Rana Daggubati is one of those few actors who has created a space for himself in not only Tamil and Telugu cinema, but also Bollywood. The actor has done several Hindi movies like Housefull 4, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, The Ghazi Attack, Dum Maaro Dum, and Department. Most recently, he has been seen in action-adventure Haathi Mere Saathi, which is a trilingual film.
The movie was all set to release in cinemas on 26 March but owing to the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, the release was postponed. However, the Tamil and the Telugu versions of the movie (Kaadan and Aranya) did release in March. Director Prabhu Solomon's trilingual narrates the story of a 'jungle man' fighting against deforestation to save the elephants. The film also stars Shriya Pilgaonkar as a news reporter who "decides to walk the path of truth and do her bit in the fight for justice."
"My career has been unique," says Daggubati. "Usually, it is the story that tells me which language film I am supposed to be doing as opposed to me deciding that. For instance, Haathi Mere Saathi, which is a story with elephants in the jungle, so whether I was in Mumbai or Chennai or anywhere else, it is a global story, and will work anywhere," says the actor.
Daggubati, who played the antagonist in the highest grossing films of Indian cinema, the two-part Baahubali franchise, says adventure, big scale, and grandeur have always excited him. "If I want people to come to theatres, I believe in giving something unique and a whole new experience, whether it is kingdom (Baahubali) or something underwater (The Ghazi Attack), or a jungle. Similarly, Haathi Mere Saathi is an action-adventure which everyone loves as a film viewing genre. It has got the jungle and elephants, and that is something you haven't seen on screen for a very long time. It was in the '70s and '80s decades that we saw films with animals in them. Then there were some references by Disney, but not in India. This film is very special, and the fact that we shot live on location with real elephants, filming took longer like most films I get into (laughs), but the outcome was great.
While we are talking about the film in conference rooms and cities, when you go into the wild and spend more than a year in that environment, that is when you will see the real impact and what it means.
And when I saw the film along with complete visuals and sound during post production, it blew my mind away," he adds.
And after having shot for Haathi Mere Saathi in the jungle for nearly a year-and-a-half, Daggubati says that the experience has changed him as an individual forever. "As a regular human, if you go to a jungle over a weekend, you feel refreshed and rejuvenated. For us, we spent a large part of a year-and-a-half in the jungle, whether it was in Kerala, Thailand or any other place. So as individuals, we have changed forever, the jungle has changed us forever in that sense. After communicating with elephants for so many months, I started looking inwardly. It gave me a different understanding towards the way animals behave, and your relationship towards everybody changed. It was really nice to go away from society, madness, the energy that a city has," says Daggubati.
"But filming Haathi Mere Saathi has been the most difficult experience. While filming Baahubali, at least I got to rest in between the shots. We were shooting in a very luxurious place, and we ate good food but here I was in rainforests between animals. It was tough reaching the set every day. We would leave at 5:30 AM, and after a one-hour drive, we would struggle on this vertical slope where your neck was wobbling for 30 minutes. This continued for three to four months at a stretch. We would take very minimal things to the jungle set. But once you get into that character in the jungle, in that wild, you create a world of your own where you are completely detached from what is happening in the world. There was no mobile phone signal for those months, we would get the signal for a short duration but then you are so tired that you go to sleep and wouldn't want to talk to anybody," adds Daggubati.
The dense forests are familiar terrain for the director of the film. One of Solomon's earlier films, Kumki, was the story of a pet elephant being made to masquerade as a fighter. Haathi Mere Saathi, Pilgaonkar explains, required the actors to surrender themselves to the director's vision of narrating a story that talks about the need for humans to respect forest boundaries. "While we were shooting, the crew was very careful that we didn't disturb any of the natural settings of the forest. Everyone was very mindful of this. By the time I would reach the set, very naturally, I would be in character. There was no network where we were shooting, and we were surrounded by majestic trees and this beautiful elephant, which was all so refreshing. And being so close to nature teaches us a lot. We have taken a lot from this experience in our life. I, of course, didn't shoot in the forests for as many days as the rest of the cast but still, just the process of reaching the forest was a journey in itself," says Pilgaonkar. "The makers have taken inspiration from real-life events in telling the story but it is also fictionalised. What I found interesting about my character is that she is this young girl who chooses not to succumb to pressure, she takes a stand, and supports Rana's character and his fight for justice for the elephant. She decides to walk the path of truth so the character itself made me ask myself a lot of questions," the actress adds.
For Daggubati, stepping into this film after Baahubali, he had to undergo a massive transformation. "Obviously, I was five times my size and when the director saw me, he said this is not how I want my jungle man to look (laughs). Secondly, I had to get away from that big image, it was too mighty to forget. Also, I figured with this film that usually when I am playing a character, there is some reference, either mythological or historical. But for this one, I had absolutely no reference point. It wasn't something that I had seen or read before. The director had this image of Charlton Heston from the Ten Commandments when he wrote the story, and he wanted someone who looked like him. He met many people, saw many faces, and when he met me, he said this is the actor he wants for the jungle. He didn't care what I did before, whether I had a market or not, the design was set in his mind," says Daggubati.
Not just a versatile actor, Daggubati is known to be a multitasker. He takes up different roles on a film set besides acting, from producing to looking for technological breakthroughs and figuring out marketing solutions. "But whatever I do, whether as an actor or as an entrepreneur, all the efforts lead up to telling a better story. So to me, it feels like the same job. I don't know the difference," he laughs.
Talking about the current scenario where COVID-19 has changed various dynamics of the industry. From the topsy-turvy journey of Bollywood through the pandemic to the rise of OTT, we have seen it all. "Now, there will be a clear bifurcation on what you see on big screens and what you see on OTT. You may want to come to cinema only for big experiences, big spectacle, whereas if you want to watch long stretched dramas then you may opt for OTT because in films, you are restricted in creating that momentum, and you have to close the story faster," he says.
"But theatres in the South are doing better than they did before so much so that even independent films with debutant actors are doing well. Industry in the South hasn't stopped, and actors and technicians over there are doing more work. People want to get back to the cinema, they are taking precautions. It is disappointing that the release of Haathi Mere Saathi got delayed because we were ready with our film for a long time, and wanted to get it out but it is alright as more and more people are understanding the value of the environment, and we need to care for it far more than we ever did. So in that sense, we are in the best of times, "concludes the actor-producer-entrepreneur.
Haathi Mere Saathi is streaming on Eros Now.