On an overcast morning, director Mallidi Vassishta is in a relaxed mood at his office in Hyderabad . The pre-production work for his new film starring Chiranjeevi, which will go on floors in November, is on. The director, who debuted with the Telugu fantasy drama Bimbisara, which starred Kalyan Ram in dual roles, surprised many when the announcement of him directing Chiranjeevi’s 157th film was made a few weeks ago. He lets the excitement show, revealing that it will be a fantasy entertainer. “We haven’t seen Chiranjeevi garu in that space since Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990). Our film will place him in a new fantasy world.”
A fan of Marvel and DC superhero stories as well as Vittalacharya films, Vassishta says plans are on to create a Disney-like entertainer that will engage children and families. “Jagadeka Veerudu… appealed to children of the 90s. I want today’s children to see Chiranjeevi in that zone. I grew up watching fantasy films, cartoons and reading Chandamama stories. The idea for Bimbisara came while watching an old Mickey Mouse cartoon. I have fond memories of watching Tom and Jerry, Shaktimaan, SuperTed and HeMan.”
A world with immense possibilities
The response he received for Bimbisara has given him the confidence to explore fantasy cinema further. “You can take liberties while creating a new world; it can have flying horses, elephants… and endless possibilities. There is a joy in creating a new world, like in Avatar, transporting the audience into it and keeping them emotionally invested.”
Bimbisara had its share of visual effects that were worked upon with budget constraints. Now, given a larger canvas, he says efforts are on to get the best possible output required for the story. “We are engaging with a number of studios. While the quality of visual effects has to be good, I believe that ultimately the story and the screenplay matter. If you dress up an ordinary story with great VFX, it will not work. We achieved what we set out to with Bimbisara and the audience accepted the film.” Vassishta adds that Chiranjeevi-starrer Anji (2004), a fantasy action-adventure directed by Kodi Ramakrishna, had cutting edge computer graphics for its time.
Directing Chiranjeevi is a dream come true for Vasshista. Growing up in Chennai, he recalls that watching Telugu films in theatres was not easy in the 90s. He would watch Telugu films on video cassettes and occasionally in theatres when he visited his grandparents in Hyderabad. He vividly remembers watching Rowdy Alludu in the theatre and enjoying it. “His emotional portrayal in Aapadbandhavudu is one of my favourites, along with the entertainers such as Gang Leader, State Rowdy and Chantabbai.”
He recalls his first meeting with Chiranjeevi for the new film. “People gave me dos and don’ts and scared me. Chiranjeevi garu made me feel at ease. He asked me to narrate the story as I would to a friend. The first narration lasted half an hour; he liked the idea and asked me to work on it. I returned a week later and gave a detailed narration for one and a half hours.”
Did you know?
Vasshista’s real name is MVN Reddy. “My sister consulted a swamiji and he had suggested to change my name to Vasshista. I liked the name and agreed. Within a few days, my first film with Kalyan Ram was finalised. I am enjoying this identity.”
Is Vasshista a quick writer? “I like to finish writing when an idea is fresh. If I let it sit, I begin to doubt if the idea is good enough.” During the scripting process, he has lengthy discussions with his team members, Srikanth, Aditya and Sridhar. “Srikanth is good at judging a commercial format script; Aditya is well versed in the puranas and Sridhar is good at analysing things in detail. They tell me upfront when they disagree with my ideas.” He also shares his story ideas with his father, producer and distributor Mallidi Satyanarayana Reddy.
Learning on the job
Thanks to his father, Vasshista grew up familiar with the film world. As his interest to be a part of cinema grew subconsciously, he made up his mind to be a director in his school days. “While watching a film in theatres, I would be tempted to run and go behind the screen to see if I can meet the actors. I thought the exit doors would lead backstage.”
Rana Daggubati and Ram Charan were his school batchmates when he moved to Hyderabad for high school. Later, he and Allu Sirish floated a website (nonstopcinema) and wrote reviews for fun.
A BCom graduate, Vassishta learnt on the job by assisting directors. He observed directors Sreenu Vytla and VV Vinayak at work. His familiarity with the film industry helped him meet people. But it took him nine years to direct his first film. Several projects nearly went on floors, only to be called off for varied reasons. “I should thank my family, especially my father, for having faith in me and supporting me all along.”
Prod him to talk more about his film with Chiranjeevi, and Vasshista discloses that he will present the superstar in a mature role that befits his stature and age. Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth gained appreciation for playing their age in Vikram and Jailer respectively and Vasshista says that the audience can expect to see Chiranjeevi in a similar, mature zone. “This story will not see him romancing.”
The new film will have some Bimbisara team members including music composer MM Keeravani and cinematographer Chota K Naidu. Looking back at Bimbisara, Vassishta says his life can be divided into two phases — before and after Bimbisara. “The film went through delays during the pandemic. I wondered if things would return to normal and if I would ever see my name on the large screen. To get an opportunity to direct Chiranjeevi in just my second film is a responsibility. I have cut myself off social media so as to focus on the job and not be weighed down by expectations.”