Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
In the opening credits of Raj Rachakonda’s Mallesham, the camera focuses on the sight and sound of weaving a Pochampally sari. In essence, it’s an allegory to how the film is staged and narrated. The thread is processed before the weaver gets his hand on it to complete making the fabric. In between, the women are made to do the most laborious part of the whole process - winding the thread over ‘asu’, which eventually leads to bone injuries. Mallesham grows up watching his mother struggle with asu all his life, and he tells her that he would build a machine so that she doesn’t have to struggle as much. She smiles at his verve, but doesn’t stop doing her work. He wants to keep her smiling and happy. So, he ends up going on a journey to build a machine that would eventually turn into a blessing for the whole weavers' community.
The film is a biopic of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham, who invented the asu machine, and how he stood tall despite repeated failures, financial burden, and humiliation. It’s an incredible testimony to human grit and how someone, who dropped out of school at a young age, went on to become a pioneer and an inventor. The more you hear the story of Mallesham and his invention, the more you realise that it’s not the machine itself that makes you tear up in the end — it’s his love for his mother and more women like her, who have spent their lifetime supporting the families and suffered consequences because of the labour-intensive approach of making a sari.
Although the film centres around the life of Mallesham and his family, their plight is no different from the other weavers in the community. The financial distress has taken a toll on several weavers already, many of whom have committed suicide. And as the debts keep rising, with weavers stopping production because the women in the family aren’t healthy enough to do ‘asu’, it drives home the point that the sari is (or at least was) the product of blood and tears of weavers you never saw. It’s this subtext in the film that forms the emotional weight of the film and propels the protagonist, Mallesham, on his journey to make a machine.
There’s a scene in the film, where Mallesham pours his heart out that no one cares about people like him and that their deaths, often due to debts, are treated like a footnote in a corner of the newspaper. And those who don’t die end up leaving their profession, and do menial jobs in the city. In a time like this when there’s so much debate about the tectonic shift that has occurred all over the country about jobs and the right to live a dignified life, Mallesham couldn’t have been more relevant. The film, in a way, questions if we really value people’s lives, especially if they live in far flung villages.
Having said all this, Mallesham is not a bleak drama. In fact, writer-director Raj paints a colourful picture of the life in a village in Telangana, where the focus isn’t on the handloom or asu. The segments that unfold in the school and explore Mallesham’s childhood are a delight to watch. The casting is top notch throughout the film. Whether it’s the kids who play Mallesham’s childhood friends, or Gangavva, who wastes no opportunity to admonish Mallesham and his friends, the film hits all the right notes. The biggest surprise of the film is its lead actor Priyadarshi himself. After playing comic roles in the past few years, Priyadarshi takes you by surprise as Mallesham and how! His performance is one for the ages and the actor pours his heart and soul into every frame in the film. In the second half of the film, when he fails to achieve his goal despite repeated attempts, Priyadarshi channelises his desperation into the character so well that you can’t help but root for him. He doesn’t want to let down his wife or his family, but then, there are too many odds stacked against him. Ananya, who plays Mallesham’s wife Padma, is a wonderful find and she delivers a memorable performance. Watch out for her when she confronts Mallesham and questions his inability to raise money, only to realise her folly later on. It’s her fear and frustration that her husband might fail and at the same time, wanting to support him no matter what, that makes her stand out. Jhansi as Mallesham’s mother is brilliant and she is the emotional anchor of the film.
The film might be about one man and his journey to invent a machine, but director Raj finds plenty of room to turn Mallesham into a socio-political commentary about the lives of people who are pushed to a corner. For instance, when Mallesham comes to Hyderabad and ends up driving an auto, sometimes late in the night just to make extra money to make his machine, it makes you question why does someone have to leave his profession, and something that they are really good at, to just make a living. He’s a loner in the city and barely has any skills to make a decent living. When he isn’t driving an auto, he tries to sell flowers which leaves him frustrated because he isn’t good at marketing. At some point, you realise that Mallesham is the story for each and every one of us who wants to break free and fight back the system which squeezes out our dreams and aspirations.
Mallesham burns with its indie-spirit at every turn and captures your attention with its sheer honesty and simplicity. It’s a simple story about a school dropout and how he goes on to invent a machine, but in the process, Raj Rachakonda creates a world that’s so vivid that it’s as beautiful as a sari. Mallesham left me overwhelmed and made me cry at times. Maybe, it’ll hit an emotional chord with you too. Whatever it is, you’ll never look at a sari or weavers the same way ever again after watching it. Chintakindi Mallesham might have invented the asu machine to ease the burden, but the problems of weavers remain even today. Two big thumbs up for the film. It’s the big small film of the year so far!