Varun Tej on ‘Operation Valentine’: War-based films are rare in Telugu

The mementos of superhero lore that populate Varun Tej’s Hyderabad office are more than mere decorative pieces; they are the testament to a passion that has spanned over a decade, much like the actor’s career in the Indian film industry. The collector and admirer of superhero memorabilia sat down with The Hindu to discuss his journey in cinema, his latest action-packed venture, Operation Valentine, and his first venture into Hindi film territory. With its imminent release on March 1, Varun Tej marks ten years of a cinematic journey that began with the filming of his debut, Mukunda, back on February 27, 2014. Reflecting on his dreams of acting coming to fruition, he considers how perspectives on mainstream versus experimental films have evolved, holding the view that movies like Kanche (2015), once considered experimental, would now be seen as more conventional.

As the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a halt, Varun found solace and inspiration by rekindling his reading habits, thanks partly to his father’s encouragement. Currently, he’s engrossed in Yuval Noah Harari’s renowned work, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Traveling extensively to promote Operation Valentine, helmed by debut director Shakti Pratap Singh Hada, Varun speaks about the film with a sense of pride and excitement. Starring alongside Manushi Chhillar, the movie portrays him as a fighter pilot who plays a critical role in the Balakot airstrike, a retaliatory measure following the Pulwama terror attacks. The trailer teases a clandestine glimpse into the lives and perils faced by Indian Air Force pilots.

One cannot ignore the inevitable comparisons with Siddharth Anand’s Fighter, another film featuring air force aviators. Yet, Varun’s interest in Operation Valentine sparked at the tail end of 2020 when Shakti contacted him. He was not only captivated by the script’s anchorage in true events but also by the relative rarity of war-centric narratives in Telugu cinema. Sony Pictures had approached him for another project which didn’t materialize, but they recognized the bilingual potential for Operation Valentine, a script that underwent meticulous scrutiny by the Ministry of Defence prior to being greenlit amidst other competing storylines triggered by the same historical incidents.

Varun is conscious of the fact that film connoisseurs fluent in multiple languages might draw parallels to works like Fighter and even Hollywood stalwarts such as Top Gun: Maverick. He acknowledges each storyteller brings a unique interpretation to the same set of facts, elaborating on the variety of emotional trajectories that characters might follow. His enthusiasm stems from the introduction of mid-air combat scenes to Telugu audiences, which he regards as experiments with mainstream appeal.

The director’s detailed research and personal history deepened the narrative’s authenticity. Shakti, whose aspirations to become a pilot were thwarted due to minor vision impairments, previously garnered attention with a viral video related to the Balakot airstrikes that piqued the interest of the Air Force for its accuracy and later cooperation. Components of Operation Valentine were captured at the bustling Gwalior air base, and the film enlisted the expertise of Air Force personnel to oversee the authenticity of military protocols and practices, ranging from uniforms to the nuanced differences in salutes across defense branches.

Immersion in script reading sessions, workshops, and interactions with actual Air Force officers granted Varun and his co-stars (including Navdeep and Ruhani Sharma) insights into the minutiae of military operations. These experiences culminated in a nuanced portrayal of the combat pilots’ psyche, informed by discussions between the director’s vision and the actors’ interpretations. Varun also detailed his immersion into Hindi language training to lend credence to his performance and dubbing.

As Varun Tej anticipates audience reactions to the drama and emotions conveyed in Operation Valentine, he is already looking forward to his next film, Matka, where he explores the complexities of a character with grey shades. He reflects candidly on his previous works, analyzing their public reception and the challenge of balancing entertainment with social messaging. Opening dialogues with friends for impartial feedback, Varun endeavors to dissect the effectiveness of storytelling, especially in conveying messages about environmental concerns.

In a constantly evolving industry, Varun Tej’s decade-long career and his latest foray with Operation Valentine underscore the actor’s commitment to versatility, engagement with contemporary issues, and the aspiration to keep viewers emotionally invested and entertained.

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