Actor Priyadarshi Pulikonda isn't a firm believer in tags. He gave 200 auditions to bag his first film that didn't see the light of the day. He wanted to be in the entertainment industry only to find some 'work'. Besides a brief stint at theatre, he made the most of short films as a potential avenue to get the attention of the film fraternity. That's where he'd eventually meet current-day Telugu directors Tharun Bhascker and Bharat Kamma who're some of his closest buddies now.
He'd set himself a five-year deadline to make a mark and even did odd jobs at production houses to find a way into the industry. He did with a few acting stints in small-budgeted films (like Bommalaramaram, Terror) but it was his ability to be the casual, happy-go-lucky urban youngster Kaushik in Pelli Choopulu that transformed his life overnight. The success of his recent release Mallesham, where he plays the title role in the biopic of the Padmashri-winning weaver Chintikindi Mallesham based in Aler, Telangana, has provided a similar boost to his career now.
The real Mallesham is known for automating the production of the Pochampally Ikat weave with the 'asu machine' to help his mother. For Priydarshi, the movie wasn't an intentional or a rapid stride to turn a conventional hero. "I was surprised that someone could have such conviction to imagine me in this role. The success of Pelli Choopulu had taught me how an impressive story is important for public acceptance. After I heard a narration from the US-based director Raj, I didn't want to lose this chance. I really wasn't looking for an opportunity to turn a hero," he says.
Director, co-producer of the film, R Raj, a former software engineer in the US, had gone studied all of Priyadarshi's work before zeroing in on him for the role. "A few years ago when Chintakindi Mallesham had won the Padmashri, Tharun and I were hoping for a day when his story could become a Telugu film. I had no inkling that the role was destined for me. The director showed me his TedX video on which the script is based and I immediately knew the sincerity he would bring to its execution. Being a first-time filmmaker, his vision for the film was uncorrupted by commerce. True-to-life, rooted biopics about genuine change-makers aren't common in Telugu films and we hoped to set the right precedent."
"True-to-life, rooted biopics about genuine change-makers aren't common in Telugu films and we hoped to set the right precedent."
To play the role of Mallesham, the actor didn't want to imbibe too much from the histrionics of the real-life personality. "I was really tense when I met him for the first time. He was there at the gate of his house to invite me with open hands. His simplicity really struck me. Ultimately, he was a sixth class dropout who really wanted to ease the physical stress of the women from his community with his invention. He faced consistent rejection and it was only his determination that took him forward. For any such role to work, it's important to bring in your own personality to it. As actors, we too have bad days and disappointments. Roles like these provide an opportunity to utilise our personal experiences. My own marriage life helped us improvise on the personal, intimate conversations between the couple in the movie. My wife was quick enough to spot that though," the 29-year-old smiles.
Mallesham feels authentic to its setting, which the actor says comes from the film's handpicked crew. While Telangana-based artist Laxman Aelay worked as a production designer for the film, the dialogues were penned by popular novelist, playwright Peddinti Ashok Kumar who consistently monitored actors on the set to make sure they got the right accent. The 1990s backdrop of the film meant that Priyadarshi had to do some homework for the role. "Our workshops were of great help. Everyone knew the script in its entirety and it just gave us the right scope to improvise on the sets. We really knew how the little moments could contribute to the larger picture," he says.
Over the last week he's watched the movie at least eight times. "In the initial screenings, I'd be honest to say that I was more watchful and conscious about my performance. However, with every viewing, I began seeing through its finer details. The nuances of the film really showed in its everyday-mundane conversations, the simplicity in the beliefs of the characters and the care for detailing in each department. They made the movie feel complete in many ways," Priyadarshi says.
The actor particularly enjoyed the portions where he played a theatre actor and a diehard Chiranjeevi fan – these were among the few fictional add-ons to the biopic. "The theatre backdrop may be fictional in Mallesham's life but the plays in the region otherwise also revolve around Lord Markandeya, the God of the weaver community. The backdrop also facilitates the union of Mallesham with his wife."
What sets Mallesham apart from other biopics is the importance it places on the women in the character's life. Mallesham's wife Padma (played by Ananya) and mother Lakshmi (played by Jhansi) are the ones who see hope at the end of the tunnel, even when he loses courage. "It's time that films give due credit to the unsung heroes in the journeys of successful people. They (the women in the case of Mallesham) are the pillars of courage who stand by the thick and the thin of several changemakers and you can't relegate them to just another side-character. I, in fact, get a greater high to watch a strong woman of worth in a film that revolves around a man."
Also with Mallesham, Priyadarshi wanted to prove that he could be more than the lighthearted sidekick to popular actors. Though he'd tried doing that with Ghazi, Kanam, Arjun Reddy, Awe, and W/O Ram, there couldn't have been a better opportunity than this to shed such stereotypes and help him find his feet as an actor. After a round of preview shows in Hyderabad, the best compliment someone gave him was, "The role made me forget everything that Priyadarshi has done in the past."
An important trend that the biopic has heralded in the Telugu industry is its implementation of the POSH laws on the sets, thereby enabling a safe and inclusive workplace for women."The implementation ensures accountability for the right on-set behaviour. I am happy that Mallesham is among the earliest films to pave the way forward for this."
Going forward, Priyadarshi is keen on backing more powerful stories. "I hope after Mallesham, somewhere, a writer is penning a story with me in mind. While Mallesham broke the image that was set through Pelli Choopulu, the challenge is to find something that's so drastically different from Mallesham. I am happy that I am not just an actor who provides comic-relief through his roles anymore. Yet, I will continue to do mainstream films because it helps me hone my craft. You need to keep doing something regularly to get better at it. Regardless of the screen time, I get to work with a wide variety of actors, directors which may not be possible if I strictly wanted to lead/hero roles. It's important to do them for their reach. Otherwise, Mallesham wouldn't have been possible either," he ends.