Doing Liger meant arriving in Bollywood with the backing of its most sought-after producer, Karan Johar. The actor is still settling in, overwhelmed by the collective wattage of star power surrounding him and the sudden spotlight… (EXCERPTS FROM GQ INDIA SEPTEMBER 2022)
Shah Rukh Khan was the start of it all. When Vijay Deverakonda was a small child living in a humble neighbourhood in Hyderabad, he stumbled upon an SRK interview and overheard the actor refer to himself as “the last superstar.” The aspirant had optimism since Khan, who came from a middle-class Delhi family, had been able to enter the exclusive Hindi film industry, which is infamous for its nepotistic culture. You have no idea how motivated I was by Shah Rukh Khan’s achievement. It made it very clear to me that I could do it too if he could. There is only one successful individual you need to use as an example.
Whether it’s his gruff charisma or his film preferences, the actor seems to pop up everywhere all of a sudden. Bollywood seems to have rolled out the red carpet for the actor’s entrance, from Ranveer Singh launching the trailer of Deverakonda’s newest movie Liger (for which he arrived in chappals, a stark contrast to Ranveer Singh who came dressed as, well, Ranveer Singh) to Janhvi Kapoor, Ananya Panday, and Sara Ali Khan swooning over him. How come?
Deverakonda is struggling with the assessment of his own hype. While one can explain the machinery backing him, Deverakonda’s popularity among his legion of fans, a significant number of whom are women, is quite real-as far as my anecdotal research goes. “It doesn’t make sense right?” he says, genuinely amused. “I pretty much come from nothing. At times, I feel half of this is not even my doing. That there’s a higher power at play. Otherwise, how can this happen to a boy from Saroj Nagar? Until I was 20 or so, which wasn’t many years ago, my parents and I lived in a rented apartment one-third the size of this suite. That’s all we had.”
Like most industries, the Telugu film industry, too, has nepotistic tendencies. The major actors working in the industry-Allu Arjun, Prabhas, Mahesh Babu, N.T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, and Rana Daggubati-have all emerged from the three families that control a large chunk of the film business: the Allu-Konidela family, the Daggubati-Akkineni family, and the Nandamuri family. There’s no denying these actors have built their own formidable body of work and cultivated a sizeable audience, but the debate was never about that. It was always about getting a foot in the door. While the actors mentioned above are a generation senior to Deverakonda, even his immediate peers: Akhil Akkineni, Naga Chaitanya, Allu Sirish, and Varun Tej all come from the same branches of film families. Not him. “It was incredibly hard to get in. The number of auditions, the number of rejections. I had a friend, Naveen Polishetty, whom I’d call and we’d discuss where the auditions were happening, or if someone had called back. For two to three years after college, nothing other than small roles in a couple of movies materialized.”
A few months before he turned 25, Deverakonda vowed that he wouldn’t be a struggling actor in his 30s. He wouldn’t be able to live with that. So he gave himself a deadline. “I’ll struggle till 25. And if things don’t materialise until then, I will explore something else.” Plan B was to write scripts or direct. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t getting roles; they were just not exciting enough. “Even when I was a nobody, I refused to do so many films. I always felt that I was meant for bigger things. People said, ‘You will never get an opportunity like this’, but I had higher expectations from myself.” In true cinematic fashion, where the quintessential underdog conspires to turn his extravagant dreams into reality, Deverakonda bagged Yevade Subramanyam days before his 25th birthday.
Within a year, he did another film as the lead, Pelli Choopulu, directed by Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam. Made on a budget of 60 lakh, Pelli Choopulu went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2016, turning Deverakonda into a bankable name in the Telugu film industry and laying the stage for what would be the biggest turning point of his career: Arjun Reddy, the film that put him on the map and, in all likelihood, enabled his crossover to Bollywood. While plenty has been written and said about the film’s toxic hero who gets an empathetic narrative arc, Deverakonda says he still doesn’t understand the debate, given how clear he’s made known that he does not endorse Reddy’s actions or his mistreatment of women. “But does that mean I won’t play a character like that or whose actions I personally don’t agree with? No.”
He is particularly excited about his crossover debut. Puri Jagannadh’s Liger, a film where his character is described as a “crossbreed” and he is credited as “The Vijay Deverakonda”. According to Deverakonda, he moved another film ahead to accommodate Liger as he was entirely taken by the film’s script and the character. Doing Liger meant arriving in Bollywood with the backing of its most sought-after producer, Karan Johar. The actor is still settling in, overwhelmed by the collective wattage of star power surrounding him and the sudden spotlight.
While enjoying the steady influx of female attention, the actor is also deeply aware of its transient nature, and hence, doesn’t take it too seriously. “While it fills me with affection, I don’t know how to reciprocate. I feel it’s temporary.” Like stardom? “Perhaps.” Speaking about his life’s highlight reel has put him in a state of deep introspection. “I should try to enjoy this, right?”
Given the breakneck speed that his career is seemingly moving at, it’s perhaps not conducive for a steady romantic relationship. “I’m someone who loves being in love. I believe in love stories. They’re my happy place. But I’m also scared of heartbreak. So far, it hasn’t happened.” And that’s not because he has been the heartbreaker. Nope. It’s because, in what sounds like an act of self-preservation, he hasn’t allowed anyone to come close enough to hurt him. “Growing up, my dad taught me that love is bullshit and that money is the centre of this world. If you have money, you have everything. If you have money, people will love you, respect you, and do everything for you. This was ingrained in me so deeply that when I grew into an adult, I didn’t believe in relationships.” The child who was told that love is fake grew into a man incapable of loving or showing love. “I began believing that whoever came to me, came with a want. When someone said they love me, I never said I love you too. Till today, it doesn’t come as naturally as it should.”
That changed. While he doesn’t reveal who, he says a woman came into his life who transformed him and his idea of love. Maybe Imtiaz Ali was really onto something when he made those movies, I joke. “After becoming an actor, I got into a long relationship that taught me a lot about love. I realised that it’s not a transaction and that people can love you selflessly for who you are. It took me a long time to learn that my dad was wrong. To unlearn what he taught me. But I’ll say this: His lesson got me to where I am. I achieved everything that I desired but it came at a price.”
Before I leave, I ask him a question that has been playing on my mind. When he gets to meet Shah Rukh Khan, and he certainly will, what’s he going to say? After all, it all began with the interview where Shah Rukh said he was the last of the superstars.”I don’t know,” he says. “But when I saw his interview, I remember wanting to say, ‘Shah Rukh, you’re wrong. You’re not the last. I’m coming.'”