbai is too fast for me,’ he says with a laugh.
He is also clearly choosy when it comes to accepting roles – he refused to star in the Hindi remake of Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh (his role was essayed by Shahid Kapoor). He also said ‘No’ to the Hindi version of Dear Comrade. ‘I just want to be an actor who wants to tell compelling stories; I want to do something that works back home and here,’ he says.
Deverakonda started his acting stint with theatre and after being spotted in a play he did small roles in films which led to secondary roles and second leads. Determined to make it big in movies, he refused to have a Plan B for his career that was suggested by his family and friends. ‘It was a long struggle. People wanted me only in supporting roles and I felt I was meant for something big. So I waited patiently [for a big break]’.That came when he along with some friends made a film called Pelli Choopulu in 2016 on a shoe-string budget of Rs6 million. ‘We raised funds from two investors. I also acted in it.’
While it was his first solo lead, he recalls how it was a struggle to get the film released. ‘It opened small but soon went on to make around Rs300 million.’
Considered ground-breaking in the romantic-comedy genre in Telugu cinema, it won a National award cementing his position in cinema. ‘[Pelli Choopulu] launched me,’ he says.
Arjun Reddy followed the next year (2017). ‘Since then I have never been out of work.’
Devarkonda remembers being paid Rs100,000 for his role in Pelli Choopulu ‘and I didn’t know what to do with so much money,’ he says with a laugh. ‘At the time, I thought even if I do two films in a year, my life would be set; that was my goal.’
But not wanting to rest on laurels, the hard-working actor was keen to push his boundaries further.
After Arjun Reddy, another film of his, Geeta Govindam too went on to become a block buster hit. ‘These things were not under my control. I was just working because I liked these ideas. I just wanted to push my limit and see where it could take me,’ he says, in all humility.
Little wonder then that his Liger heroine says that if she had to pinch a few qualities of Deverakonda, it would be his way of living life on the edge. ‘Vijay doesn’t play it safe,’ Ananya says.
On crossovers happening from north to south and vice versa
‘[Haven’t we] always worked in each other’s industries? So many Bollywood actresses have worked in the South. Anil Kapoor sir debuted in south. Sridevi ma’am was a south actor. Now the merging of industries has become more visible, more apparent.
But the Hindi and South industry has always been working with each other. It’s just that now we are doing cinema that the entire country watches. And it’s about time this happened.
‘I am looking forward to the day when it is no longer called North and South, but Indian cinema and Indian actors.’
However, the actor believes that language and region do have a role to play in certain kinds of cinema; hailing from Hyderabad he could never play a ‘Dilliwala’, he says. ‘If I do Hindi cinema, it will be restricted to some kind of neutral cinema that works across cities and something that is not very rooted culturally.’
His thoughts on his cinema journey
‘It is definitely not easy breaking in [to the industry] when you are a stark outsider with absolutely no access to the industry,’ he says. ‘It is very difficult to find a platform where your voice is heard and you can be seen as an actor.’
A firm believer that ‘the world is not fair’, the award-winning actor who is also known for contributing handsomely to charity initiatives, recognises that fact that not all are born equal.
‘We are not born with the same financial status or with the same physical abilities or looks. However, I would never blame or dislike someone for having been born into a rich family or in the industry. It is not the fault of star kids that they were born to actor parents. Who knows, one day I’ll have a kid [ and if that kid decides to be an actor too then he or she too would be labelled a star kid].
‘The bottomline is that you just have to work hard to get where you want to be. There are benefits to being born as a star kid but I would not change anything about my life and my journey.
‘I’m grateful for every insult, every hardship, and every obstacle that I have faced in my life. It is those hurdles and struggles that enabled me to be where I am today. They taught me how to survive.’
Even as the star is rising fast in the pan-India horizon, he has his head firmly on his shoulders and is not delusional about his fame.
‘I know acting is not going to be forever. I treat this as a job. I am mad about acting but I will do it [only until] the time I am excited about it. Having friends and family and a life beyond work is important to me,’ he says.