Tillu on steroids

Siddhu Jonnalagadda talks to CE about his recent release Tillu Square, what sets his sequel from its predecessor, his journey in the film industry and more
Tillu on steroids

The only thing harder than making a successful film is making a successful sequel. And that is exactly what writer-actor Siddhu Jonnalagadda managed to achieve with his recent film Tillu Squarewhich stars Anupama Parameswaran opposite Siddhu. The sequel to his 2022 caper-comedy DJ TilluTillu Square pits the zany titular protagonist against a world of quirky situations and characters, and it leaves the audience asking for more. In a recent interview with CE, actor-screenwriter Siddhu Jonnalagadda opens up at length about his film, screenwriting, comedy, his older brother’s foray into cinema, and more.

Excerpts:

Q

How would you describe the way you transitioned your rather successful film into an equally successful sequel?


A

When we made DJ Tillu, nobody knew what to expect from the titular character. We ourselves were unsure of how the character would be perceived. Over the last two years, Tillu acquired a life of its own and became a household name. Certain expectations came along with this love, and this is what we had to factor in while crafting a sequel. There was a bit of story extension and a full character extension in the sequel. We retained the crime comedy genre, but the trick was to retain the elements that comforted the audience without courting monotony. 


Q

Did you approach Tillu differently in the sequel?

A

Yes. Tillu in Tillu Square is an even more exaggerated version; think of him as your regular Tillu on steroids. Now, we did not make this decision to exaggerate the character simply because it was a sequel; it is just that the stakes have significantly increased for it. The problems he faces in Tillu Square make him question his own self and sanity. 


Q

DJ Tillu and Tillu Square got a lot of praise for the way the ensemble cast was written. Weren’t you worried that your co-actors might steal your thunder?


A

No character, including Tillu’s, is bigger than the story. The story is written in such a way that even the smaller characters have their own fully formed arcs. No character is one-upping the other. The conflict between the characters and the chemistry shared by the leads make the film what it is. Every character coexists within the film's universe. 


Q

The outfits worn by Tillu are unlike what we usually see in Telugu cinema…


A

Costumes are very important for the location and setting of the film. DJ Tillu was a guy who wore a lot of flashy, branded costumes. Even when he could not afford the clothes, he would stick labels on plain clothes because he is the ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of person. He is also a deeply insecure character. To hide his insecurities, he needed those clothes.


Q

Did you feel any pressure trying to match the expectations set by DJ Tillu while shooting for its sequel?


A

The only pressure I felt was with my hair (laughs). I could not chop it throughout the shoot, nor could I work in any other film. 


Q

Trivikram is one of your film’s producers. As a filmmaker himself, he is known for his one-liners, much like your character Tillu. What kind of input did he give you while you were making Tillu Square?


A

When you are too close to your project, you tend to lose all perspective. This is where someone like Trivikram enters the picture, with a rather aerial understanding of how things function. He is an established filmmaker in his own right. That said, there was never any handholding on his part. When I asked him for his input, he merely asked me to reconsider what I had written, suggesting a scenario or two that could probably work better. 


Q

You are a writer as well as an actor. How helpful is it for you to perform your own script?


A

Acting out the lines you have written yourself is immensely helpful. When you are working with stories written by someone else, you have to spend extra time focusing on how they intended for a particular dialogue to be acted out. And sometimes they may not even communicate it to you that well. When you are performing based on a script you have written, you don’t face that problem. It is more advantageous for a film like Tillu Square because the character keeps talking throughout the film. I am already familiar with the rhythm and the pauses.


Q

How much of Tillu is inspired by you?

A

Tillu is 100% me, period. As individuals, we are both excessively honest to a fault. But what sets us apart is the fact that I keep my emotions bottled up, while Tillu never stops talking. 

Q

Is Tillu more autobiographical than the characters you have written for yourself previously? 


A

Yes, and that may have something to do with the directors I have collaborated with on my films. For instance, Ravikanth Perepu, who directed Krishna and his Leela (2020), is this quiet, bespectacled person. The character I play in his film is like him—more restrained. Vimal Krishna, on the other hand, who directed DJ Tillu, let me go all out. I discussed everything that was on my mind, and it eventually went on to work in the film’s favour immensely.


Q

Your Tillu films are known for the way their female characters are portrayed. There is a lot of discourse out there on how female characters need to be written. How do you approach your female characters as a screenwriter?

A

I like writing strong women in my films. And by strong, I don’t mean feminist. It is more about them having a distinct personality. It can be pitch black, pitch white, or pitch grey. On top of that, it is about them having their own arc and a certain individuality towards life.

Q

So far, you have only written characters and films for yourself. Would you be inclined to write films that do not feature you as an actor?

A

Adhi vere direction saar, aa bus ekkamu ante ekkadiko velipothamu (That is a whole other director, sir. If I get on that bus, there is no turning back) (laughs). But jokes apart, if people are asking me to write something, it means I know how to write. I might as well do that for myself and further my own career. 


Q

DJ Tillu or Tillu Square: Which film is closer to your heart? 


A

Nobody can replace your first love, your first experience. DJ Tillu was my first. Tillu Square is also great, but I would rather not compare. 

Q

Paid premieres have become a trend lately, with filmmakers confident about their prospects at the box office opting to release their films a day before the release. Why did you not opt for the same with Tillu Square?


A

I truly believe that Tillu Square is meant for the masses more than the critics. When you spend 300 rupees on a movie ticket, you are rooting for that movie to be good because you want to get your money’s worth. I cannot say the same about premiere shows. When people are compelled to criticise, they will criticise even at the cost of reason. And, yes, if we are making an art film, we might need critics and cinephiles to come over, watch the movie ahead of time, and write about it. Tillu Square is a straightforward, bona fide Tollywood entertainer. The proof is in the pudding. 

Q

Your older brother, Chaitu Jonnalagadda, recently made his debut in Ravikanth Perepu’s Bubblegum, playing the role of the hero’s father. How do you feel about his entry into films? 

A

He was always interested in acting. In fact, he was more aware of cinema and the happenings of the film world back when he was living in the USA. One day, he just decided to move back to India and try his hand at acting. Since he is financially secure, I also encouraged him to do the same. I am happy that he has made a mark with his very first role. I did try to put him in Tillu Square, but I could not just put him in any small role. The role needs to be the right fit, which is why Bubblegum worked for him.


Q

Your journey to stardom was far from easy. How do you look back at your periods of struggle?


A

Nobody grows without adversity. Paiki ravali ante dhebba thagalaali (you need to take a few knocks to get ahead in life). Pain is great for character building. There were days when I had 50 rupees in my pocket. My parents could have given me 500 rupees, but I did not feel like asking them. When you attend a party, you see your peers drink four beers while you can only afford one. These things slowly affect you over the years and help you become who you are.


Q

Could you talk to us about your future projects?


A

I am working on Bommarillu Bhaskar’s next film Jack - Konchem Krack, and 30-40 percent of it is already shot. Telusu Kada, my film with Neeraja Kona, will go on floors soon. There is also a film on the cards with Nandini Reddy; its story discussions are going on currently.

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