Ananya Nagalla -- A Face Made For The Silver Screen
June 13th, 2019 -- On a breezy evening, My friend and I were invited to attend the press preview of a movie that celebrated the life and times of the highly renowned inventor, Chintakindi Mallesham, at Ramanaidu Studios. As usual for anyone of us who are used to premiers at Ramanaidu, we arrived at the screener theatre about twenty minutes earlier than the premier time to have chai and onion samosas. We still are pretty flexible in that way, you see. Whilst waiting we couldn’t help but notice notable reporters and media friends flocking the premises, all familiar and courteous to each other. It was as if these people knew each other, and we were the only outsiders, quietly minding our snacks far away from this bunch. The premier went on for Mallesham, and we decided to stay back for a couple of minutes after the screening and congratulate the cast of the movie.
I felt starstruck congratulating the legendary Jhansi garu, for she had pulled off another stellar performance as was common with her for the past decade or so. Literal chills. Priyadarshi, the lead man of the day was as always accessible and entirely comfortable with us. Them apart, there was this young woman, shyly and coyly just warmly grinning at people and courteously saying ‘thank you’ to everyone who greeted her. Dressed in a white kurti albeit, with rosy pink floral imprints, Ananya Nagalla who played the female lead was humility personified. She was blinded by the lights around her, people showering praises on her, and all she could manage was sweet acknowledgment and a sheepish nod. She was an outsider, like us, a stranger to this world of glitz and recognition.
In time to come, Ananya Nagalla was highly appreciated for her performance in Mallesham once the film released that very weekend. Everyone hailed her performance as one of the best performances in 2019. Everyone saw her natural talent erupt on screen, coupled with fluent linguistic nuances and a steely resolve to bring her character, Padma, a rooted novelty that was entirely unique. The essential ‘outsider’ had managed to put a foot into the industry, you see. Ananya Nagalla, who was a well-known face in the ‘short-films’ circuit had finally arrived on the big screen. It was only recently that I got in touch with her, and talked about basically everything under the sun. A few excerpts from our conversations come below in the form of a feature interview…
To start off the proceedings, where does the story of Ananya Nagalla as an actor start? We’ve seen you prominently in short films before your feature film debut with 2019’s Mallesham. In that context, how did this career shift towards movies happen as well?
Well, ironically I never had this passion to become an actor or come into films while growing up. The idea was always to get a job, settle down, etc. As time progressed, while doing my job in the IT sector for a year or so, there was this time where I felt that I should do something else, something more. During this time short film culture was trending all over the city. YouTube became a good platform and stuff. So, in this situation, I was frequently asked by my colleagues and friends to try acting in short films. I was interested because I used to watch them as well. So then I eventually did do a short film called ‘Kanulu Kalisayi’ back in 2015, out of curiosity. My brother watched the trailer for this short film and told me that I performed well. That is when I felt that maybe this is something I could explore. However, I didn’t pursue it too much as it was just a hobby.
In this process, I connected with Mr. Subash Chandra (of MR Productions). I used to always follow and admire their short films at the time and pinged him one day; asking him to watch my short film as well. That’s how our friendship started and I became good friends with the whole team of MR Productions. Eventually, Supriya Chekuri who was planning to make a short film about her own experiences of getting married selected me to play the lead of it. The short film became Shaadi (2017).
Post that, I got really good recognition, and of course, a good amount of opportunities did come up. However, I didn’t feel confident enough to pursue them. Thus, I took a break from acting for a couple of years being unsure about it and all.
As it turned out again after a year, I just had to come back. This time, however, I decided to pursue some auditions from scratch, rather than just wait for something to come up. Although I was skeptical that I might not be considered as a lead actress; the idea was to find good roles where I could establish my mark. I also felt that I needed to take acting classes as well, purely because I needed to understand its grammar and process. That’s when I joined Acting Research Centre in Manikonda in 2018. Two months into the acting course, auditions for the film ‘Mallesham’ happened at the Centre.
How did the film debut ‘Mallesham’ happen as we’ve heard that there was a long casting process for the feature given its specific role requirements?
It’s an interesting story. So the initial brief given to us during ‘Mallesham’ auditions was that they were looking for a ‘village girl’ character. Although I hail from Sathupalli, a village in Khammam district, I grew up in Hyderabad for the major part of my life. Even my family is settled down here. The character given was set in the 1990s and required a particular body language, which I wasn’t sure that I could pull off. So I gave the audition with no high expectations on it and passed it on.
So initially I couldn’t fit into the requirements. Incidentally, we used to read Mallesham’s script at the Centre quite periodically, as our Instructor Mr. Mahesh Gangimalla was the ‘Director of Acting’ for the film. We used to do table reads for the script, to see how it played out or how the characters sounded, etc. Gradually, I truly grew fond of the script and particularly the main female lead character, Padma (Mallesham’s wife within the movie). There were many nuances for the character that made me connect with her, and that is when I decided that I needed to give an audition again with total dedication and understanding towards her.
For this second audition, I decided to pick one of the tougher scenes in the script (the first fight between Mallesham and his wife at the end of the first half). My challenges at the time included the fact that I didn’t know how to drape a saree, let alone carry one. But it was essential for the character. So I decided to take a week off from my job, and practice just that.
Our instructor helped me understand the body language of the character as well. Another major challenge I faced was to pick up the intrinsic Telangana dialect. Truth be told, my dialect was heavily Andhra specific. So then I turned to a fellow batchmate who was fluent in Telangana dialect and used to learn it from her, not just the overall flow of it, but the nuances, colloquial words, etc. After all this preparation, I gave an impressive audition. I ended up in the top three probables for the role. The Director of the film (Raj R) was impressed by the amount of preparation and dedication I had put in for the role and finalized me for the role.
Further, I used to memorize the dialogues by heart because we were going for SyncSound for the film and had very less margin for error. I used to memorize even other character dialogues as well so that the flow is maintained. ‘Mallesham’ thus became a huge learning curve for me personally and professionally.
Post-Mallesham was there like a conscious thought process for the projects you picked up. How important was Mallesham in shaping up your career per se?
One major change was that I quit my job (in October last year). I decided to pursue acting as a profession with full commitment. It didn’t make sense for me to try and balance two different professions. It wasn’t like my lifestyle changed or something like that, but I wanted to take acting as a livelihood. I felt that this was the proper time to make that career switch. Initially, it was a bit tough because I couldn’t rely on my friends or colleagues to help me out in my new career. But gradually, I sort of understood the way to go about it and now I am pretty used to this sort of lifestyle. I am yet to make good friends in the industry though; although I’ve always enjoyed the company I find on the shoot sets.
On the topic of lifestyle, this year has been plagued by the global pandemic and it has drastically affected the film business on the whole. With the shoots getting delayed, or worse even projects being canceled, how has the period been for you professionally?
Fortunately, I am staying at my parent’s place, so financially I am kind of managing. As far as the opportunities go, I’ve been listening to some scripts during this period. But to be honest, most of them have these stereotypical roles or resembling roles to the one I played in ‘Mallesham’, which I wouldn’t want to pick up. After Mallesham, I plan to pick characters that have significance to the plot or you know, helps me build a brand as a versatile actor. That’s the priority. I do understand that sometimes I might not have the luxury to pick and choose, but since there is an explosion of content all across different mediums and platforms, I think I can stand on my priorities.
Because of OTT’s and Web shows there are many more opportunities for actors, which helps us pick and choose projects. We’ve been watching over the years that Telugu heroines are reduced to second fiddles in movies. So, I feel its better to focus on interesting characters than just lead roles. I’d prefer to spend my time and energy in projects where I am utilized properly, rather than chase down bit roles in bigger films.
Continuing the thought on that, why do you think that our Industry usually employs non-Telugu speaking / non-native heroines for major parts in higher budget films? What’s your take on it?
Initially, before entering the Industry I too had the same question in my mind, as to why Telugu speaking heroines are not preferred. At that time I used to think that maybe there aren’t that many Telugu speaking native heroines available for the makers to cast. It seemed like a valid reason. However, over the past decade or so, this equation has changed. There are many talented and competent Telugu heroines today who still face the same problem. So the problem persists. I don’t know why this is happening, but it is happening.
During my journey, however, I’ve learned to accept that, and also take a new perspective towards this issue. Instead of questioning why Telugu speaking talents are not taken or that they are not becoming commercially successful heroines, I started observing and understanding people who made it to the top. I started to analyze what made them successful. That’s where I thought I should stick to my priorities of building my brand. My mark that is, by doing well-written characters.
While researching for the interview, we observed that you passed your LLB degree last year as well. It struck us as an intresting switch, given the fact that you’ve done BTech, and then a IT job, and now you plan to pursue acting as a profession. So how does doing LLB fit in?
Well, there’s no specific reason for doing LLB too. My mother always wanted me to be a lawyer cause I used to bring out logical points to win an argument while I was a kid. So, LLB happened. I mean, maybe sometime in the future I’d want to put my degree to do some good to the people around me. You know, sometimes the way we react to a situation decides the power we have. I’ve always wanted to do something for the young women in our society who face unsurmountable problems on a day to day basis. This degree allows me that sort of academic platform to help a few people. That was the reasoning. There were a few incidents that I had come to know of, which truly cemented this idea to have a law degree. Sheerly because I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything.
Q. Rolling back to your projects, post-Mallesham you’ve picked up an interesting project titled ‘PlayBack’. What made you connect to this project particularly?
‘PlayBack’s Director Hari Prasad Jakka had come to the premiere of Mallesham and thought I would be good for his film. We connected through Facebook, and he had asked me if I was interested in taking up the role. This was immediately after ‘Mallesham’, and I thought of taking a break and focus on listening to scripts before choosing any project. So I thought I’d meet him, and tell him that I wouldn’t be able to take it up. However, when I went to his office, he narrated the overall synopsis to me, and I instantly felt excited about the role. I immediately agreed to the project. It’s an interesting role that I’m doing in the film (which also stars Dinesh Tej, Arjun Kalyan, Spandana among others). I play a teacher in 1993 who connects with the same aged guy living in 2019 through a Telephone. Thus, its a SciFi story that unravels across two timelines. The role has various shades to play around with. I am extremely proud of the project.
The biggest project in your career thus far in terms of commercial appeal is the yet to be released ‘Vakeel Saab’, where you play one of the pivotal roles along with Powerstar Pawan Kalyan, Nivetha Thomas, Anjali, and Prakash Raj. How was the experience like since it was a significantly bigger film compared to the other films in your career?
The Co-Director of ‘Vakeel Saab’ called me up for an audition after watching my performance in Mallesham. Post the audition they were convinced to cast me into the film. Yes, the project was very different than any others that I had previously worked on. My first film was like a software project to my Director. He was like the team-lead and we all had to deliver what was asked of us. However in ‘Vakeel Saab’ the approach to the filmmaking was all dialed up. It was the first time I was seeing a commercial movie set, production units, different camera setups, angles, and more. The actual glitz of movie-making. And of course, the film is cast with many senior actors with decades of experience behind them. So it was a little overwhelming initially for me.
There were huge opportunities to learn from them as well, which kept me excited all through. Initially, I was intimidated by the grandeur of the film and the cast, but eventually, I became a little bit comfortable, say a week or two into the shoot. Anjali garu and Nivetha garu became good friends with me, and Prakash Raj garu started cracking jokes on me as he saw me as this young and innocent new actor. Pawan Kalyan garu went out of his way to make me feel super comfortable on the set since I was a Telugu girl and a newcomer at that.
In this context, were there like specific things that you picked up from this highly experienced cast, given the fact that you are just starting out in your career?
Innumerable things. I was always looking to pick up new things or rather new ways to approach my acting on the set. To be specific, I picked up the confidence of Nivetha Thomas garu. She is an extremely confident and articulate person. She is someone who likes to intricately understand her character and confidently asks the Director if there is something she needs clarity on. She makes sure that the character never deviates from what it is envisioned as, down to the slightest nuance. I liked that sort of confidence in her approach. Anjali garu is an extremely dedicated person. The way she commits herself to a role and immerses herself in it is just inspirational. From Prakash Raj garu I learned as to how one can be joyful and happy on the set while giving a top-notch performance as well.
From Pawan Kalyan garu, the biggest takeaway for me was the humility in approaching one’s work. Being such a superstar, Pawan Kalyan garu always ensured that everyone on the set was comfortable and well taken care of. And of course, we used to talk about philosophy at a stretch. We used to discuss different social issues regularly, and he always had an effective and inspiring take on them. I used to confess to him that I often felt helpless and powerless in doing something for people in need or those who are facing difficulties in life. He advised me that I should always keep praying for the well-being of those who need it. Even if I couldn’t physically help them for whatever reason, He told me that if I could pray for them, it had the power for the universe to do some good on my behalf. Thus, the whole experience with ‘Vakeel Saab’ has made me a stronger person.
Initially, I used to get affected by the smallest of disturbances in my life, but now because of meeting these wonderful and understanding their way of doing things, I feel I’ve evolved as a person. I’ve become less reactive to unwanted things. I’ve learned to stay unaffected.
Going forward, what is your philosophy in life. And how do you think you want to approach your career further now that you’ve seen the glory involved in doing and making films? And also I’ve observed that you aren’t very active on the PR front or even in your Social Media presence. Is there a specific reason for that?
I feel that I should be happy with whatever I have. Simple as that. I have this tattoo which says ‘Believe’. That’s stands for -- Believe in Yourself and Be Happy. As far as self-promotion goes, I do want to be out there, in terms of Social Media posts or stories, etc. But somehow whenever I want to post something, I feel its too personal. I can’t differentiate you know. I feel like keeping my personal life and professional life separately. Hence I don’t post too much, at least at present. Usually, I just post some photoshoot pictures but apart from that, I want to have my work speak for itself. As it is I’m not that active on social media. I’m kind of detached from the culture in that sense.
To wrap up our feature, what would be your take on OTTs and Web shows? And are you looking forward to this culture being picked up?
It’s a game-changer. I feel it’s a blessing for actors that so many OTT projects are coming up. Not just that, but the fact that there are so many diverse and challenging roles being written for us since OTTs have that sort of scope for experimentation in the form and format of stories. We have shows which are truly exploring women characters, which I think will bring due credit to the talents we have. In that sense, OTT’s are also good platforms for a particular set of movies as well. Some movies need that kind of direct approach to the viewers. However, I feel that movie magic can be truly experienced only in a theatre. So yeah the idea that every type of content has its different platform to come out on is always a welcome change.
So, that was Ananya Nagalla, the coy and shy girl now evolved into an evolved professional actor, talking about her career and her aspirations. We wish that being Telugu speaking local girl, she meets all the success in the industry. And of course, we’ll be looking forward to her newer projects post-Vakeel Saab as well. Until next time, stay home and stay safe, folks !!