Tollywood
Director Venkatesh Maha speaks to TNM about the Telugu film that's taking audiences across states by storm.

86 debut actors. A sleepy village. And four love stories. The heart-warming tale of C/O Kancherapalam is director Venkatesh Maha’s first in creating a one of its kind Indie movie for the Telugu audience. While Kancherapalam has been whole-heartedly embraced by the audience and the trade alike, Maha says it’s only the beginning of a wave of change in the industry. 

“Now that Kancherapalam is here, we are definitely going to see more of such films that will change the face of Tollywood among the global audience,” Maha tells TNM.

Venkatesh Maha’s association with films goes way back to the time when he was in Class VI, and would look dreamily at the huge cut-outs of actors outside theatres in his town. “My mother, whenever she wanted some time off, would give me some money and ask me to watch a movie. She knew nothing else could keep me away for long,” Maha says.

To be in an industry without any godfathers, Maha spent over seven years, from working as a spot boy to playing small character roles and then venturing into short films. “Until 2009, I worked in an MNC in Vizag and then quit my job and started looking for an opportunity in films. I was happy with whatever I did as long as it was connected to movies. I wanted to be an actor and made a couple of short films, too. All hats I donned came useful to me on the sets of Kancherapalam,” Maha says.

In 2016, wanting to take a break from work, Maha visited his friend who lived in Kancherapalam in Vizag. “I could say that Kancherapalam was a movie born out of frustration. I had been to Kancherapalam earlier too, but this time I told my friend that I wanted to do a movie. He took me out and made me meet all the film enthusiasts in the village. I slowly realised how every person at Kancherapalam had a story within themselves, realistic enough to make a movie. I only had to explore their characters and pen them down for the film,” Maha recalls.

Kancherapalam has managed to hit the mark, casting over 80 fresh faces on screen, and each character convincing the audience of the role portrayed. “The actors were people from regular walks of life, who had a daily job and led a very ordinary life. Initially, I chalked up plans to adjust to each person’s schedule but within no time the actors themselves made to the sets on time, after completing their 9-7 work shifts,” Maha says.

So could Kancherapalam have become a bigger hit with a few stars on board? “Definitely not! If the movie had bigger names, it would have definitely taken the wrong turn. Tell me, is there anyone else in the industry who could have played the role of Raju so convincingly in the film? The movie’s success lies in its simplicity and the choice of faces,” Maha exclaims.

He further says that Raam Reddy’s award-winning Kannada film, Thithi, was a push to make Kancherapalam without any popular face. “I was inspired by the lives of Kancharapalem to make the film, so I felt they all should be a part of the film,” Maha says.

Talking about his association with Praveena Paruchuri, the producer of the film, Maha says that it was director Aparna Malladi who first introduced him to this young cardiologist from the US. “Praveena was a film enthusiast who wanted to be an actor but eventually went on to become a cardiologist. After ten years of working and saving enough money in the US, she came to India, wanting to produce movies,” Maha says.

“Even though the pitch video I showed her was a three and a half minute shoot, she took less than three and a half seconds to decide and be on board the movie,” Maha adds.

Audience may know Praveena better as Saleema, the actor who plays the role of a sex worker in Kancherapalam. Proving her mettle as an actor too, Maha calls Praveena a ‘born-actor’. “To every other artiste on set, I had to give a demo of their roles before they went on to face the camera. But not once for Praveena, who in herself is a born-actor.”

Similar to the strong character portrayed by Praveena are the other women characters in the film, who say first things first and are quick decision makers. Away from the toxic masculinity typecast in the regular Tollywood flicks, Kancherapalm has a bevy of male characters who have their hearts in the right place and do not intimidate or stalk women to express their love.

“I have seen a lot of strong women in my life, beginning from my mother, who lost her husband when I was in Class VI. So, when I was writing the script, it was never a conscious effort at creating strong female characters. They were the women I had seen in my life and how in general I would want women to take this world head-on,” says Maha.

“From Radha’s 20-year-old daughter to the idol maker’s uneducated wife, every woman in the movie has a voice of their own. Not to forget the old woman who is the sole female member in the village panchayat and is looked up to by the village men. That’s what feminism is for me. The right to voice one’s opinion without any fear,” he adds.

Being the only Telugu film to be premiered at the New York film festival, Maha says Kancherapalam is not just a regional film but one made for the global audience, too. “This is an industry that runs on flesh and blood, on people’s dedicated efforts. Content is important for any film to work here. I always wanted to be an international filmmaker. And with Kancherapalam’s success, I think I have made a tiny step in that direction,” the director signs off.