Thursday, June 20, 2024

Director Venu Yeldandi on ‘Balagam’: Every character stems from real-life observations

Priyadarshi, Sudhakar Reddy and Kavya Kalyanram in the Telugu film ‘Balagam’

Priyadarshi, Sudhakar Reddy and Kavya Kalyanram in the Telugu film ‘Balagam’
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Telugu film Balagam (the group/supporters) is winning hearts in theatres, on a digital streaming platform as well as public screenings in the villages of Telangana. It has also won seven awards at international film festivals so far. including Los Angeles Cinematography Awards, Washington DC International Cinema Festival and Onkyo Film Awards in Ukraine. Venu Yeldandi, better known as a comic actor before he wrote and directed Balagam, calls this response a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

Venu grew up in Sircilla, Telangana, and remembers the happenings in his large family of around 100 people. “I was the ninth child to my parents. My grandparents and their siblings had a number of children; I have fond memories of all of us bonding over festivals and conversations. Though I have been a comic actor for more than two decades, I always wanted to tell stories from my region,” he says, during this interview at producer Dil Raju’s office in Hyderabad.

Balagam stands out in its portrayal of the rural Telangana culture — Bathukamma festivities, people bonding over food, marriage and death and keeps the conversations as real as possible. Films featuring the Telangana dialect, music and culture have grown in popularity in the last decade. Prominent among them are Fidaa, Mallesham, Love Story, iSmart Shankar, Jathi Rathnalu, DJ Tillu and last week’s release, Dasara.

The idea of Balagam took shape in 2016-17, he reminisces. “My friend Pradeep Advaitham had gone to his hometown when his grandfather passed away; he had disappeared for 11 days. When I contacted him, he said ‘bhale untai mana culture kotlatalu’. I was reminded of everything that had happened when my father passed away. There was a story waiting to be told.”

Actor-turned-director Venu Yeldandi

Actor-turned-director Venu Yeldandi
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Balagam’s story explores the politics in relationships after a death in the family is a theme that has been explored earlier in Ram Prasad ki Tehrvi (Hindi), Sethum Aayiram Pon (Tamil) and Thithi (Kannada). Venu felt that Balagam would stand out since it presents an insider’s view of rural Telangana. 

Venu shares that in 2020, soon after the first lockdown, he gave a two-and-a-half-hour narration to producer Dil Raju. “With his vast experience as a producer, Dil Raju helped me tweak certain aspects to make the story more appealing,” he adds. Venu had always been drawn to the realistic presentation of stories in Tamil and Malayalam cinema and wanted to do something similar in Telugu. When films such as Care of Kancharapalem (CoK) and Mallesham hit theatres, he observed how people were receiving these films. “Our people have always been open to such portrayals. The film industry was reluctant and assumed it would not work. With films like CoK and Mallesham, I was confident that I am going in the right direction. I was not scared, because I had my acting career to fall back on. Even if I had failed to score a big hit, I was confident that Balagam would be regarded as a good film.”

Priyadarshi in a still from ‘Balagam’

Priyadarshi in a still from ‘Balagam’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The finetuning of the script took time. Venu did majority of the writing, with help from his team members Nagaraju, Ramesh and Arun, lyricist Shyam Kasarla, fellow filmmaker K V Anudeep and a few members from Dil Raju’s team. “Plenty of research went into the construction of character arcs. For example, the reconciliation of the heroine’s father with his brother in law had to come from a space of self realisation. A man who broke family ties for a small reason, and again walks off in a huff, will not reconcile easily. It happens only when his daughter voices aloud if she, too, will be caught in a situation like her mother in future.”

Venu reveals that it took two months for Dil Raju to give his nod to the title Balagam: “He wanted to be sure that people would relate to the word. Today people are owning the word ‘balagam’.”

Several screen tests were conducted before finalising the actors. While Priyadarshi, Kavya Kalyanram and a few others are well-known in Telugu cinema, many of the supporting actors were chosen from theatre groups, Chindu yakshaganam troupe and Surabhi theatre group. “I saw to it that actors who are shown as characters from the same family have some resemblances, be it in facial features and height. And every character in the film stems from people I have seen in my village,” adds Venu. He also tapped Telangana folk music groups for some of the songs.

Word-of-mouth publicity helped the film become a rage. Apart from the standing ovations he has been receiving at the screenings, Venu says the heartwarming aspect is people telling him about how they are reconnecting with their siblings and extended families after watching the film. “I have tears in my eyes. What more can I ask for?” he says.

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