Raj Rachakonda's Mallesham is the story of Padma Shri recipient Chintakindi Mallesham (played by Priyadarshi), and on the surface, it's your standard-issue story about a man with a dream. Mallesham belongs to a family of impoverished Pochampally weavers. His father (Chakrapani Ananda) does the actual weaving, but first, the yarn has to be prepared by the painstakingly labour-intensive Ikat dyeing and patterning process — and that's done by Mallesham's mother, Lakshmi (a very affecting Jhansi). As a result, Lakshmi develops shoulder pains. Mallesham resolves to put an end to his mother's troubles and also keep an indigenous tradition alive. The broad arc of the story reminds you of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who was also moved by a woman's plight (his wife's) and created a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads. But unlike Pad Man, the movie made from that story, Mallesham is not headlined by a big star. That is the first of many things this winning film gets right. It's not a star vehicle. It's a vehicle for a common man who, rightfully, should be celebrated as a star.
Mallesham tells his mother, "I will make this machine because no one else will. Because no one else understands this kind of suffering." The sentiment is wholly admirable, but you don't want to watch a movie filled with this kind of noble-mindedness. (Extreme goodness has a way of drooping and dying on the screen.) So the director, who wrote the film with Peddinti Ashok Kumar, fills the frames with as much colour as we see in the saris. I'm not talking about Balu Sandilyasa's cinematography, which resists the temptation to exploit the textile background for a series of "beautiful" images. (There's, say, a flash of blue yarn during a song sequence. Otherwise, the camerawork is as low-key and dignified as the rest of the film.) The colour, instead, comes from the place, and the people.
Take Mallesham himself. He's not someone consumed by madness, someone who won't eat or sleep or do anything but toil feverishly. Instead of these Great Genius™ clichés, we get a most ordinary, most charming man. As a youngster, he is called to fix a ceiling fan. We await the scene that shows us a glimpse of his precocious talents. We get an anticlimax. It makes us laugh. Mallesham is the rare biopic that has a sense of humour. It could have opted to make us weep about its protagonist having to drop out of school after Class VI, because there's no money. Or it could have kept harping about how Mallesham succeeded despite his lack of proper education. But the film just treats this plot point as something that happened, and not something that can be used to evoke this or that reaction from the audience. Drama doesn't always have to be… dramatic.
Priyadarshi is marvellous. He makes niceness seem interesting, which is one of the toughest kinds of acting. (It's easier to make evil interesting.) And because he is not Akshay Kumar, the film can keep cutting his character down to size. (With a bigger star, we might call it "emasculation".) Mallesham is seen in women's clothes. He's unable to procure tickets, by himself, for a Chiranjeevi movie. And he is meek to a fault. (There's a hilarious stretch where Mallesham moves out of his village and tries to make a living in the big, bad city.) And even when he is on the verge of success, the film cuts to a scene where his exasperated father is with a local witch, trying to "exorcise" the "machine madness" that has apparently possessed him. This is one of the most real real-life characters I have seen on screen. Mallesham's deeds make him a hero. There's no need for the man to be shown that way, too.
Ananya Nagalla is equally good as Mallesham's wife, Padma. She finds ways to reinvent the Understanding Wife archetype. She knows the man she's married. Mallesham makes a heart-shaped roti for Padma and she laughs that he has as much space in his heart for her as for his machine. She's realistic, practical. And their big argument, when he asks her for her jewels, is superb. We see both sides, both points of view — and in an inspired stroke, we soon cut to the time Mallesham went to Padma's house to ask for her hand. How much more sense it makes to place this scene here. Had it appeared earlier, chronologically, it would have just been a "cute" moment. But now, it makes Padma (and us) realise what a good man Mallesham really is.
In a way, the weaving becomes a metaphor for marriage, or even a community. The burdens, the challenges are shared by man and woman. If one of them stops, it's over. We see this in Mallesham's parents' marriage, and we see this in Mallesham's marriage, and we see this sense of joint effort in the community, too. In a brilliant scene, where the villagers are gathered before a folk theatre performance, we segue seamlessly to a discussion about adapting to the times, which call for newer styles and designs. Everyone participates, and these small detours show us how important, how far-reaching Mallesham's ambition is. We see these people, unlike in the opening credits, which play over shots of the weaving process without showing a single face. Well, these are the faces we didn't see then.
It's only towards the end that Mallesham starts slipping. We know the protagonist will succeed, so it's a little too much — in a two-hour and ten-minute movie — to have Mallesham sell his machine for scrap at the two-hour mark. Also, given how understated the film generally is (a death is shown simply through a discarded soft drink bottle), the melodrama around Mallesham's father destroying the machine is tonally off. (Mark K Robin's insistent score doesn't help.) But the closing scenes are hugely effective. I welled up when I saw Mallesham's school teacher (who gave him a dictionary) in the crowd, watching the machine in operation. Over the closing credits, the machine's sound segues to applause, and we see the real-life Mallesham, delivering a TEDx talk. An inspiring man has got the film he deserves.