VoxTalks With Aparna Malladi : Celebrating The Vibrance Of StoryTelling In Every Medium Possible

In our recent times of running this platform, we’ve come across only a handful of people, who emanate warmth and intellect whenever they cross our paths. You automatically find yourself, captivated by their presence and just want to listen to their stories, all other things irrelevant. They say usually HolyMen and Yogis have that kind of aura, which helps you make an instant connection with them. Today we are talking to a filmmaker, who exudes these yogic qualities, in her calm demeanour and brings out incredible stories to tell. The woman in prospect, Aparna Malladi. As we sit down to talk to her about her journey, life lessons and aspirations, we get to understand how patience, passion and perseverance pay off every time. And thus, we had to bring our interview here, in the purest way possible. Excerpts of our conversations, and thoughts of people who’ve worked with Aparna Malladi, in her journey till now, follow…

Aparna you are one of the very few women directors and storytellers in our Telugu film industry. That makes us curious as to how complicated is the process of becoming a filmmaker here is? Why would say there hasn’t been a huge influx of women storytellers, with YouTube and Crowd Funding being the mantra of the presentation today? We hardly see any short films coming out to in this regard.
It is indeed a fact that there are not very many women film directors and screenwriters and it’s not just in the Telugu film industry but the world over. Having said that, I think that filmmaking is complicated and hard no matter which gender is involved. Even when all the funds are in place and one has a lot of support, making a film is almost as impossible and as magical as pulling a rabbit of a hat.

Filmmaking is a freelance industry and the stakes are very high – Fame, huge amounts of money and power – It’s a blood sport and most women don’t want to jump into the fray especially when the deck is already stacked against them with gender bias [conscious or not]. The barriers to entry are high in filmmaking [Even with YouTube & Crowd Funding].

And I truly believe that a woman has a to be twice as good to get half the opportunities that men get and when we do get an opportunity we bloody well make good on it or we may not get another chance.

To the uninitiated, what’s the story of Aparna Malladi? Where does the passion for filmmaking initiate in a foreign living Indian, so much so that, it drives her to move back to the country and pursue the art? And in this pursuit, what would you look back to say, as the toughest phase of your journey thus far?
I studied Chemical Engineering at Osmania University. Like most of my peers in those days, I went to the US and did my Masters. I landed a job in the San Francisco Bay Area and that is where filmmaking found me. It was a flash of vision. I knew that it was my calling and from that moment on I was on my true journey which I have pursued with almost an obsessive passion.

I studied film at Film Arts Foundation and made a short [Nupur – Ankle Bracelets] and a feature [Mistein] both of which won awards and did a decent round on the international film festival circuit. A local producer, Henry Rosenthal suggested I move to Los Angeles as I was getting too comfortable in San Francisco. My move from San Francisco to Los Angeles was more difficult than my move from India to the US. Los Angeles was big and intimidating but I knew I was home. In Los Angeles, I wrote the screenplay for ‘The Anushree Experiments’ set in Hyderabad. That film got me back to India.

I had no street credibility in the Telugu film industry and it was like starting from scratch. It took almost 3 years before I could manifest ‘The Anushree Experiments’ and release it in Hyderabad. It wasn’t particularly hard but it demanded patience. Looking back I would say the toughest phase was my initial years in Los Angeles but I came out a stronger and a more insightful human being and hence a better filmmaker as a result of it all.

It is here that the leading actress of the film’The Anushree Experiments’, Ulrika Krishnamurti, had something to share with us, about Aparna, and the way she took off. “Aparna is a powerful creative force and I am still learning from things she said to me many years ago. That’s the way it is when you work with special people- they leave a lasting impact!” she states. 

You started your journey here in the industry with an independent film called ‘The Anushree Experiments’, which although was a good start didn’t accentuate into a revenue-generating product. When you look back, do you perhaps think that there was something you could’ve done differently? Also, would a different kind of Debut movie work for you as a debut feature?
My father who is an army man used to always say that ‘Hindsight is always 20/20’. If I could do it all over again with the knowledge I have now I would ensure the chances of getting a theatrical distribution for ‘The Anushree Experiments’ before I even shot a single frame but when you are starting out you are driven only my the passion of creating. And I am glad that I did what I could with the resources I had. It went the way it went and that’s all there is to it I guess.

We had the opportunity to have conversed with you about filmmaking and global cinema on multiple occasions. However, today we can’t seem to find many personalities or filmmakers who educate their art that much? And that is glaringly visible in the stories we bring out via short films and feature films. Why do you think there’s a disparity between our talents and Global movie minds? Where is the knowledge getting scattered?
The intention of a film director is what dictates his expression, the film project and his career at large. I knew early on that I wanted to go deep into this art form. I wanted to become the ‘real thing’. I didn’t want to just ‘wing it’ and be a fluke or a flash in the pan. I want to meet the great storyteller in me someday. That is the real payoff for me.

When the intention is money, fame or anything other than telling a good story then the equation changes and the industry then selects for what I call ‘Film Directors for Hire’ – Craftsmen with a very narrow focus who can make something based on the Telugu industry’s commercial specs and specific dictates. The only knowledge then sort by the Telugu Film industry is that of ‘Craft’ and not of making ‘Original Film Art’. We then have no space for auteurs and we cannot add anything or plug into the global cinema conversation.

You are perhaps known best amongst the trade circles, for making the immensely popular Web Series, Posh Poris. Could you tell us in a brief manner, the journey of conceptualising this web series, hardships and hurdles faced, and the joyous success of it?
I am ashamed to admit that I was very reluctant to do ‘Posh Poris’ and literally had to be pulled into it kicking and screaming into it my the producer of the series Rama Iragavarapu Garu. I was physically, emotionally, financially and creatively exhausted from the making and release of ‘The Anushree Experiments’ and wanted a long and much-needed break to gather myself together before embarking on another project.

I had lightly suggested in passing that I was interested in making something with a bunch of girls as protagonists during the promotions of ‘The Anushree Experiments’. After the release, Rama Garu held me to that and quickly put the team together. I was running on fumes and could barely get to the offices of TeluguOne. Having said that, one I committed I played full out with a little bit of leftover adrenaline energy and was ecstatic with the success of ‘Posh Poris’.

Making ‘Posh Poris’ was effortless and challenging at the same time. This was the first time I was not producing a project. It was great to just direct and I was blessed with strong and efficient and trusting producers. I met an amazing writer with a unique voice in Gautami Challagula. We fought for and managed to find Telugu women actors to play the protagonists in the series. I am very proud of this particular fact. As a team, we maintained a very high level of integrity and quality with respect to delivery and we mastered the format even though it was a first time for all of us. Success aside, I think everyone on the team got upgraded and felt fortunate to be part of a creative conversation that brought out the best in them.

It is here that the writer of the series ‘Posh Poris’, Gautami Challagulla, had something to share with us, about Aparna, and the way she carved her soul into the project. “Posh Poris was my first writing in fiction and having Aparna garu direct it helped me in more than one way. Her patient reviews, her suggestions and the brainstorming sessions- all helped me become a better writer! When I ventured into directing, she gave me one advice that I’ll carry forever: “When you are a filmmaker, your cast and crew will hate you; but you know what? If you make a bad film, they will hate you more” she remembers fondly.

As an excellent thinker of all things creative, do you perhaps feel restricted that you only look to filmmaking to bring out your stories? Would you rather have books, documentaries or photo series capture any of your stories? And more importantly, have you faced any difficulties in translating what’s on paper, to something on the screen?
Filmmaking being my ‘go to’ art ‘When my cup runneth over, it overflows into the form of a film’. I do like to paint and write short stories. I am an active member of Hyderabad’s ‘Write Club’ which challenges me to dabble in other forms of writing. One never knows what might expand into a full-blown work.

It’s not humanly possible to surpass the quality of my imagination with a film. My imagination is so much more brilliant, richer and fantastic. Because of Physical limitations & resources etc. however, the film is a muted version of what I had in mind or write on paper. If I can get more than 60% of what I thought or wrote I can open the champagne. The biggest hurdle, of course, is ‘God’. You see he plays co-director/writer on all my films and sometimes even takes over and sidelines me completely. The film then is something better but yet very unexpected and all I can do in the end is shamelessly take credit for it all.

It is here that one of the main leads of the series ‘Posh Poris’, Aditi Myakal, had something to share with us, about Aparna, and the way she defined not only the series but also the lived involved in it, “Aparna ma’am has taught me that you don’t need a man, in fact, anyone, to be happy in life!! She has taught me to be comfortable in my skin!!! I’ve grown as a person working with such ambitious, independent and a happy woman!! Coming to direction, she is a brilliant director!!! She used to always say that the way you look on screen doesn’t really make you beautiful, it’s your acting and authenticity that makes you beautiful And I still believe that, and this one advice has made me a person who us easy to work with!! The directors I work with are happy that I don’t end up in front of monitors constantly checking myself. I have list of women who inspire me and Aparna ma’am would be in the top 5 of the list Apart from acting I have learnt lot about life!! How you should be treated, self-worth, self confidence and most importantly to live a life of Queen and leave, like a queen”.

There’s a common conception amongst trade circles that Women these days find it easier to enter and excel creative fields, owing to the Feminism wave going about. ‘A product by women, for women’ is being lapped by media houses and viewers as an example of solidarity. Do you feel that this happens? We are curious to know your thoughts on Feminism and how it should it be celebrated in our world?
I am a feminist in the political sense that men and women should have equal voting rights, should be paid equal for equal work and should have equal opportunity to compete and express themselves. My feminism stops there. I like the difference between men and woman and I like to celebrate the differences. I love men and see men as powerful supporters of women. I see men as feminists as well.

It’s true that the film industry is dominated by men and I have yet to meet a man who told me I could not do something. They have been extremely supportive and respectful of my unique expression. People say I am very lucky and fortunate and I am sure I am, but I also think that people will show up for you in the context of your own beliefs. I quote my father again here – “It’s not the mountains ahead that wear you out but the grain of sand in your shoe”.

More than a ‘Wave of Feminism’ or ‘Solidarity’ the reasons producers want to make women-centric films now more than ever is because they see the money making potential. After the 4th episode of ‘Posh Poris’ released, one of the biggest film producers in Hyderabad called me in and asked me to make a film with women protagonists. He saw the market potential in what I was doing. ‘Posh Poris’ was my proof of concept and so I got an opportunity and I will make good on it.

Now since we’ve dealt with some serious thoughts, let’s now have some fun rapid questions,
One story that remains your favourite till date?
Out of Africa

Of the 3 posh poris, which one do you think, you resemble the most?

If you were a given 100 Million budget, which story would you bring to life and why?
Mahabharata because it’s asking to be made

In the recent past, which two movie-makers have impressed the filmmaker in you. And which two for the storyteller in you?
Filmmakers: Sidney Pollack & Ang Lee Storytellers: John Grisham & Jane Austen [She is always current]

One Superhero you always wanted to be? And what would you use your power for?
The Phantom and I would deliver poetic justice just like him

What is the biggest regret you have in the cinema journey you have till now?
When I was young and beautiful I should have seduced a rich producer and married him. I am kidding – I have absolutely no regrets.

If you had to do an anthology, and you could choose which director precedes and succeeds your story, who would you choose why?
Federico Fellini and Amy Heckerling. I wanted to be Fellini and started out imitating him and ended up making chick flicks like Amy Heckerling

Three things about Aparna Malladi, not many people on Earth know?
1. I logged many hours as a student helicopter pilot – I flew the Schweizer 300 and once while flying saw Clint Eastwood in his black helicopter over the city of Concord in California. That’s as close as I could get to him.
2. I am a certified Sivananda Yoga teacher
3. Ryan Gosling [Post ‘Notebook’] was my neighbour in Los Angeles and offered to help move my luggage when I was moving in.

Lastly, we personally know many storytellers, who are struggling to get their big break even after years of struggling. What would you suggest they do, as a measure of being visible in the eyes of production houses, and yet keep their originality and sanctity intact?
A senior executive from Warner Brothers once told me at a networking party in Los Angeles that I don’t have to network because when I am ready he will find me even if I am 20 feet below the ground. My main job is to work on my craft and get better every day and that he gets up every day and is paid a lot of money to look for me. I took his advice and I live with the confidence that when I ‘Got it’ they will beat a path to my door.

On more practical lines though, I think making a good film even if it is 1-minute long film can grab the attention of a creative head at an internet media house and be given a chance for a web series to showcase your talent. Writing a good and truly exceptional screenplay [Paper and ink cost almost next to nothing] will get you meetings with stars/actors who are desperate for good material. A good and fully realised script so wants to become a film that it will pull all the necessary resources to make itself into a film.

As far as ‘Originality’ is concerned– I say have a huge ego when it comes to ‘Originality’. Be proud that you are more creative and can come up with much better stuff than what’s out there. As for ‘Sanctity’ – Well, meditate a lot, keep healthy and have as much sex as you can get away with without getting into trouble.

It is here that one of the main leads of the series ‘Posh Poris’, Sahaja Chowdary, had something to share with us, about Aparna, and the way she calmly and patiently drove the venture ahead and in turn maintained a sense of serenity all along, “I just want to say to her, Thank you, for being patient with me, I was the one to irritate most on set with my suggestions and laughter. Thank You”

I want to end with a quote from musician and master Zakir Hussain who gave me this advice just before the shoot of my debut feature film ‘Mitsein’. “I would rather have you burn the entire resources of the universe and the universe itself than have your creativity go to waste”