Antariksham: Varun Tej, Aditi Rao Hydari on bringing the space thriller genre to Telugu cinema
Varun Tej, Aditi Rao Hydari and Lavanya Tripathi discuss shooting for Telugu space thriller Antariksham, overcoming challenges and keeping things novel
In 2017, when filmmaker Sankalp Reddy made his debut with the war drama Ghazi, it was more than enough to believe that he was on a quest to push the envelope, when it came to storytelling. War dramas are a rarity in Telugu Cinema and Ghazi, which dealt with how PNS Ghazi sank in the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, was the showreel that Sankalp needed to dream big and convince everyone that he’s going to pull off ambitious ideas. Less than six months later, he had finished writing an early draft of his second feature film Antariksham, and this time, the drama unfolds in space where a bunch of Indian astronauts race against time to save the world.
Anthariksham : Behind the launch
Admittedly, it was a news article that urged Sankalp to write the story of Antariksham, and he vehemently denies rumours that the film is inspired by other space dramas like Gravity or Tik Tik Tik. The first time when Sankalp met Varun Tej to pitch him the idea, the actor recalls being fascinated with the director’s narration technique. “He brought along a few miniature rockets and satellites to explain what he had in his mind. I loved the idea and we decided to work together. Since he had already made Ghazi, I was confident that he could pull it off. More than thinking about how we are going to shoot the film, the look, the sets, and costumes, our initial discussions were more about finding an emotional hook to the story. Telugu audiences aren’t use to this genre (space thriller), so we had to add quite a few layers to make it relevant for our audience,” Varun Tej recalls, adding, “Thankfully, everyone knows about ISRO, and the rocket launch centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. But at the same time, the subject itself is quite universal.”
Apparently, it was Varun Tej starrer Kanche, which convinced Sankalp that he would be apt to play the lead role of an astronaut named Dev. By his own admission, Varun says that he keeps getting interesting scripts all the time because of Kanche. “It was my second film and I’ll always be proud of it. And it also opened a lot of doors for me in the sense that everyone knew that I was looking for good scripts. I’m making a conscious effort to do different stuff. And even if I end up doing a regular commercial film, there’ll be some novel element in the story. Obviously, a film like Antariksham is a big challenge for any actor, but more importantly, I liked the way the story is narrated in the film,” he says.
Six months later, when Sankalp and Varun met again to discuss the script, Rajeev Reddy came on board as a producer, and soon, he took it upon himself to assemble a competent team to make this space thriller a reality. Initially, the team was planning to shoot a portion of the film in Georgia, and rumours were rife that the lead cast would be undergoing training in Kazakhstan; however, eventually, a stunt team from Georgia came down to Hyderabad to train the actors - Varun Tej, Aditi Rao Hydari, Ravi Varma, and Srinivas Avasarala, who were going to play astronauts in the film.
Like Varun, Antariksham is also a first space thriller that Aditi Rao Hydari has been part of in her career, and interestingly, she says she was almost going to say no to the film when she heard the story first! “The first time we met, Sankalp had made an animated film of what he had in his mind and how he was going to shoot the film. It was unlike anything I had seen, and I really liked Ghazi when I had seen it. However, when I heard the script, I told him that I felt that a working girl, in today’s generation, had to be more real. She should have agency when she’s part of such a big mission. I was very honest about my opinions which I shared with him, but at the same time, I told him that he did not have to change anything just because I said it,” Aditi recalls.
“When I take up a film, it’s important for me to add some value to the story, otherwise, it would be such a waste of time and effort for everyone involved. I don’t like to keep people waiting, either. Three months later, while I was shooting for Sammohanam, Sankalp called me again saying that he had made some changes to the script after he too felt that my initial reservations about the character were appropriate. This time, I really wanted to be part of it. It was important for us to have a woman play a key role in the mission, on par with the other guys, because it could have been four guys saving the day. And since, I had this opportunity, it was my responsibility to play my role well.”
Floating in space
One of the biggest challenges for all the actors playing astronauts was to be harnessed for days altogether. Since the team didn’t have the liberty to shoot in zero gravity, all the portions related to space shuttle and space were shot on the biggest floor in Annapurna Studios, Hyderabad, because an illusion of depth had to be created. The cast underwent extensive training under the aegis of a stunt choreography team from Europe and India. Some of them had already worked on a space thriller in the West and their expertise was of immense help to the cast of Antariksham; however, nothing prepared them to endure the pain for the whole summer of the year.
Varun Tej says, “A month before the actual shoot, all of us had to undergo extensive training and rehearsals. Since most part of the film is set in space, all our movements had to be choreographed. It’s really tough to balance your body and on top of it, you can’t show that you are undergoing tremendous physical strain while enacting all those sequences. We had a team from Mumbai who built custom-made rigs to help us perform our stunts. And if you aren’t careful enough while doing all this, you’ll end up with a back pain, if you are harnessed for too long, or suffer from a pain in the neck. The suit itself is at least 16-18 kilos and once you begin to shoot, it is air-locked. All of us had a tough time shooting during summer, but it was all worth it. Antariksham is a
once in a lifetime experience.”
While Varun didn’t suffer any injuries during the shoot, his co-star, Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays an astronaut named Riya, did when she injured her neck in the midst of the shoot. “That suit was so heavy that it felt like I was wearing that’s something five times my weight,” Aditi laughs, adding, “It might seem funny in hindsight, but it was really challenging. I get quite claustrophobic, and I used to get tears in my eyes when I saw the suit everyday (laughs). Initially, when I was told about the stunts, I thought I could contort into challenging poses because I’ve always been physically active, thanks to yoga and Bharatanatyam. However, to be harnessed even for 10 minutes at a stretch is not a joke. I’m 48 kgs and I could manage it somehow, but I’m sure the guys had
a tough time. Moreover, my skin is quite sensitive and the worst part was that I injured my neck because of the helmet. I had to undergo acupuncture and physiotherapy for a few days. I took painkillers to continue shooting after that because I was concerned that the shoot would get cancelled. In less than three days after the incident, I was back on the set. Some of my family members live in Hyderabad, and I made sure that none of them knew about this. Otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed me to go back to the shoot. Towards the end of the shoot, I had become so used to the pain and being harnessed that I could easily do backflips and other crazy stuff (laughs). On a serious note, it’s all about living in the moment and making everyone believe that it’s real.
That world felt so real between action and cut.”
The heart of Antariksham
Beyond all the drama that unfolds in space, Antariksham also has a love story between Dev and Parvathy, a teacher whose father holds a key post in ISRO. Lavanya Tripathi, who plays Parvathy, says, “It’s a beautiful character and the way Sankalp treated the love story between the two character is heartwarming. And the romantic track between the two is the heart of the film. The team had already begun shooting before I came on board. I wasn’t sure if I should do the role when they wanted to approach me, but once I heard the story, I was totally hooked. Even if I was going to play a small role, I really wanted to be part of a landmark film.” It’s her second film with Varun Tej post Mister, and the actress says that he’s already one of her favourite co-stars. “It was
lovely working with him once again. Varun is very professional. We shared some great moments during the shoot,” she adds.
A new experience
The film is slated for release on 21 December, and Varun Tej believes that the film will enthrall the audience. “Antariksham is a serious drama, and it doesn’t deviate from the story it tries to tell. We haven’t seen such a film in the past, especially in Telugu, and the only thing I can wish for is that people will come to watch it with the right mindset,” Varun says, adding, “People expect novelty from films and they will instantly reject cliched ideas. All I can do is to try my best to offer something new with every film.” For Aditi, it’s the notion of cinema being timeless that makes her believe in the power of the medium. “I respect people who have a vision and treat cinema as a timeless medium. And like all great directors, Sankalp too has done something special to
offer a new experience. I’ll always cherish being part of this film,” Aditi confesses.
Varun Tej, Aditi Rao Hydari, and Lavanya Tripathi-starrer Antariksham, directed by Sankalp Reddy, is slated for release on 21 December.
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