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All aboard the hockey express

Actor-producer Sundeep Kishan is confident that Telugu film ‘A1 Express' will make for a collective theatrical viewing experience

Sundeep Kishan considers his maiden production Ninu Veedni Needanu Nene (2019) as the beginning of a fresh phase in his career. He was on the lookout for stories that would rejuvenate him as an actor. When he chanced upon the Tamil sports drama Natpe Thunai (2019) starring Hip Hop Thamizha, he wanted to tweak it and remake it in Telugu.

“We don't often get characters that challenge us both physically and emotionally. For a sports film, you have to give it your all,” says Sundeep.

A1 Express, scheduled to release on March 5, is the first hockey-based story in Telugu cinema and stars him along with Lavanya Tripathi. The story is based on Natpe Thunai and Sundeep says around 50% has been reworked: “We retained the core emotions and as we had scope to improvise, we made an effort to put forth a visually and technically better film than the original.”

The film is directed by debutant Dennis Jeevan Kanukolanu, whom Sundeep has known for a few years: “I keep myself updated about new talent — potential directors and technicians. Dennis and cinematographer Kavin Raj are great talent to watch out for. We have 14 new technicians and we haven't followed traditional of filming the sports sequences, including the camera angles and placement.”

Sundeep says despite the popularity of sports dramas, many film units hesitate to explore the genre, given the rigorous routines involved. “The director, cinematographer and the crew all need to be agile and run along with the actors. A lot goes into visualising and executing sports sequences that have to look authentic on screen.”

He says all the effort that went into making A1 Express, from storyboarding to filming hockey portions hours at a stretch, was rewarding: “We had brutally honest youngsters in the crew. If something wasn't up to the mark, they expressed their dissatisfaction and we would reshoot,” he adds.

Hip Hop Thamizha is the music composer and Sundeep has produced the film along with T G Vishwa Prasad, Abhishek Agarwal and Daya Pannem: “I am lucky to have good production partners who understood the scope of the film and supported me throughout. We got good offers to stream the film on OTT platforms but we held on because this film should be experienced collectively in theatres,” says Sundeep.

He calls A1 Express an “interactive” sports film, explaining that the audience will have enough to cheer as the game is played on screen. Shimit Amin's Chak De India starring Shah Rukh Khan remains the gold standard for hockey films in India, but Sundeep avers that in Telugu, this film will set a precedent. “You might be on the ground playing for two hours, but it involves years of dedication and practice,” says Sundeep.

The actor stepped up his fitness regimen and lost weight, getting leaner and fitter.

He observes, “There's an enjoyable arrogance with which the sport is played. I hope that attitude reflects on screen.”

He with coaches of the Hyderabad Hockey Association as well as in Mohali. Around 80% of the film had been shot before the lockdown in March 2020.

Resuming to film once the restrictions were lifted, the team headed to Mohali and took permission to shoot with 300 junior artistes at the stadium.

“It dawned on us that the Mohali stadium had a capacity of 25,000 people and we were a small number,” adds the actor, who has begun work on action thriller Rowdy Baby.

Sports dramas tend to follow a familiar story arc of the underdog negotiating hurdles to claim his or her moment under the sun. Sundeep is confident that if the audience connects with the emotions, it will make them root for his and Lavanya's characters: “She plays a strong, independent woman and is a hockey player in the film,” he adds.

As he awaits the verdict of A1 Express, Sundeep has begun working on his next film, an action thriller titled Rowdy Baby.

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