The film ends with the real-life Mallesham delivering a TEDx talk on how his machine has improved the lives of thousands of weavers
One of the quieter gems that has slipped past in the last few weeks is Raj Rachakonda's Mallesham, his debut feature in Telugu. It is a long time since I saw an Indian feature that was this culturally rich. The film is a biopic of Padma Shri Chintakindi Mallesham, who invented the 'asu' machine, that mechanically prepares the yarn base, on which the famous Pochampally and ikat saris are woven in Telangana.
The film is set in a village of Pochampally sari weavers. As a kid, Mallesham sees his mother Lakshmi (the dignified Jhansi) prepare the asu, painstakingly weaving the threads to prepare the yarn base for the sari, before his father can weave the designs on it. Her shoulders ache terribly, and Mallesham promises her that when he grows up, he will do something to relieve her pain. Mallesham is forced to drop out of school to work the loom to help feed his family. As a young adult, Mallesham (Priyadarshi Pulikonda) grows obsessed with creating an asu machine that will mechanically do what his mother—and hundreds of other women—do painstakingly by hand. He is widely taunted and incurs debts while experimenting with the machine. Meanwhile, he also falls in love with the charming Padma (Ananya Nagalla) and marries her. His wife understands that his obsession for the machine is because he is considerate to women weavers. They move to the city to work undisturbed, where Mallesham undertakes humiliating jobs, such as driving an auto rickshaw, to make ends meet. Eventually, after many struggles, he creates a mechanical asu that his mother inaugurates, at the press of a button. The film ends with the real-life Mallesham delivering a TEDx talk on how his machine has improved the lives of thousands of weavers.
The story is an inspirational one of a struggle, of a school dropout creating a useful machine and earning a Padma Shri. Yet, it isn't whiny at all. Mallesham's childhood offers many joys in his village, and there is even gentle comedy. Amazingly, Rachakonda's direction, and the screenplay by Peddinti Ashok Kumar and Rachakonda, expands a biopic into a rich tapestry that comments on socio-economic issues. We see how the ikat that we wear comes from the blood and tears of weavers, how fragile the centuries-old tradition of Pochampally is, as indebted weavers become manual labourers in cities. There were many moments that moved me to tears, including one when Padma refuses to pawn her jewels for Mallesham's machine, then agrees because she fears he may commit suicide. The second half drags a bit with unnecessary detours, as we know he will succeed, but this is a minor quibble.
Above all, the film has great cultural depth, rare in contemporary Indian cinema. Singers draw from mythology and folk tradition to explain how the loom was created by a saint. We see an Andhra textile 'pichwai' depicting this painted/woven myth. Soon, the song turns into a discussion on how weavers cannot survive machine-made saris, and the exploitation of agents. One of the singers is a man cross-dressing in a sari; there is also a Moharram folk tradition for which Mallesham dresses in a sari. Music composer Mark Robin shows a brilliant understanding of folk music, including festival songs, Telugu lullabies, mourners' dirges, even a charming sawal-jawab song between in-laws as the newlyweds cross the threshold of their home. The film is set in an inclusive, Ganga-Jamuni culture, in which a Hindu family participates in Moharram, and one of Mallesham's saviours is Abdul, a disarming Muslim lathe operator-cum-poet.
Pulikonda, hitherto known mainly for his comedy, effortlessly carries the film on his shoulders, to make a gentle, persistent Mallesham we root for. Ananya is a charming foil, and the ensemble cast are marvelous. Balu Sandilyasa's cinematography is evocative. Raghavender Vuppuganti's editing is good, except that it could have been a bit tighter. The scene of empty Gold Spot bottles indicating a family's suicide is a quiet stunner. Mallesham is a worthy successor to Shyam Benegal's Susman (The Essence, 1987), which also addressed weavers' crises in Pochampally.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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