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Director Puja Kolluru: ‘Martin Luther King’ is ‘Mandela’ on steroids and the politics is relevant; Sampoornesh Babu is an actor without baggage and is perfect for the film

Director Puja Kolluru: ‘Martin Luther King’ is ‘Mandela’ on steroids and the politics is relevant; Sampoornesh Babu is an actor without baggage and is perfect for the film
Director Puja Kolluru: ‘Martin Luther King’ is ‘Mandela’ on steroids and the politics is relevant; Sampoornesh Babu is an actor without baggage and is perfect for the film

Director Puja Kolluru; Sampoornesh Babu in the Telugu film ‘Martin Luther King’
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Days ahead of the theatrical release of the Telugu film Martin Luther King (MLK) on October 27, its makers held screenings in Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Nellore, Warangal and Kurnool. Puja Kolluru, making her directorial debut with this Telugu adaptation of director Madonne Ashwin’s Tamil political satire Mandela starring Yogi Babusays the idea stemmed from director Venkatesh Maha organising 15 screenings of his 2018 debut indie film Care of Kancharapalem inviting people from different walks of society, prior to its theatrical release. “He told me that if people like the film, they will spread the word.” Maha has co-produced MLK, headlined by Sampoornesh Babuwith Chennai-based Y Not Studios.

In this interview at her office in Hyderabad, Puja recalls observing the audience and says, “We were nervous about piracy. Luckily, everyone heeded our request and did not record footage on their phones. We also handed out paper crowns like the one seen on the film’s posters and asked them to wear them if they felt represented while watching the film. I teared up when I saw so many people wearing the crown while viewing the film at different points, in appreciation.”

Since Mandela is considered a niche film and has not been widely viewed on digital platforms in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, she believes it works to the advantage of MLK. Puja reveals that the idea of an adaptation came from Y Not Studios. The production house was keen on a Telugu adaptation and film critic Baradwaj Rangan had suggested Venkatesh Maha. “Maha was hesitant, not wanting to do another adaptation,” says Puja. His Uma Maheshwara Ugra Roopasya was an adaptation of the Malayalam film Maheshinte Prathikaram.

Question of identity

'Martin Luther King' stars Sampoornesh Babu, Naresh, Venkatesh Maha and others

‘Martin Luther King’ stars Sampoornesh Babu, Naresh, Venkatesh Maha and others
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Puja, Maha’s associate, was taken in by the political satire and the issue of identity discussed in Mandela. “I was born in Vijayawada and had spent a few years studying in the USA. When I returned to India, it was not easy to fit in. And when you think of it, Ashwin’s Madonnas story can be adapted to suit any region in the world; it will be relevant.”

In Mandelaa village hairstylist barber is wooed by two opposing groups — northerners and southerners — who want his vote as a tiebreaker. The film is a critique of the political and caste systems in Tamil Nadu. Maha adapted the screenplay and wrote the dialogues to suit the socio-political context of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The team zeroed in on the arid villages of Markapur in Andhra Pradesh to suit the story.

Physicist to a filmmaker

Puja grew up in Vijayawada and after Class X, wanted to become a physicist. She enrolled in an International Baccalaureate programme at UWC Mahindra College. She happened to watch Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and was struck by the impact a film could create. Along with physics, she pursued film studies. Later, she pursued a full-fledged filmmaking course at Ringling College of Arts and Design in the USA.

When asked if she had any reservations about debuting with an adaptation, Puja discloses, “Not at all; I believe the story needs to be told. And, whenever I pitched my original scripts to producers or digital platforms, I was told these stories are at least five years ahead of their time.” Often she was asked why she does not think of writing a rom-com instead of thrillers. “It is not easy to be a female director in Telugu cinema.”

Puja Kolluru makes her directorial debut with ‘Martin Luther King’

Puja Kolluru makes her directorial debut with ‘Martin Luther King’
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Puja notes that when her name was pitched to Y Not Studios, they did not let gender come in the way. “They reminded us that they had relaunched Sudha Kongara with Irudhi Suttru (Guru in Telugu).”

Actor sans baggage

She wanted an actor with no baggage of a star comedian for the title role. “Sampoornesh Babu came up the hard way and carved an identity for himself. We were convinced that people would relate to him.” When MLK was being filmed in the villages, hundreds would line up to get a glimpse of him. “Even in Chennai, people recognised him as ‘the burning star’.”

Sampoornesh went through a 40-day workshop to transform himself into Smile aka Martin Luther King and wanted to start afresh. Puja says the film will discuss the importance of voting and pay tribute to Martin Luther King who fought for the voting rights of Black Americans. “We amplified the importance of a vote in the story. The voter is considered the king, which also adds to the title.”

Lookout for Easter egg references pertaining to caste and political affiliations in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In the village, while Naresh’s character is representative of Andhra Pradesh and Rayalaseema, another group is represented by Venkatesh Maha’s character who speaks the Telangana dialect.

Puja says that they did not shy away from discussing socio-political issues. “Mandela was a gutsy film; MLK is Mandela on steroids. We have changed the tone of the film in the latter half and hope that it will make a stronger impact. It is sheer coincidence that the film is releasing weeks before the elections in Telangana.”

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