Mallesham: Priyadarshi, Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

Mallesham explores the journey of how a school dropout went on to invent a machine which turned into a blessing for the weaver’s community in Telangana.

Hemanth Kumar June 30, 2019 10:52:36 IST
Mallesham: Priyadarshi, Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

Read the movie review here.

Chintakindi Mallesham might not be a popular name outside the borders of Telangana or Andhra Pradesh, but his relentless efforts to invent the Laxmi ‘asu’ machine changed the fate of thousands of families in the weaving community. His invention, which automated the yarning process, won him the Rashtrapathi Award in 2009, 'Amazing Indian' award in 2016; and then in 2017, he was honoured with the Padma Shri award by the government of India. Having started building the machine with wood in the 90s, he realised that he had to switch to steel to make it sturdy. Gradually, he devised an electronic version and by early 2010s, the machine was embedded with a micro-controller, and Mallesham himself wrote software code and programmes to create new and more intricate designs on the cloth. Given the fact that he had to drop out of school after 6th standard to support his family (his father and mother were weavers), everything that he achieved in his life is nothing short of an extraordinary achievement.

Mallesham Priyadarshi Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

A BTS still from Mallesham. Image via Facebook

Although Mallesham and his invention were popular in Telangana, it was his TEDx Talk in 2017 that piqued everyone’s interest. Among them was US-based Raj Rachakonda, who just couldn’t forget Mallesham’s story, and he quickly got in touch with the Padma Shri awardee and evinced his interest to make a biopic based on his life. Prior to that, Raj had produced and written a Tamil film, Sila Nerangalil. “The film got good reviews, but it was a disaster financially,” Raj admits, adding, “And then, I moved on and continued to work in the US for several years. I wrote few screenplays, but nothing seemed to go right. At one point, I thought it wasn’t my cup of tea anymore.” And it all changed once Raj saw Mallesham’s TEDx Talk on Youtube. “I really thought that the idea had a lot of potential and it had to reach a wider audience. These days, even the most mundane videos get millions of views on the internet, but Mallesham’s story had only reached a few lakhs.”

The more Raj talks about how the project came together, once Mallesham agreed to give him rights to make a biopic on his life, it’s evident that he was fighting his own battles. At one point of time, he was almost ready to shelve the project itself. “After writing the first draft, Akshay Kumar’s Padman released, and I almost shelved my film,” he laughs. “Although the two films have different stories to tell, they share some similarities thematically. Both of them went through a lot of ups and downs for the sake of people they love. Besides, Mallesham is a much smaller film compared to Padman. I kept wondering how many people will relate to Mallesham since his invention was essentially meant for the weavers community, unlike Arunchalam’s low-cost sanitary pad making machine. I stopped writing the story for couple of months, but since I had already bought the rights, I went ahead with developing the screenplay. Once I saw Padman, I realised that the style of my writing was quite different. The idea was to make an authentic film whether or not it makes money or not after its release. This meant that the film had to be shot in real locations and the dialect had to be true to the milieu. We really wanted to make an honest film sans any gimmick and that was the biggest driving force for all of us. Although we were going to dramatise the events in Mallesham’s life, we didn’t want to change the soul of the story.”

Mallesham Priyadarshi Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

Priyadarshi and Ananya Nagalla. Image via Twitter

Incidentally, prior to his journey to make Mallesham, Raj Rachakonda didn’t know anyone in Telugu film industry. One of the first people he reached out to was Laxman Aelay, an acclaimed painter in Telangana and also the poster designer of several popular Telugu films. “When I narrated the story of Mallesham and what I wanted to do, he told me that they had a handloom at home. He became an integral part of my journey to make Mallesham and his inputs were vital to the storytelling. Not only did he act in the film, he was also the production designer. I’m sure every other actor and technician, who came on board, would have made more money had they taken up other projects, but I believe that the original story of Mallesham and my writing convinced them that they had to be part of this film. I’m sure everyone had their own apprehensions about working with a first time filmmaker, but I got lucky when actors like Jhansi, Priyadarshi came onboard. The cinematographer (Balu) and Sound designer (Nithin) were both FTII graduates, and along with our editor Raghu, their contribution to the film was immense,” Raj reveals, adding, “All of us stayed in the village where we shot the film for almost a year. It was one of the conditions that I had for all the technicians and actors (except for Priyadarshi). It was tough, but we were able to capture the soul of the village life and characters quite well. I was able to understand the weaving process and the problems that women used to face before the asu machine was invented. A lot of ideas in the film came from the places we visited and the people we interacted with.”

The casting for the lead character in the story was also one of the biggest challenges for Raj. Although he had bigger stars in mind initially, Raj admits that he was also quite realistic about whether they would agree to do the film immediately or not. It was around that time that one of his friends suggested Priyadarshi’s name for the lead role. “Although Priyadarshi has done quite a few films as a comedian, he has also played versatile characters in his career so far. He played a villain in Bommalaramaram, a cab driver in Junoon, and on top of it, he has a background in theatre. All my subsequent drafts were written keeping him in mind,” the director says.

Mallesham Priyadarshi Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

Ananya Nagalla and Jhansi in a still from Mallesham. Image via Twitter

Priyadarshi was still shooting for Prashant Varma’s Awe! when he first heard about Mallesham (the film) in 2017. “I really thought they were going to approach a big star to play the lead role. But when Raj pitched the story to me, I thought the script was brilliant and quite honest. There was no sugar-coating and the whole story felt quite earthy and true to the dialect and milieu. One of my biggest challenges was to play the role without making it look like a caricature. Raj was very clear that he didn’t want me to imitate Mallesham. I got a chance to interact with Chintakindi Mallesham and it was an enriching experience to listen to his story, how he struggled to build the machine, and how he never gave up despite repeated failures and humiliation. A biopic comes with a lot of responsibility and I knew that I can’t go wrong. While doing the film, like everyone else, I was also curious about how are we going to pull off the film. Every actor and technician walked the extra mile for this film. All of us had a good feeling that we were part of an important film,” Priyadarshi reflects on his role.

Among several other things in the film, the actor was hailed for making the Telangana dialect seem as authentic as possible. “Although I grew up in Hyderabad, we don’t speak this dialect at home. We used to live close to Old City in Hyderabad and that helped me pick up the dialect. I must credit our writer, Peddinti Ashok Kumar, who helped me to make the dialect as authentic as possible. Besides, we were shooting with sync sound and I had to really focus on my diction and dialect,” the actor says.

Incidentally, Mallesham is also one of the very few films in his career where Priyadarshi had a female co-star, and the performances of newcomer Ananya (who played his wife) and Jhansi (as Mallesham’s mother) were the highlights of the film. Ask him about his experience of working with them, he avers, “I have never done a lead role in my career so far, which is why I have hardly had a female counterpart, except for a few scenes in Rangula Ratnam. Both Ananya and Jhansi had crucial roles in the film because when we spoke to Mallesham, he was very particular about how important his wife was in his life and how she shaped his decisions. Raj took a very realistic and natural approach to showcase Mallesham’s equation with his wife and mother, and it was an honour to share the screen with Jhansi. Even Ananya shocked me with her performance in few scenes. We would rehearse ahead of few scenes but she would instantly transform in front of the camera that it all came as a shock for us (laughs).”

Mallesham Priyadarshi Raj Rachakonda on how they recreated the life of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham

Jhansi in Mallesham. Image via Facebook

Talking about his own performance, Priyadarshi delves into a scene where he gets into a bus with a lot of steel components, to make the asu machine, and how he’s thrown out of the bus for causing discomfort to other passengers. “That was shot like a proper scene with dialogues, but during edit, it was turned into a montage scene. When I look back into Mallesham’s life, I was amazed to see how much he went through to invent the machine. That scene in the bus shattered me and I was depressed for quite some time. The other thing is that Raj doesn’t talk much and it was hard to figure out whether my performance was good enough or not (laughs). But once we saw the final version of the film, we were happy with what we had done,” he adds.

Ever since the film released, Priyadarshi had been flooded with compliments from the audience and the film fraternity alike. However, the best reaction came from Chintakindi Mallesham and his friends. “Mallesham told me that Jhansi reminded him a lot about his own mother. And watching me perform on screen made him relive his life in the ‘90s. That was a huge compliment. Another time, while we were shooting the film, some of Mallesham’s close friends came to watch what we were filming. They told me that my body language was quite similar to Mallesham. It’s really tough to recreate something which happened 20 years ago when you don’t have proper references. I was thrilled when I heard such kind words from them,” Priyadarshi gushes. The reaction from the film fraternity too has been overwhelming with several directors and actors praising him for his performance. “It feels like they have just discovered a new actor in me, thanks to Mallesham. I didn’t realise all this while shooting the film. It’s only sinking in now. I hope this leads to some good roles for me in future,” Priyadarshi signs off.

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