Interview: Varun Tej on Operation Valentine


The Indian Air Force Officials Told Us That Operation Valentine Is The Best Film Made In The Backdrop Of Balakot Airstrikes: Varun Tej

Q. How did ‘Operation Valentine’ happen?
A. Director Shakti Pratap Singh who was in Bombay narrated the story by the end of 2020. I liked it and immediately Sony Pictures entered the scene as I was committed to making a movie with them in the past. Coincidentally, they were looking for a similar kind of war film script with an established distribution network up north. The director is also from Hindi and we intended to make this film in two languages so that the patriotic story will reach wider audiences in the country.

Q. Is the multi-language release intended?
A. Initially, my thought was not to make a Hindi film. We had an open mind with other language dubbing and releases. The director is interested in making the film in Telugu but when Sony Pictures were involved, we made the film in Hindi and Telugu simultaneously and completed the shoot in just 70 working days with some really tight schedules. 

Q. Previously your films like Kanche and Antariksham were also made in such tight schedules. Did that experience helped for Operation Valentine?
A. As an actor I just need a lunch break for 45 minutes on the set. The rest of the time, I wanted to just work without any breaks as I was being paid and directors and producers came forward to make the movie with a trust in me. Only with that commitment, we move forward together.

Q. While dealing with a new director, customarily, a family drama or a rom-com is considered a safe film. But, Operation Valentine is a war film with a huge canvas and multilingualism which are some definite barriers. What do you say about this?
A. Yes, but while working with a new director we need to have a leap of faith. Even we didn’t set a margin for the budget before going to sets as a random 40-42 crores. Coming to the director, he is not the one who wants to make a movie as he got an opportunity with a hero like Varun Tej or a big production came forth to bankroll money. At first, he is so passionate about telling a particular story and he is not doing the film for me but the story he is hellbent to tell the audience. Later, he picked Varun Tej for the movie. I observed this passionate approach from him by looking at his detailed research by the time he approached me. He completed almost 70% of the research already by using his contacts, meeting AIF agents and more. He also directed a short film called ‘End Run’ with a mere budget of 5 Lakhs in his garage and own set of VFX artists and uploaded it on YouTube and it went viral. The Indian Air Force themselves contacted him and congratulated him on his impeccable work suggesting to get permission from them before doing one such thing and also extended a helping hand by providing details about the strike. Then the director decided to make a movie out of this story. I have seen him getting performances from actors and handling VFX works ably. My team also suggested that he is capable of pulling off a script of this scale. Though I am an actor with an experience of more than 10 films, he never hesitated to make me perform in the way he envisioned my character and I liked the way he made me understand the backstory and why he was suggesting that I perform in a particular way despite being the first-time director.

Q. Even Chiranjeevi garu expressed his doubt about the presence of a romantic angle in the film as it was titled ‘Operation VALENTINE’. So what is the idea behind naming the movie with this title?
A. This is a serious operation. Historically India stood by peace but for the first time, they retaliated by making a clear statement that we don’t tolerate these attacks by militant organizations and conducted Balakot strikes to eliminate the responsible. Everything started on February 14th, 2019 with the Pulwama Attack that killed our soldiers. That day is Valentine's Day which was supposed to be celebrated with joy but turned out to be a black day. Hence the name of the operation was titled ‘Operation Valentine’. It also represented the LOVE of every individual who worked for this movie towards our country INDIA. It demonstrates our Love for the Country. Originally it was named ‘Operation Bandar’, but for security reasons, we changed it to Operation Valentine.

Q. Do you think this title gets registered in the minds of regional audiences?
A. See, Valentine is not that hard or a rare word to go unnoticed. Also, the title should say something about the story. We also thought of titling the movie as ‘Rudra’ but now during the publicity, we believe that it is well registered with the audience as ‘Operation Valentine’ due to the curiosity factor we just discussed.

Q. You said that the idea of the film was started by the end of 2020. Now, there was this film named ‘Fighter’ in Hindi that was released with the exact backstory and premise. Do you have any idea about that film?
A. The shoot of our film started in 2022 and before that, we underwent extensive pre-production. Of course, by that time we are unaware of the exact details of the Fighter film. We got to know about its existence from the IAF people, who were also being shot in the same Pulwama attack story and then we got to know about ‘Fighter’ precisely. However, the Indian Air Force officials told us that this is the best film made in this backdrop and the detailing was very close to the reality. We are very happy with achieving this feat with a mere 40-50 cr budget. Also, we have made some fictional interpretations in our movie which will be completely different from other war films based on this story and we will be unique in every way.

Q. Didn't you think it was risky making a story that is already being made by another movie unit?
A. Cinema is always a risk. By the time we go on to the sets, there are ‘n’ number of people who know about the story. We do movies with certain trust and conviction and our Telugu audience is the best in this country in encouraging a good movie. We wanted to give a new feel to the Telugu audience. Coming to the risk factor, the emotion in this film was never a risk and the patriotism resonates with every audience in this country.

Q. In these kinds of films, you won’t see the enemy directly and your expressions need to be guided by vocal instruction in a walkie-talkie and mostly there is a VFX-dominated premise in the sets. How did it affect your scope for performance and how difficult is it as an actor?
A. During Antariksham time, I faced numerous challenges like these. Now, I had a chat with a fighter pilot asking for his details for my body language composition as we don’t even have more movies for reference in world cinema. I was lucky that some fighter pilots allowed me to enter the simulator that they would use before boarding a fighter jet and I got used to the experience of flying a real flight. Even the director was a real help with his ongoing instructions while the green mat shot to get the responses from me real quick. Also for 30 days, I was shot alone in a cockpit with my face being covered by the oxygen mask which will only allow me to express with a partial face for higher emotions and have to perform with eyes.

Q. How was your experience with the Hindi language and its dubbing?
A. I thought it was easy but I took diction classes for 2-3 months. But the real problem arrived in sets with the simultaneous shoot for both Hindi and Telugu. At first, I rehearsed extensively for Hindi dialogues, especially for the lengthy ones. After a while, when I needed to do the Telugu part, these Hindi dialogues involuntarily disturbed my flow with Telugu dialogues. They often get mixed up and it took so many breaks to inhabit a pattern of languages.

Q. You met Air Force Officers and went to Wagah Border? How did it feel?
A. They are the kindest. They invited us to every squadron party and we had late-night talks discussing their stories and experiences surprisingly there were so many Telugu soldiers in the camps. Coming to pilots there are almost 200 to 300 soldiers and unlike what we show in movies, they are very liberal, jovial, and carefree in interactions. Of Course, they are very stringent, dedicated, and disciplined when it comes to work. When asked about this jovial attitude, they said that they witness death from inches regularly, and after all their experiences of friends and colleagues losing lives, they feel there is no point in being serious and stubborn about anything in life other than protecting this country. Those experiences are real inspirations and realizations for me. 

Q. Is your character original or fictional?
A. Rudra is a fictional character designed from the characteristics of various pilots and traits that are common in all fighter pilots.

Q. You were going through a heavy adaptation for this film and at the same time your marriage happened. How did you manage both?
A. Yes, to avoid all the distractions, I got married after the shoot was completed (laughs). Even during the shoot, I didn't go on any holidays.

Q. What was the reaction of Pawan Kalyan garu to ‘Operation Valentine’?
A. He is very busy these days. But for the teaser, he said that he watched it 5-6 times and complimented me after watching the trailer. He also said that he is looking forward to watching the film and it is quite rare to get that sought of reaction from him. I felt very good.

Q. How is Operation Valentine different from movies like ‘Fighter, ‘Uri’ or other films made on a similar background?
A. This movie is not entirely based on the Pok problem or military conflicts. This is purely based on what happened in Pulwama and with Balakot air strikes. The two nations collided their forces head-on in the air after 50 years and we only covered that event. This film is mission-based and shows what IAF did to make this a successful operation.

Q. Your combination with Mickey J Meyer was a blockbuster one. How was it working with him?
A. Our last film didn’t work well. Mickey thought that I would not work with him in the future. I told him that there was no fault of his as that movie failed for multiple reasons and he wasn’t responsible. Mickey J Meyer was our director’s choice and I backed him.

Q. Any learnings from the ‘Antariksham’ failure?
A. In that movie, the characterisation looks a bit flawed and the connectivity went missing and the same with Gandeevadhari Arjuna as there is no strong reason to hook to the protagonist or his cause. Now, I guess I corrected this flaw with ‘Operation Valentine’.

Q. You have been experimenting all your career with movies like Kanche, Anthariksham and more. Depending on their results, your market fluctuates and despite your thirst for uniqueness how effective is this drastic shift in your monetary demand in industry to you on a personal level? What is your definition of a growth quotient?
A. I don’t make every movie for money. I took just 50% remuneration for ‘Antariksham’ compared to my previous film which was a blockbuster. I voluntarily asked to invest my share of remuneration in the production. Even though my market declined by making these movies, I would never back down from making content-based films. I am ready to reduce my remuneration. In the worst case, I would do it for free and for every hurdle and I believe that I can overcome anything in life.

Q. Is the movie made entirely on the operation or there are instances of the protagonist’s personal life shown in the film?
A.  There is a level of backstory for a pilot who is going through everything in life and was assigned the responsibility to carry out Balakot air strikes and how he responds is shown in the film. As I said earlier, the audiences travel with the protagonist and his journey in this film.

Q. Whenever there are movies made on patriotism or war, allegations are made about a certain political party influencing the audience for their political benefits. Do you think this movie may raise similar questions?
A. First of all, our approach is to showcase the efforts and planning that went behind the strikes from the military personnel and the chief security officers. We have not been contacted by any other persons asking to glorify them.

Q. In the pre-release Event, the patriotic nature of your family was revealed. How do you feel about it?
A. Either Chiranjeevi garu or my father has more knowledge of the armed forces. Also, this is the first time I invited Chiranjeevi garu for my movie event since my last 6 films. This time I thought that he was the right person to grace the event and even he was very interested in being a part of the event of the film made as a tribute to the soldiers. Also, for the first time, my father said “I love my son” on stage. 

Q. In the pre-release event, your father made comments like “5’3 height” and it went viral on social media. Do you want to comment on it?
A. Is it? I don’t think he was criticizing an artist and he would never do such a thing. It was just a way to describe his tall son with a comparison and it was simply misunderstood. I don’t believe that short artists won’t pull off these kinds of roles but the believability and impact come from the body personality which aids in an experience visually. However, it is not the only criterion and many actors overcome these hindrances and give spellbound performances. Social media these days has become very negative. He gave a speech of over 25 minutes about soldiers and they made a 10-second clip viral. 

Q. Is there any chance of you making a cop film in the future?
A. I am interested but we overkill cop films. And a commissioner mistook me for another hero who made a cop film and said that in real life cops are entirely different to what we show in movies. I clarified that I had never done a cop film yet and promised that I would make sure to play a real cop character if I ever did one. Because I understand who my audience is and I want to balance uniqueness and novelty when I do a police story.

Q. Can you tell us anything about Matka?
A. This film explores me as an actor on a different level. My past three films have uniform characterization but in Matka, there is so much to explore and it has grey shades as well. In the world gambling is the biggest menace and we are digging deep into its crime world on top of that the film is very commercial as well.

Q. Everyone is singing Pan-India tunes these days and why isn’t this movie made for Pan-India release?
A. See, it is not about how many languages we make a movie in but it is about how good we are at releasing a film in all regions. Later, in OTTs, every film gets a Pan-Indian release. Also, we have budgets in mind and initially, we intended to make the film in Telugu and when Sony collaborated, we made it in Hindi. Other than that, we didn’t give a thought about the release in other languages as we didn’t want to spend the budget unnecessarily.

Q. Given a choice, in the Air Force, Navy, or Ground Military, which part of the military you would choose?
A. The Air Force. I don’t know if I can reveal but, out of all three military units, the Air Force gets the majority of their budgets for equipment and they merely manage the rest for themselves. Even in an emergency situation, it is the Air Force that primarily responds and engages. I’m not saying this because I did a film about them but travelled with them. The other two forces are not lesser but I have a bit more love for the Air Force.

Q. Do you get any offers from Hindi during the promotions?
A. I got offers before the promotions from Amazon and Netflix directly for web series and from production houses for movies as well. 

Q. How was it working with Miss World Manushi Chhillar?
A. Yes, she also brought immense respect for our country. She is very grounded and very hardworking despite her high reputation. Her homework is impeccable and focused.

Q. The movie cost is around 50 crores and the quality of the trailer is entirely different. How did you pull it off?
A. Credit goes to our team and the pre-production work they have done. Actually, the shooting time is 6 months and it is made in 42 crores but the Pre-production work is done very extensively to achieve this feat. It is all because of the director and his vision along with the collective effort of the cast and crew.

Q. After your marriage, has anyone proposed to make a movie with you and Lavanya as the lead pair?
A. No, not yet (laughing)

Q. In the pre-release event your team announced some donations for the martyrs. Please tell us about it in detail.
A. Yes, the big corporate production behind us decided it and I can’t take calls on behalf of them. The entire calculation and the process are left to them. Yet, there is no clarity about the details and which force is receiving the donation. It solely depends on the decision of the production. After the movie's release we will take a call on it and this effort is nothing but a tribute to the martyrs.

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