Actor and architect Kamal Kamaraju on what it took to portray a Kuchipudi dancer in the Telugu film ‘Natyam’
When the first stills of Telugu film Natyam emerged, the surprise factor was the presence of actor-architect-painter Kamal Kamaraju as a Kuchipudi dancer. It was a case of casting against the grain. Rather than casting a trained classical dancer, director Revanth Korukonda was particular that he wanted a tall actor to portray the character of a dancer who appears formidable and masculine.
The film, produced by and starring Kuchipudi danseuse Sandhya Raju in the lead, is scheduled to release in theatres on October 22. Set in a fictional village called Natyam, the film explores dance as a means of storytelling and features Kamal as the son of a dance guru.
Kamal remembers when he was first approached for the role. He was filming for Maharshi in Dehradun and thought he had heard it wrong: “I suggested they go for a classical dancer, and offered to help train the dancer in acting. But Revanth was adamant he wanted me for the part.”
Though Kamal was impressed with the story and the character, there was a tinge of hesitancy: “There have been times when first-time directors say a lot of things but on set, things are not the same. It is tough to pull out of the project once you commit to it and accept an advance amount. But as I spoke to Revanth, I was convinced that he was determined to give this film his best. I told him that I am not a dancer and will require ample time to learn.”
For the next nine months, Kamal was trained in Kuchipudi by Sandhya and her dancers. The training was devised such that Kamal learnt the footwork for each verse, followed by upper body movements and the mudras. Once he got used to the dance movements, the focus was on making it appear easy and focusing on the expressions. Emphasis was also on not giving in to the stereotype of making the male classical dancer appear effeminate: “Sandhya explained how traditional male Kuchipudi dancers had a masculine body language, so we stuck to it.”
In his school days, Kamal had danced in competitions but never trained formally. “My brother was the better dancer. Even after I became an actor, I consciously chose not to be a conventional hero; so this was a challenge,” says Kamal.
Having visited the dance school Kalakshetra as an architect, he observes, “Stepping into such a dance village, I understood how the young dancers are almost off the grid. They are content to lead a life in dance and oblivious to the outside world. Revanth has tried to create one such village and present a fictional story of struggles within that world.”
The extensive dance rehearsals notwithstanding, the filming threw up new challenges. A song filmed in the Lepakshi temple required Kamal, Sandhya and other dancers to brave the 40-degree summer heat: “After a lot of effort, permissions were granted to film inside the temple, but we had to do it during the day.” Dancing bare feet on the stone surface and modifying their footwork to suit the ups and downs of the temple sapped all their energy and their feet needed soothing balms when the heat took a toll. “We pushed ourselves,” says Kamal.
Kamal debuted in Telugu cinema with the 2005 film Chatrapati and got noticed in Godavari (2006) and Avakai Biryani (2008). Since then, he has had his share of highs and lows. “Quite often, as supporting actors, we just exist and do the roles given to us. To be a part of a film like Natyam has been a memorable experience,” he sums up.