Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Yash: The chosen 'hero'

Yash's intuition told him he would be a superstar one day. As one of Kannada cinema's most popular actors today, his story of perseverance and fame is one for the ages

Naini Thaker
Published: Oct 21, 2021 12:08:32 PM IST
Updated: Nov 3, 2021 04:34:20 AM IST

Yash: The chosen 'hero'Yash, one of the highest-paid actors in the Kannada film industry
Image: Nishant Ratnakar for Forbes India

If you let me go in the jungle, I will capture Veerappan and bring him back in two days,” shouted a three-year-old boy dressed as a police officer at his school’s fancy dress competition. The crowd roared with cheers and the lower kindergarten student became the ‘hero’ of his school in Mysuru. The kid loved every bit of the attention and popularity, and resolved that he would grow up to be a superstar. It took close to three decades and several films in his mother tongue Kannada, but Yash is now finally basking under the spotlight of fame and adulation, particularly since the pan-India popularity of his most ambitious film KGF: Chapter 1 in 2018.

The much-awaited, and delayed, sequel, KGF: Chapter 2, is slated to release in April 2022, and Yash cannot wait, just like he eagerly looked forward to annual days during his school in Mysuru so that he could participate in theatre and dance competitions. “At a very young age, I got used to all the appreciation and I liked it,” says the 35-year-old actor, who was earlier called Naveen Kumar Gowda before he changed his name to Yash. Every time someone at school asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up, unlike the other kids, who said engineer or astronaut, Yash would proudly say ‘hero’.

Though becoming a hero was the endgame, coming from a middle-class family, Yash knew it was going to be a Herculean task. Back then, his father, Arun Kumar J, was a Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation bus driver and mother, Pushpa, a homemaker. “However, no matter how tough things got,” he tells Forbes India, “my parents ensured that I was never deprived of anything.”

His parents never took his desire to become an actor seriously till he announced that he wanted to quit studying after class 10 in order to pursue acting. They refused to relent to his demand. Yash pushed himself to complete two more years of studying, and then put his foot down. “I fought with them and decided to go to Bengaluru. They said, ‘You can go now, but if you come back, we will not let you pursue acting’,” he recounts. As most parents with no background in the film industry, his were worried about the kind of future he might have.

With ₹300 in his pocket, he took a bus to Bengaluru for his first stint as an assistant director for a film in 2003. “It was an unpaid job, but because it was a film shoot, I knew they will provide food and a room. I was content with that,” Yash says. Unfortunately, two days into the shoot, the film was cancelled.

The 16-year-old was left with no choice, but to pack his bags and go back home to Mysuru. As he sat at the Majestic Bus Station in Bengaluru, he had a rather dramatic eureka moment. When the bus conductor screamed for passengers going to Mysuru to get on board, Yash glanced over at the other end where he heard struggling actors going to their homes in Gandhi Nagar. They were talking about failed auditions. “Looking at those struggling actors gave me a lot of confidence,” he says, “And I realised everyone has to struggle in life. I told myself, I have one life and I want to live it to the fullest.” 

Yash: The chosen 'hero'A still from Googly (2013), starring Yash and Kriti Kharbanda

Seizing the opportunity

With no plans to give up, Yash managed to get job as a backstage worker for a theatre group, where he was paid a meagre stipend of ₹50 a day? “I had to ask them for this money, because I was doing so much work for them. There was no system in place then,” he says.

When the group travelled to Mumbai for a performance, some of the actors were away during rehearsals. Jumping at the opportunity, he was about to go on stage when he was stopped. “They told me, ‘You are not an actor. You can learn a lot by watching, so watch for now’,” Yash recalls. “But I was adamant. I argued and finally got a chance to perform on stage.” He managed to impress the director of the troupe, and ended up becoming a backup every time an actor was not around. All the efforts finally paid off, when in 2004, he bagged the lead role as Balarama for a play titled Gokul Nilkamala.

Soon after, in 2004, he was offered a role in a teleserial, where he replaced another actor. He made his debut in Nanda Gokula directed by Ashok Kashyap, along with his now-wife Radhika Pandit. He went on to do another two or three teleserials, including, Malebillu and Preeti Illada Mele. By then he started earning about ₹50,000-60,000 and his parents moved to Bengaluru, too.

When he started working with Pandit, they were only 19, but she recollects, “He has always been very goal-driven and ambitious in life. He knew exactly where he was heading and what he wanted to do in life.”

Though theatre or television were not a part of Yash’s plans in becoming an actor, it helped him understand the technicalities of cinema. “I also learnt a lot from experienced directors and theatre actors, like B Jayashree and Ananth Nag when I was working in Preeti Illada Mele,” he says.

Although he was doing good work in teleserials, to act in a movie was still the end goal. Pandit, who was a close friend then, got offered a movie, Moggina Manasu directed by Shashank in 2008. During the course of the shoot, he was in touch with Pandit, who happened to mention that only the last few scenes were left to be shot. “The very next day, I got a call for a role in the same film. Assuming it was a prank call, I never went to meet the team. They called me again, asking to come see them. As luck would have it, I replaced an actor for [what became] my debut film,” smiles Yash. Not only was the film a commercial hit, but both Pandit and Yash went on to win Filmfare awards.

Prior to Moggina Manasu, Yash was offered seven other films. But for each one, he would ask for a script and that was seen as a sign of arrogance from a newcomer. “Eventually, I am glad I waited. I never wanted to disappoint my audience and I tried to do my best, even as a beginner,” he says.

Like every struggling actor, Yash dealt with his share of lows too. But he feels that somewhere, every actor knows that a film may or may not work and so, he always felt prepared. Says Pandit, “He does not get attached to things easily and rarely gets disturbed by something that happens professionally. He has always been a fighter, so he looks at lows or challenges as obstacles that need to be overcome.”

With time, once people started recognising his work, he started getting good offers and producers were willing to put in money for his films. Yash did a bunch of films with Jayanna who founded Jayanna Combines, a film production and distribution company that works in Kannada cinema. “He started believing in me and supporting me immensely. It helped boost my confidence and I realised quickly that you have to choose right, what you do not do is more important than what you do,” says Yash who did five films with Jayanna, including Jaanu (2012), Drama (2012), Googly (2013), Gajakesari (2014) and Mr and Mrs Ramachari (2014).

Though Yash never got any professional ‘training’ as an actor, he was quick to learn on the job and from the very beginning, liked to understand every aspect of filmmaking. The same reflects in his process of acting too, where he believes every actor needs to bring his life experience in whatever role he or she plays.

Pandit reckons Yash is a bit of a perfectionist. “He does a lot of rehearsals and believes in giving the perfect shot,” she says. “He is so involved and focussed that sometimes during a shoot, he would prompt me if I missed a line or tell me which hand I had used in the previous shot to ensure continuity.”

Yash is big on pre-shoot prep. “I am not someone who can straightaway come on set, ask for the dialogue, deliver it and leave. I never think of how to say a dialogue, instead I ask myself, ‘Why should I say it?’ Because when someone writes it, he or she writes that particular dialogue with a certain intention, and when I deliver the dialogue, the same impact should be created.” Yash claims that once he started getting involved in the process of filmmaking, he started getting success. Be it theatre or tele-serials, Yash never likes to sit idle—he would either be pushing the trolley to understand trolley timing or sitting in the edit room to learn when action continuity was missing. “I wanted to understand where I was going wrong and how I can be better. I wanted to become a star soon,” he laughs.

Yash: The chosen 'hero'KGF: Chapter 2 has been dubbed in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. It releases in April 2022

A star is born

By 2013, he was a star with a handful of back-to-back successes, but only in the Kannada film industry. And every time someone called the Kannada film industry ‘small’, Yash did not liked it. “I wanted to fix this, knowing very well that the industry has a lot of potential... I was looking for a film that can reflect the industry’s true potential,” he says.

Through producer Vijay Kiragandur of Hombale Films, he met Prashanth Neel who had directed Ugramm (2014). “Prashanth and Vijay came to me with a script, of which KGF was only a small part. I suggested, why don’t we look at KGF as one big story? Prashanth loved the idea and dedicated three to four years, working on the script,” says Yash. In the meantime, he did other films like Mr and Mrs Ramachari, which became commercially successful.

Once the KGF script was more or less ready, they announced the making of a ₹40-50 crore film, which shook the Kannada film industry. It was the first Kannada film to be made at such a large scale, almost 7-8x the usual budgets.

A few days into shooting the film, Neel felt that he was rushing it and hence the decision to split the script in two parts. “Can you imagine, the whole KGF: Chapter 1’s second half was going to be only 15 minutes?” Yash laughs.

A month later, the challenges of mounting a big-budget film on a large scale started getting to them. “Suddenly we had 55 juniors and 1,000 extras on set, and no one knew how to handle them. Ours is a story of a Lagaan team... we knew we’d win eventually, but had no experience of dealing with such scale,” Yash explains, adding that they were all learning on the go.

Once the majority of the film was ready, they decided to turn KGF into a pan-India film, which had its own set of hurdles. One of the first people to watch the show reel was SS Rajamouli, the director of Baahubali. “He thought KGF was fantastic. We started meeting producers and distributors across markets, including that of Shobu Yarlagadda, who was the producer of Baahubali, to Anil Thadani of AA films. And from there, it just snowballed,” recalls Yash.

Not only did they have to dub in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam, but also plan pan-India promotions. Says Yash, “All of us went through sleepless nights, but it was all worth it.” The film was reported to have hit 2,000 screens across the country and went on to become the biggest-grosser in Kannada cinema. The Kannada film industry, known for its talent, got a much-needed push with the success of KGF, and set a benchmark for the industry.

“Generally people either get overnight success or success by working hard over a period of time. I think it is a rare opportunity for a person like me, to first get success the hard way in the Kannada industry and then see KGF get overnight success in the rest of the country,” he reckons.

KGF: Chapter 2 suffered major delays, but even as many films went the OTT way in the wake of the pandemic, Yash knew that was not the route for him. “The movie is made for theatres... it would be a disappointment if you have to watch it at home. The audience would miss out on the experience,” he says.

Though OTT is booming across the country, Yash still prefers working on massive entertainers where one is mesmerised by everything happening on screen. For someone who is a movie theatre person, he says, “I shouldn’t have that pause button. It’s like a magician is showing something and you stop him. The magic won’t happen!”

Yash: The chosen 'hero'Yash has done five films with Jayanna Combines. One of those hits is Mr and Mrs Ramachari (2014)

Beyond the silver screen

Despite his hectic schedule, Pandit says, Yash always makes time for family. “Just like with movies, he likes to give his 100 percent even at home. He is not someone whose work-life balance ever goes off. There is not even an ultra-scan that he has missed during both my pregnancies,” she says.

One of the highest-paid actors in the Kannada film industry, the star has forayed into entrepreneurship too. On realising that there are not too many affordable, quality men’s perfume brands in India, Yash launched a mens-only lifestyle brand ‘Villain’ in partnership with Beardo founders Ashutosh Valani and Priyank Shah. Next, he hopes to enter the apparel segment.

Through his philanthropic venture, Yasho Marga Foundation, he has been addressing the water crisis in Karnataka by rejuvenating a vast water body in Tallur village in the Koppal district of Karnataka, which helped 200 villages and impacted the lives of about 40,000 people. During the pandemic, they also helped 3,500-4,000 members of the Kannada film industry by sending ₹5,000 each to everyone’s bank accounts.

It has been quite a journey from a theatre backstage worker to a superstar. But Yash feels he’s just getting started. “I have just started living my dream.”

(This story appears in the 22 October, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated