Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam can be poker faced and slip in self-effacing humour when you least expect it. The conversation shifts between art, books and cinema and when the topic is about how he, primarily a writer and director, became an actor, he says, I looked like a walking gym ball in Mahanati [he did a cameo as Singeetam Srinivasa Rao]. I wondered if the audience would want to look at me again overweight and balding when Vishwak [Sen] and Vijay [Deverakonda] also wanted to cast me in their films.
We meet on a quiet morning, before the frenzy of a new round of promotions begin for Meeku Maathrame Cheptha (MMC), Vijay Deverakondas first production in which Tharun plays the lead. Tharuns pet beagle, Coffee, strolls merrily near the entrance. A few yards away in the drawing room is an oil painting of Coffee, by Tharun.
His home is an adda where friends drop in and discuss music, movies, and the world. Tharun jokes, This is becoming another Lamakaan.
MMC, Tharuns first film as a hero, will release soon. Early this year he played a cop in Falaknuma Das, directed by Vishwak Sen. As a director, Tharun would enact scenes for his actors. Vishwak (who featured in Tharuns second film Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi) noticed his acting prowess and insisted on casting him in Falaknuma Das.
But it took Vijay Deverakonda, whom Tharun had directed in Pelli Choopulu (2016), to cast him in the lead role. MMC is a slapstick comedy directed by debutant Shammeer Sultan and stars Anasuya Bharadwaj, Vani Bhojan and Abhinav Gomatam, among others. Though Tharun used to resent slapstick comedies, he liked Shammeers story of how mobile phones govern us and have led to changing notions of privacy.
Tharun insisted on an audition. I wanted to see how I would look. Vijay and Shammeer were happy and things were finalised, he says. Vijay then coaxed him to get fit. Fitness trainer Sai Krupa initiated Tharun into weight training and he lost 15 kilograms. My primary motive to get fit was to not spoil someone elses film. Filmmaking is a Godly process and I cannot mess it up [by looking unfit for the part], he reflects.
As Tharun grew fitter, he noticed the surge in his energy levels: I felt as though the mental fog was clearing up. I could run around the sets without puffing and panting. Im careful about what I eat. Acting has been a learning curve in many ways, he says.
Letter from the past
Was acting ever in his scheme of things? His mother Geetha (academic and actor) shows a scanned copy of a letter Tharun had written in 1995, when he was six, asking her to support his dream of becoming an actor.
Tharuns exposure to the glitzy world of celebrities was through his uncle (late) Pranay Bhaskar, who was Minister of State for sports in the mid 90s. Among those who would visit my uncle was actor Rajendra Prasad garu. With his film connections he got me a costume for my school play. I was the prince in The Frog Prince. I would roam around the house wearing the dress, and my grandmother would chide me, Tharun remembers.
That childhood fascination with acting didnt linger. But there was an urge to do something related to cinema. He made a montage video and screened it in school, in class XII, It (the film) was horrible. But there was applause. I stood on stage, and was greedy for that kind of attention.
When his mother bought him a video camera, he learnt to put together videos and tell a story and sell an emotion. Eventually, he began making short films while studying engineering and his lecturers liked his work.
He talks about the shift from the sprawling Hyderabad Public School campus to a nondescript engineering college in Hyderabads outskirts where students were being spanked with wooden rulers. Though his father had paid the fees, Tharun walked out of class when he was still being yelled at. He then joined an engineering college in Secunderabad and was glad to be in the vicinity of the Clock Tower, Leo Cafe and Manju theatre. It felt like home.
Tharuns initial short films stemmed from an idealistic perspective, to highlight social issues. Around the same time, Alphonse Puthren and Karthik Subbaraj were directing short films in Malayalam and Tamil. Vijay Sethupathi was an emerging name in Tamil short film circuits. I used to exchange messages on YouTube with Karthik and Alphonse. Back then, Telugu short films would garner more views since we had better internet speeds and an appetite for content, says Tharun.
If Tharun can shift between writing, directing and acting with relative ease, it harks back to the short film days. Short film crews multi-task. There is no hierarchy and departmental divisions are not strict, since budgets are limited. All of us would contribute to the creative form, he says. He even acted in a short film and says he didnt show it to anyone. Tharun had to rise above his insecurities to put himself out as an actor. The acting process, he avers, has made him more empathetic, I used to think caravans are a needless luxury for actors. I now understand that actors need space and comfort to prep; you cant put them in chaos and expect them to emote. When I direct my next film, Ill be more empathetic to my actors.
Reverting to talk about MMC, Tharun calls Vijay an ideal producer, being in the loop and offering creative suggestions but not interfering. Being a Tamilian, Shammeer wrote the dialogues in Tamil, and Tharun translated them in Telugu. Tharun feels MMC is a blend of Tamil and Telugu filmmaking aesthetics: The two industries may share a lot of content, but our cinematic languages are different the spaces between dialogues or even the way the camera moves. Only a few like Mani Ratnam have bridged that difference.
Meanwhile, Tharun is writing a story set in the backdrop of Hyderabads Malakpet race course, for his next directorial venture starring Venkatesh. His team is writing a web series sequel to Ee Nagaraniki Emaindhi. Tharun, Nandini Reddy, Sankalp Reddy and Sandeep Vanga are part of the directors team for the Netflix Telugu web series on the lines of Lust Stories.