Amidst the gleaming marble and steel creation that is Hyatt Regency, our suite presents an appearance of controlled chaos. Hair and make-up artists are inspecting the room for various facilities, while the designer lays out the various “looks” almost reverentially, smoothing out creases and matching accessories. This particular Sunday morning might be one where the city sleeps – but I, waiting to meet Allu Sirish – or Sirish Allu, as he now styles himself, am all charged up.
And then he walks in, almost as if he’s arrived straight from a photo-shoot, not a hair out of place, lugging along a suitcase – except, of course, he’s been traveling, but still looks perfectly groomed. Once he’s placed himself in the careful hands of his team, we begin to chat. “What do you want to know?” he asks, spooning his oats quickly, and I ask him to talk about his entire life, starting from his childhood – it should be remarkably interesting.
“Really? Oh my god!” He grins.
“Okay. Shoot! I was born in Chennai, and was raised here until I was in the eighth standard. I was schooled in Padma Seshadri, to be very exact,” which explains his fluent command over Tamil, like his famous cousins and brother. “I shuttled between Chennai and Hyderabad, but I knew, and still know Chennai pretty well. As children, I think we were consciously shielded from the industry – and in a way, that happened all by itself: I mean, the industry may have functioned here, but the audience was somewhere else. People knew who we were, but not how big we were. We were very grounded. We enjoyed lots of family holidays, all of which were spent in the shooting locations of Uncle Chiranjeevi!” he chuckles. “They were mostly at hill-stations, places like Ooty, Kodaikkanal and Ogenakkal. There were lots of major places in North and South India. In Chennai, our families were very close, like a joint family. We may not have lived in the same house, but we all lived within walking distance of each other, all within 2-3 lanes. All nine cousins used to go to school in a van. We would start from my uncle’s house and pick up each kid from their home. Our manager used to pick us up, buy us ice-cream on the way. Until fifth standard at least, this was the routine …” he lapses into fond memories. “We did everything together. And, well, on every weekend, lunch was at the home of one of the three families. Oh! My childhood memories are the best. I’d love to re-create them for our next generation.”
Then, he shakes his head and smiles again. “I shifted to Hyderabad and did my junior college – we don’t have Grades 11 and 12there.”He explains. “I failed my 12th Standard exams,” he admits, with a candid grin. “So I did a year in private education, cleared it and then went on to do my Mass Communication degree. I had two options: either to do my studies in Chennai or in Mumbai, and I chose Mumbai. I’d been there as a kid. My primary motivation was to get out of home,” he laughs out loud. “Also, though, a voice deep inside told me to go there. It turned out to be the best choice. I was doing a Mass Communication degree, and in my third year I had to choose advertising. But, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I was inclined towards journalism, and used to write in my diary regularly and stuff like that. When I finished Journalism, my dad was producing Ghajini. I got in as a co-producer. I also worked alongside on our other productions, like Jalsa.”
What about his stint in studying, in New York? “Oh, yes! I did a small film-making course in the New York Film Academy for two months. Come on yaar, that hardly counts as studying abroad!” he grins.
And then talk, naturally, veers around to his turn, learning the ropes as a producer. “I was co-producer only for Ghajini,” he clarifies. “Technically, I was a senior production executive,” he explains. “But since he was a producer, dad needed to sign a lot of stuff, and he delegated authority to me. It gave me a lot of things to accomplish. He was extremely busy, and everything need not come back to him – that was the aim.”
Exactly what sort of things, I prod him to tell me. Production is and must have been a marvelously intriguing job. “Oh it is,” he acknowledges instantly. “I had to close deals between brands and our company, I had to sign-up contracts. Bollywood is huge on contracts. I had to sit with lawyers, vet the contracts, sometime re-draft them and then file reports with the bank. When you’re taking huge loans, worth as much as 30-40 crores of rupees, these things just have to be done. The thing is, after a while, it wasn’t really exciting any more. Let me clarify: the production part itself may have been tedious, but the creative side was definitely very interesting, especially as a mute spectator in the studio sittings of the proceedings was a great lesson. Once we shot the film, we would do test screenings with random public, call different audiences: say, drivers, family people, youth and we’d take their feedback and incorporate it into the movie. You know, Ghajini’s ad campaign was as hugely spoken about as the film itself. We did real-life Aamir look-alikes, video games, this and that. That was, seriously, the best experience ever!” He exults. “I still say I wouldn’t have been the same had I not completed the production cycle. It was the best thing that happened to me.”
So, what of his film career, then? How did that kick off? “I did get a lot of film offers, all along the way. Right from my last year at college, good film-makers and well-known directors from Telugu contacted me. But I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t decide, because I’d watched my brother and cousin make a success in the field. I admit it, I was a little afraid. I did want to act, but I also realized that it is definitely not as easy as it seems. It is a huge responsibility. Not many people know that when it comes to commercial films, it is your responsibility to pull in as many as 30 to 40 lakh people into the theatres in the first 3 days. After a point, especially in potboilers where the script, by its very nature, is rather limited, your personality has to carry the movie forward on your shoulders. The life a lead-actor has to lead is extremely demanding,” he explains. “It is, like, he has to live like a monk, you know. Be very disciplined, watch what you eat, look after your skin, the way you speak, carry yourself, schedule everything, do your work-outs, sleep on time! It is very demanding and not many people from the outside have any idea about that part of it. In production, I was living the lifestyle I’d been used to: sleeping late, traveling a lot and taking flights. A lead actor’s lifestyle was actually rather intimidating.”
He pauses. “But then as I progressed, something struck me. I gave some serious thought to it. The basic qualities of an actor were within me. It was all inside. All it needed was to be groomed. I was speaking with some friends of mine, some time ago, in Mumbai. And one of them told me – See, you’ve a year or two and you can train yourself. I was 23, and this was the right time, if I wanted to do something like this, they said. If I had the courage, I could do this. If I missed the bus now, then 25 would be the last time. When you’re 30, the opportunities that come to you won’t be that great. I wanted to weigh things. For me, it was not an impulsive decision. That was the best time to act on it. I spoke to a lot of people from the industry: directors, writers and producers, about what would work, what my strengths were, how I would be different from my brother, the advantages and disadvantages and all of that.”
Speaking of the brother, especially a star-brother, Allu Arjun – what was his take on his younger brother’s cinematic aspirations? “Well, he was quite positive about it,” Sirish smiles. “But he never likes to give too much advice to anyone. His theory is, Look, my life journey is not necessarily yours. You don’t have to go through the same thing, the same experience. He’d like me to explore it myself. Some basics and essential stuff he shares with me. The bigger decisions are mine to make.”
What of his other brother? He isn’t into films, is he? “Ha, no,” Sirish chuckles. “My other brother is happily married; he runs an energy conservation organization and an IT company.”
Back to movies, again. The ‘Why now,’ question has been answered – but why director Radhamohan’s Gauravam? Going by the trailer, it doesn’t seem to be a mainstream movie, does it? “Actually, that is a misconception. It does have commercial elements.” He explains. “The trailer doesn’t really explain the movie. It makes it look arty, but the film does have a hero, heroine, fights, villains, conflict, resolution and the works. It is a product of the Radhamohan school, which means, it won’t be over-the-top masala. Why this film? Because in this movie, the protagonist actually becomes the hero only in the last frame. This is something different from what actors in my family have played, over the years. I thought the journey that turns him from an innocent boy to a hero as being very well told, here, because the protagonist actually grows. Personally, I like films that show the hero’s growth. In mass films,” Sirish gets into the mode, “the hero has already evolved: he just comes in and solves the problem. There’s no personal realization. He doesn’t stumble, doesn’t get up. He doesn’t grow, and become the leader. There’s no personal journey. And I thought that was there, in this film, because the audience sees the protagonist’s journey through his eyes. I’ve seen that in Radhamohan’s movies. It is a good way to begin it, to differentiate myself from my family.”
Fair enough. What next, after this one? “I haven’t signed anything until now. I’m still hearing stuff,” he admits, as he pulls his bath-robe securely about him, and the make-up artist rubs endless creams and foundations into his face. “Now that I’ve completed a film and know all the more what it takes, I’m not going to just jump in to something I’m not sure of. Because, you know, there’s a time-frame. This film was completed in 10 months, which meant I was completely involved in it. And the next film will be done even faster, say 6-8 months. I’ll need to be that engaged with it. I have no parameters; haven’t fixed any template. The subject could be anything. I haven’t fixed on anything definite, because I need to determine the script and decide whether the audience will like it.”
Gauravam, of course, is a bi-lingual. Has he considered doing a film straight in Tamil? “Duh, of course,” he answers, maneuvering the make-up artist’s brush expertly. “I mean, even in Gauravam, I spoke in Tamil. A bit polished, yeah, but it was straight Tamil. And I would like to do a straight Tamil film. We’ll see. Something will come up.”
Does he think it will work? What about the bias existing in the Tamil and Telugu industries, respectively? After all, they are different languages, with different souls. “Well, what do you mean, Will it work? Why shouldn’t it work?” he asks. “I mean, if the content is good, it’ll work, no?”
Surely there’s still a prejudice about actors crossing over from different industries? “Doesn’t matter! After all, MGR was a Malayali,” he says confidently.
True. On the other hand, MGR didn’t quite identify himself as a Malayali in the Tamil film industry, did he? “Well, if you’re convincing enough, that’s all that matters. Take Rajni, then. Everyone knows that Rajni is not Tamil. I mean, in the film Shivaji, even when he picks up the phone, he says, King of Maharashtra,” he grins. “If you look at AP, Andhra Pradesh, Surya has done well.”
I mention an article he’s written about the two industries, the logistics of their working, and the successes, re-makes and dubbing prospects. Is it, or isn’t it true that Telugu movies find it difficult, getting a foot-hold in Tamil Nadu? “I was talking about why Telugu films, so far, hadn’t worked, couldn’t crack the Tamil Nadu market. And that held good only before the release of Eega. That film cracked the barrier. All are good movies for remakes, not dubbing. Our content is more hero-driven, which means that the image of those heroes never translated well, so they had to be re-made. When we dubbed films like Arundhati and Eega, they succeeded. So, it’s not a question of whether the audience will or won’t watch it.”
So, how were things on the personal front?
“Yes,” he grins. “Family’s perfect. My friends are very happy, excited, to be watching on me screen. We’re looking at the second week of April for a release.”
What else is on the cards, aside from movies? “Ha, I’ve resigned from my production company,” he laughs. “Resigned in the sense, just that there are no papers to sign. A year and a half ago, I decided that this was what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t do anything else; wouldn’t multitask, or at least till you reach a huge scale, I want to reserve my energy only for this. I’m happy doing this.”
With a background in production, what sort of a perspective does he carry with him, when it comes to acting? Does it change his outlook?
“Yeah! There’s certainly a different perspective. Sometimes, knowledge is a curse, or a boon, depending on what the situation is,” he laughs uproariously. “Mostly it’s been positive. Sometimes, people don’t like it when you know too much. Like, in a certain place, you’re supposed to say things like, Oh, okay, so this is how it should be, okay, hanh, I’ll do it like you say,” he acts it out, candidly. “Like, you have to do a little drama. People in authority don’t like it if you ask too many questions – they get a panic attack. That’s something I have to work on right now, to play dumb. Because people don’t expect actors to know these things, ask questions. That’s part of the learning process, to act dumb,” he gurgles. “See, I’m just curious. I don’t want to rub the other person the wrong way. I only ask. I never instruct them. I’ve never wanted to rub my whims and fancies into anybody. It’s a very good advantage, knowing things. But I just need to curb my enthusiasm, especially when sometimes, people give me lame excuses for production issues and I know exactly what’s happening. That’s when I have to tone it down.”
As the person who brought Southscope magazine into being – any thoughts about it? “Well, I needed, obviously, to go full-time with my career. Earlier, I used to devote 2 hours a day for the magazine, and one in the evening. My partner took care of a great many things. I have a slight editorial background, I participated in the editorial meetings, and I oversaw a little of the design. But now, things have changed. I’m now traveling a lot; off to Chennai, Mumbai and abroad for training. I doubt if I could have pulled off running it – It would have died a slow death. I thought it would be best if I didn’t try that. The best thing would be to let somebody who’s better more experienced, dedicate more resources to it, and take care of it. And now, I think they’re doing a better job, a great job! It looks fantastic.”
Photographer: Kunal Daswani Styling: Kaushik Valendra Hair & Make up: Ambika Devi (Stylesmith) Wardrobe: Gatsby Accessories & Footwear: Aldo