“I might work on bigger projects in future, but Month of Madhu has been a satisfying experience that I will remember all my life,” says actor Naveen Chandra, during an hour-long conversation. The Telugu film, written and directed by Srikanth Nagothi, has him portraying 42-year-old Madhusudhan Rao who has taken to alcohol as an escape and is locked in a court battle with his wife Lekha, portrayed by Swathi Reddy. The film with an indie-spirited heart has fetched the actors a warm response and Naveen is savouring every bit of it.
Month of Madhu is his first theatrical release in five years, Naveen points out. His presence in the web series Parampara and films such as Ammu, which had a direct OTT release, ensured that the audience did not miss him. He has been working on a handful of projects in the last two years, the details of some of which are under wraps. Naveen is also a part of Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda DoubleX and Shankar’s Game Changer, headlined by Ram Charan. “I am growing as an actor in this phase of my career,” he says.
The recognition for his recent work is significant when we look at his chequered career. Since his debut in the mid-2000s, Naveen has been through the vagaries of the film industry. He was lauded for his work in Andala Rakshasi and those around him advised him to choose films that would help him establish himself as a hero. “None of those films worked,” Naveen reflects.
He remembers how it took a toll on his confidence and offers dried up. “I had to support my family financially, and this was a low phase. One day I approached Raja Ravindra (his current manager) and sought his help to get work.” An opportunity came in the form of director Trivikram Srinivas’ Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava. The thriller Evaru followed.
Both these films marked a turnaround. “I witnessed first hand the aesthetics with which a big film like Aravinda Sametha… is planned. I learnt a lot from director Ramji and Adivi Sesh who worked on minute details during Evaru. I began focussing on growing as an actor and stopped caring about being a hero.”
Offers began trickling in from both Telugu and Tamil. Born to Tamilian parents in Secunderabad and growing up in Bellary, Karnataka, Naveen is fluent in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi and understands Bengali. This makes it easy for him to dub for a film in other languages in two or three days.
Discussing Month of Madhu, in which he portrays a toxic male character, Naveen says he dipped into his childhood memories to play the role. His father was a head mechanic for KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) and took to alcohol after his punishing work hours. “We lived in a residential area in Bellary and he would send me to a wine shop. Seeing the men there, I thought this was normal. Only when I grew up and observed my friends did I realise the importance of being empathetic to women. So when Srikanth narrated the story, I felt I knew Madhu and was game to portray him.”
Emotionally draining, toxic characters
There was a comfort level since Naveen and Srikanth had worked together in Bhanumathi & Ramakrishna earlier. They discussed Madhu’s character at length. But two weeks prior to filming, the discussions stopped. This helped Naveen internalise the character. He was filming Ammu and Month of Madhu simultaneously and it left him emotionally drained. Ammu, a Karthik Subbaraj production directed by Charukesh Sekar, had him portraying a male chauvinist. And Madhu was a character with anger and attitude issues. “While we were filming in Vizag, I asked my wife to fly down and stay with me in the hotel so that I could switch off after work and be my normal self towards her and my child.”
Naveen sported a no-makeup look, wore ordinary shirts and trousers and sometimes did not even use a facewash as he wanted to look unkempt. “I would arrive at the shooting spot wearing branded clothes and shoes and then change into Madhu’s clothes. My first scene was the opening court sequence. I quietly changed my clothes and lay down at one corner of the set. Someone came and asked me to clear the space. Several others also did not recognise me. I knew I had cracked the look of Madhu.”
Shooting in sync sound was a process Naveen thoroughly enjoyed and is proud to have cracked most of his scenes in one or two takes. Minutes before a scene, Srikanth would brief him on how to deliver his lines in the Vizag dialect. The intonation with which he says ‘evadiki telusu…’ (who knows) is being noticed and praised. Naveen was also in awe of his co-star Harsha Chemudu. Reminiscing their lengthy conversations against the harbour at night, he says, “Harsha and Srikanth discussed these scenes in detail but I wasn’t aware of all the lines he had to deliver. Srikanth told me to just react like Madhu. Once the camera rolled, there was no stopping Harsha. He was fantastic.”
Naveen also heaps praise on the director’s decision to cast Swathi as a true-to-life middle class woman who carries the scars of her past, and Shreya Naville as the 19-year-old NRI, Madhumathi. “Shreya was rejected by several filmmakers citing weight issues; I am happy Srikanth cast her. We are conditioned to think that women have to look a certain way to play prominent roles in mainstream films. Shreya is an incredible performer.”
While Naveen stuck to his workout routine to portray the younger Madhu, for the older self, he stopped working out, had a hearty breakfast and fermented rice to grow a paunch. “People ask me if I got drunk to play an alcoholic, but no; I have been a teetotaller for eight years.”
He mentions that it is a triumph that the film did not take a conventional approach towards resolving the relationship turmoil. “Madhu lives in denial. He keeps reiterating that on a Monday, when he returned home with a bag of mutton, his wife was not around. He believes that she went away and will return on her own. He realises much later that he took her for granted. That scene between Madhu and his mother towards the end was moving. It took us 16 to 17 takes to get it right since Srikanth wanted the mother to react a certain way.”
Visiting the theatres during the opening weekend and witnessing audience reactions first-hand, Naveen is filled with gratitude. “Those who watched the film loved it. I hope we get better footfalls for such films, but it has been extremely satisfying as an actor.”