Naga Chaitanya is a star in the minds and hearts of Telugu audiences. Since his early successes with Josh and Ye Maaya Chesave, the actor has carved out a niche for himself in the Telugu film industry, delivering several hits along the way, including Majili and Love Story. And now, more than a decade later, he’s making his Hindi film debut with Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha. Chaitanya spoke to Hindustan Times about his Bollywood debut, adapting Forrest Gump, and how language barriers are breaking down in Indian cinema.

When asked why it took him so long to make his Hindi debut, Chaitanya says he has been actively rejecting—or “shying away”—from Hindi films for some time. “I grew up in Chennai and moved to Hyderabad,” he explains. As a result, my Hindi isn’t the best. I’ve been feeling insecure about it for a long time. That’s why I’ve turned down offers to work in Hindi films in the past. To be honest, when I told people that my Hindi is very ‘South Indian,’ they were sceptical.”

But what compelled him to say yes to Laal Singh Chaddha? According to Chaitanya, the language barrier is written into the script here. “When I got the offer for Laal Singh Chaddha, I gave them the same ‘disclaimer,'” he says. Aamir sir was completely fine with it because I’m playing a South Indian boy who travels up north, which is where our journey begins. They wanted me to sound like a South Indian. They were completely fine with me using a Telugu word or adopting a Telugu accent while speaking Hindi in the film. In fact, we added a few Telugu words here and there to give it a Telugu flavour.”

Chaitanya, or Chay as his fans refer to him, isn’t the only South Indian star set to make his Bollywood debut in the near future. Rashmika Mandanna will play Mission Majnu, Vijay Deverakonda will play Liger, and Nayanthara will play Jawan. Of course, the keyword there is’star.’ These actors all play lead roles in these films. Chaitanya, on the other hand, makes a brief appearance in Laal Singh Chaddha. “Honestly, I don’t mind playing a character in a film if that character propels the story forward and I can influence the audience even if my presence is brief.” And I believe I have that opportunity with Laal Singh Chaddha,” he says.

Given his apprehension about the language, the 35-year-old wanted to begin his Hindi film career with a smaller role. “I think I needed a transition film like this,” he says. We shot sync sound, and I was given my lines in advance. This entire experience has given me a lot of confidence to direct a Hindi film and have it shown on a Bollywood platform. The true test, however, will take place on August 11. I need to be accepted by the audience. If I pass that test, I’d love to look for more opportunities.”

The official remake of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump is Laal Singh Chaddha. Chaitanya’s character Bala is based on the original’s Bubba. The actor explains that the adaptation is so desi that he was never concerned with imitating or Indianizing the original film or character. “They adapted the film in such a way that they kept the framework of the original but completely changed the contents and events.” When it comes to my character, the way he enters and exits Laal’s life is very similar to the way Bubba and Forrest interact. But my mission, my roots, and my origins are vastly different from Bubba’s.

It’s about Bubba wanting to start a shrimp business there. I won’t say too much, but it’s something truly extraordinary, deeply rooted, and well-known in South India. These were very well redesigned. “I don’t think there will be any comparisons to the original,” he says.

The film will be released on August 11, but Chaitanya has already seen it several times thanks to special screenings organised by Aamir. “This is Aamir’s process, sir.” “He shows the film to a variety of people from various walks of life,” says Chaitanya. One of these screenings was particularly memorable for Chaitanya because it included his father, veteran actor Nagarjuna, as well as Chiranjeevi and filmmakers SS Rajamouli and Sukumar.

“We’re not used to such screenings,” Chaitanya says. I’ve never sat in a room with all of them watching my work at the same time. And they had some very helpful suggestions, which I believe Aamir sir incorporated into the edit. Being in the room was a truly memorable experience for me as an actor. It was a magical moment that I will never forget.”

Nagarjuna, Chaitanya’s father, is one of the few south Indian actors to achieve success in Hindi cinema. In the 1980s and 1990s, Nagarjuna starred in blockbusters such as Shiva, Khuda Gawah, and Criminal, and he is returning to Hindi cinema with the fantasy epic Brahmastra. Did he have any pearls of wisdom to share for his son’s debut, given his success in Bollywood? “One thing he said to me is to use this platform to do things I can’t do back here,” Chaitanya responds (Telugu cinema). I’m not sure how much I’ll be accepted in specific types of roles here because we already have a reputation and the audience expects certain types of roles and entertainment from us.

I’m not sure how much of a pure character-based role or film will be accepted here. So I can experiment with what I can’t do here. In Hindi films, I am still very much a spectator. I have that opportunity, a clean slate.”

By Piya

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