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Varun Tej Interview – Operation Valentine

‘In a generation that strives for quality over quantity, I better be cautious,’ Varun Tej tells Srivathsan Nadadhur over a chat

By all means, Operation Valentine is the ‘most’ widely promoted film in Varun Tej’s career. The star has been on a city-hopping spree, interacting with crowds and scribes in Mumbai, Rajahmundry, Vizag, Vijayawada and Hyderabad, setting the expectations right for a ‘realistic’ commercial film. The Telugu-Hindi bilingual is directed by a newcomer Shakti Pratap Singh Hada.

The aviation drama is his fourth film in a uniform, after Antariksham (astronaut), Kanche (soldier) and Gandeevadhari Arjuna (RAW operative). The script came his way by the end of 2020, it was ‘meticulously’ researched and was initially meant to be a Hindi film. Shakti was an aviation enthusiast and had developed a high-quality short based on the Pulwama attack for just under Rs 5 lakh.

It was a relief for Varun that Shakti was a man without inhibitions. “Generally, when a first-time director deals with an actor with reasonable experience in films, they think twice to tell us if we’re going wrong. Shakti had no such apprehensions. As actors, we’re accustomed to react to a situation in a certain way and it helps when a director believes otherwise and gives us insight.”

His father (actor-producer) Naga Babu has had high regard for the armed forces and the actor has grown up listening to heroic tales of defence personnel. “I had a rose-tinted view about life in the forces, but I’ve realised how IAF needs to function under several financial limitations. Most of their budget allocations go into equipment and in a war-like situation, they’re first responders.”

It took a couple of years for the film to get past bureaucratic procedures, permits and extensive pre-production and go on floors. “Filmmaking is always about taking that leap of faith. We planned to make the film in under 40 crores under many constraints. Even one extra VFX shot would cost us lakhs and there was no scope for lethargy. We shot the film in over 70 working days in 2023.”

Varun had a fair idea of the modus operandi of VFX-heavy films, but the challenge here was to get the body language right. The IAF got him access to the simulator to familiarise himself with the cock-pit technicalities for over three hours a day. “For a major part in the combat sequences, I was surrounded by costumes and gears and had to emote with my eyes. My performance and dialogue delivery had to be exaggerated for the emotion to reflect in my eyes.”

“I was surprised to find many Telugu people at the air base during the shoot; very few in my circles are part of the IAF. We felt like one among them by the end of the schedule. They’re people who party hard and enjoy life to the fullest because every ‘operation’ is a life-and-death situation for them. They’ve seen their close mates die in front of them. Hence you don’t see them gloating over trivial aspects.”

The lessons during Antariksham and Gandeevadhari Arjuna’s shoots came in handy for the actor during Operation Valentine. “In both the films, we didn’t give audiences a strong reason to invest in the characters emotionally. In Antariksham, the astronaut came across as selfish, and short-sighted and there were a few issues with the characterisation in Gandeevadhari Arjuna too.”

As a result, he was cautious about getting the emotional beats right in Operation Valentine. “There’s a strong emotional back story to the pilot establishing why you need to root for Rudra. He is a fictional character, but we’ve taken influences from multiple real-life personalities. I’ve relied on a few common behavioural traits of the pilots for the performance.”

He sharpened his Hindi for two months to prepare for the bilingual. “I’m comfortable with the language, but the makers were particular about my diction. It was an arduous task to alternate from Hindi to Telugu and I jumbled up a few lines here and there too. I’ve dubbed for Hindi, but they have a backup plan too. I too want to listen to my voice in a new language on screen.”

While the actor honestly wanted to drift away from the monotony of stories with apparent patriotic fervour, Varun says it’s impossible to ‘plan’ projects tailored to his requirements. “From the director’s dates to the producer’s readiness to market trends, many factors come into play. Every project has its destiny and you roll on accordingly.”

Varun is filming for Karuna Kumar’s Matka, for which he recently wrapped a schedule. “There was no scope to portray shades of grey in any of my recent characters but Matka will be wild. Gambling is a menace that can destroy families. The film is a periodic drama based on true incidents and a solid commercial tale about a man’s redemption.”

He is still listening to scripts but is yet to sign the dotted line for any of them. “Audience’s tastes keep changing frequently and we need to understand a new generation of viewers emerged after COVID-19. I’m in no hurry and in times where you’re judged more for quality than quantity, you better be cautious. I want to work on a cop story, but I’m yet to find a script that’ll look at the system in a new light and is still entertaining.”

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