Middle Class Melodies, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video, has charmed viewers, taking them into the world of Bombay Chutney and love for Guntur. In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, director Vinod Anantoju and actors Anand Deverakonda and Varsha Bollamma speak about the process of making the film. Excerpts.
For about half-an-hour, I was fidgeting a bit wondering what's the flavour of this film, but then without my realising it, it kind of began to wash up on me and I was with the film. Was that intended? To ease us into the drop rather than drop us into it?
Vinod Anantoju: Yeah, it was kind of intentional. There are so many characters and the world is as important as the characters, so I thought it's best to go slow and give the audience time to settle in to get familiar with characters and the world. Given them ample time to feel the world, and when the characters are sufficiently established, we can go on with the plot.
When you guys read the script did you feel that this is taking time to get to the point?
Anand Deverakonda: I listened to the narration first, and that translated into something. While reading the script, I didn't get that feeling, I didn't think there was a lag, I thought it was important for us to ease into the world, establish all these characters. For the first 20 minutes, there are at least 10 characters getting established. A lot of people have told me that once the 20-minute mark was over, they were drawn into the world and they were travelling along with the characters.
Varsha Bollamma: As Anand said, Vinod narrated the story to me and he expressed each character so well I never felt it was taking long to ease into the movie or the situation. And, I'm sure that people who understand Telugu well will not feel that at all because each dialogue makes sense and adds to the movie. I think they will connect to the movie from the beginning.
Yeah, because I'm connecting to it through subtitles so maybe there's a bit of a distance. Has it become easier for Telugu cinema to get into corners of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and tell specific stories? Or, has it always been this way? Because over the last few years we've not just been hearing Telugu films set in specific urban areas but also films set in Kancharapalem and Araku, where the colours (tonalities) are so different from your average Telugu film. Is this something that only us outsiders see or do you guys also see something like that?
Vinod Anantoju: It is happening. In fact, both the audience and filmmakers are opening themselves to that kind of cinema. We are willing to make it and audiences are willing to watch it, so that's the kind of new change that's been happening.
Anand Deverakonda: There's been a 20-year gap of no one exploring these subjects in the industry. Vinod introduced me to Jandhyala sir and Bapu sir's movies, which were rooted in realism. I don't know why this gap happened. Like you said, there are movies like that now. Agent Sai Sreenivasa Athreya was set in Nellore. So, different cities, different places…which is good.
I think that places an extra burden on actors, right? You'll have to do extra work by picking up inflections, and making sure you're convincing as someone from that place.
Anand Devarakonda: That is true. Varsha and I aren't from that region, and the rest of the actors are from that region, from Guntur and surrounding areas. So, it took a bit of effort for us. I'll be honest, I wasn't going for the accent they would speak in, in the villages, because I thought it might seem a bit off. A lot of people compare my voice to Vijay's [Deverakonda, his brother], and they have to switch off from the fact that this accent is not Telangana anymore and then tune into a completely different accent. So, I was trying to keep it neutral, because I didn't want it to affect the movie in a negative way.
Varsha Bollamma: When I was doing MCM, I had just learnt Telugu, and Vinod was like, "Okay, now learn the Guntur slang." (everyone laughs)
Thankfully, I don't have a lot of dialogues in the movie. I know, as an actor, I shouldn't be saying this, but I think that helped, because my expressions do most of the talking. If I had monologues like Anand did, I would have had to work harder.
Vinod, you're more of a reader than a movie watcher. How does a reader say, "I want to make movies" as opposed to "I want to write books?"
I should say it's because of my father. He used to work in the Telugu book publishing industry for long. From childhood, I read novels and that kind of integrated into my tendency to tell the stories I read to other kids and my friends.
So, I should tell stories, but what is the best medium, I wondered. I have written short stories, but I thought filmmaking is a better and effective medium. It has more reach. I started with short films and learnt through them, and eventually shifted to feature filmmaking. I didn't abandon writing.
You're writing it differently in a screenplay format, but you're still writing a story.
Vinod Anantoju: Yeah.
On the one hand, cinema means commercial films to a lot of people, but your readerly sensibilities are shaping you in a slightly different way. At one point, did you ever feel like "How am I going to merge these two things?"
Vinod Anantoju: Actually, there is a big gap as you said, with the cinema I grew up watching and the literature I grew up reading. They're going in completely different ways, so that is where I think my opportunity lies, because I know there can be an alternative cinema. I know there are many alternative stories that we can tell, but nobody's telling it. I thought I should explore more in that zone. So, that's why I started this.
What would be the one book of the many you've read, that you'd want to make into a movie?
Vinod Anantoju: I like Keshav Reddy's novels. They have the potential to be made into fantastical films. They are very raw and rustic. There's a novel called Athadu Adavini Jayinchadu (He conquered the forest). If I get permission, I want to make his novels into movies.
Please buy the rights at once because you're giving it away.
Varsha Bollamma: Exactly!
I have to ask a masala question as this interview is about a non-masala film. If each one of you were to pick one movie that you'd like to direct in the masala space, what would it be? Varsha, you cannot say Mahanati.
Varsha Bollamma: Magadheera.
Anand Deverakonda: Athadu, by far. It's my favourite.
Vinod Anantoju: Mudhalvan, in Tamil.