Growing up in Warangal, Telangana, Sandeep Reddy Vanga and his brother Pranay Reddy Vanga were complete movie buffs. First-day first-show for a Chiranjeevi movie was the norm. “The fans used to make such a noise that it was hard to hear the dialogue. You just went for the experience,” he recalls. It was during the next few weeks when he had watched the film for perhaps the fifth time, that he understood what the film was about. But he’s clear that understanding the film didn’t matter as it was always about the star. The director says Chiranjeevi had a way of subtly breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. “He’d be saying his dialogue and then look directly at the camera and say something with his eyes. You felt like he was speaking to you directly. That was the power he had.”
Even after giving hits like Arjun Reddy in Telugu and its remake Kabir Singh in Hindi, Sandeep remains a fanboy, very much in awe with the magic of the movies. He still enjoys watching a film along with other crazy fans in a theatre. “Call me old-school but for me cinema will always remain a mass medium. I see it as a shared experience. Yes, there’s a huge audience now for the OTT platforms. But I want my primary audience to be theatre-goers.” It’s not that he was immune to the magic of other cinemas besides Telugu. Amitabh Bachchan is as big an idol for him. As are Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.
He was a sincere student and like most parents, his family too wanted him to pursue medicine or engineering. His elder brother Pranay was studying engineering. Sandeep chose physiotherapy as he found engineering dry. He later realised the medical line wasn’t cut out for him. Even after getting a degree, he went off to Australia to study cinema. The film school was an eyeopener for him. “We had an auditorium open 24/7 and we could request them to play movies of our choice any time of night and day. I got to watch Satyajit Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, the whole Iranian brigade, French New Wave and classic Hollywood. The screenings led to debates, which led to exposure to different viewpoints. It was the best period of my life,” he asserts.
He wasn’t from a film family and finding work wasn’t easy. “I wanted to assist someone like SS Rajamouli sir but he already had some 20 assistants. So, for someone like him to get to know me on his set, and then give me a chance would have taken forever.” He decided to write his own script instead. He pitched it to several people but even though it evinced interest, nothing materialised. That’s when his family decided to chip in. Brother Pranay, who was settled in the US turned producer and formed Bhadrakali Pictures. They were lucky that Vijay Deverekonda, who was just one film old at the time, said yes to the project. The rest, as they say, is history. Arjun Reddy was praised for its non-linear narrative, cinematography, editing and honest story by the critics down South. And turned Vijay Deverekonda into a bigger star than he was. The film reportedly earned 50 crores plus on a five-crore budget. Compared to that, the Hindi remake, Kabir Singh, earned 275 crores domestically and is considered to be the biggest hit of Shahid Kapoor so far. “Mind you, the film wasn’t released over a holiday, neither did we escalate the ticket prices,” Sandeep explains. He expected it to be a 100-crore hit and is as overwhelmed by its success as the industry.
What he didn’t expect was the backlash by the Hindi critics. Kabir Singh was touted as being misogynist, of catering to a toxic mentality. In a celebrated video interview, Sandeep put forth his point of view, the gist of it was that it’s okay to hit and be hit in a relationship. He maintains he was misquoted. That instead of taking the interview in totality, the media only highlighted certain aspects. “What I meant was that there should be no barrier between two people in love. I never used the word abuse, which is being wrongly attributed to me. If you’re not brutally honest with each other, what’s the point of a relationship?” he counters. While he maintains this view in real life too, he points out that Arjun Reddy or Kabir Singh are just characters and not autobiographical films. “They are works of fiction. My own love story is too personal to look at with detachment and weave a screenplay around it.”
Another charge levelled against him is that the heroine Preeti, played by Shalini Pandey in the original and Kiara Advani in the remake is too submissive. She readily goes out with a senior without once protesting about it. Sandeep says attraction is like that. “Reason doesn’t come into play when you’re attracted to someone. You just go with the flow. When I wrote her backstory, she was someone, who happily accepted her father’s choices. Her father is okay with this boy being a guardian of sorts. Hence, she doesn’t hesitate either.” He points out that the duo gets intimate only much later, when the attraction has been transformed into love. “She goes to Mussourie to meet him. That’s her way of rebelling. Later, she decides to move out of a bad marriage and leads a life without the support of her father or lover – but no one wrote about that.”
He was criticised for not showing Preeti’s struggle at all. He retorts that the film was called Kabir Singh and not Preeti Sikka. “I made a character-driven film. I didn’t go for a parallel story because that was my creative choice. I concentrated only on one storyline and deliberately hid her struggle so that it should come as a shock to the viewer. Why should I stick to normal tropes?” People have told him to now make a film with Preeti’s point of view. While he’s tempted, he says it would be too much making it a third time. That’s why he isn’t making the film in Tamil. His erstwhile assistant, Gireesaaya, is making it as Adithya Varma. It’ll be the launch vehicle of Vikram’s son Dhruv Vikram. The film was earlier directed by Bala but went for a complete reshoot as the producer wasn’t happy with the finished product. “I want the film to succeed. Dhruv is one of the nicest newcomers in the industry. It takes lots of guts to stand by a project, which goes for a reshoot and believing in it enough to stay focussed on the new director’s vision.”
The controversies around Kabir Singh haven’t changed his viewpoint. If given a chance, would he like to change something in his film? He replies in the negative. “Why mend something, which isn’t broken. I presented the audience with an honest story and going by the numbers, they have accepted it. Why should I change anything?” Shahid Kapoor, he says, was the obvious choice for the remake. Though at 38, he hardly seemed the right age to play a collegian. “Even Shahid had such concerns. But he pulled it off by reducing some 12 kilos. He made sure to come across as Kabir Singh and not Arjun Reddy. I’d rate it to as one of the best portrayals of his career so far.”
Ask him why he didn’t make the Hindi remake again with Vijay and he says the equation shifts when it comes to Hindi films. “The budget goes up manifold. The people putting in the money expect higher returns and aren’t comfortable about working with an unknown face.” He was tempted to repeat Shalini but was asked not to by his well-wishers. The reasoning was that fans down South would take umbrage. “They have seen her romancing Arjun. Would they accept her as romancing Kabir? I didn’t want to take away that cult pairing from their minds.” His reasoning seems true because when Shalini shared some bikini pictures on social media, her fans apparently urged her not to be disrespectful to the memory of Preeti.
Sandeep is all for pan-Indian stars though. “The dubbed South films are doing well on TV. The Hindi belt is familiar with the South stars now. It’s only a matter of time for them to be accepted by the Hindi audience.” His next, said to be an actioner starring Mahesh Babu, is reportedly a bilingual in Telugu and Hindi. Though nothing is finalised as yet. There are talks about a web series as well. “I worked long and hard towards a dream, which went beyond my wildest imagination. Now is the time to relax, to savour this moment, to recharge my batteries. Let me enjoy this phase now…”