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Exclusive! Director Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu: I couldn't have asked for anyone better than Suma for Jayamma Panchayathi

The first-time filmmaker talks about associating with Suma, MM Keeravaani and the various aspects of his surroundings that inspired him to make Jayamma Panchayathi

  • Srivathsan Nadadhur

Last Updated: 10.11 AM, Apr 27, 2022

Exclusive! Director Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu: I couldn't have asked for anyone better than Suma for Jayamma Panchayathi
Vijay Kumar and Suma

Jayamma Panchayathi is a special film for a few reasons. While it's the project that marks the big-screen comeback of television anchor, host Suma Kanakala, it is also the feature film debut for its director Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu. For Suma, Jayamma Panchayathi offers a second chance to prove her worth in films after a false start and its fate is equally crucial for the filmmaker to start his career on a positive note. 

The film produced by Balaga Prakash under Vennela Creations has music by MM Keeravaani. In a chat with, Vijay Kumar Kalivarapu takes us through his life, the basis behind Jayamma Panchayathi and how he roped in Suma for the rural drama.

Formative years and making short films

My childhood years in Srikakulam were like any other boy in a rural household and I lead a simple life without any major struggles. While most first-time filmmakers would quote literary works or talk about the immediate surroundings that influenced them as writers, I would say they weren't a major influence on me. During Intermediate, I wrote my first ever story and it appeared in the main edition of the vernacular daily, Eenadu. I never made a conscious attempt to write stories till then. Only then I realised that my strength is my imagination.

I used short films as a stepping stone to make mistakes, learn from them and gain practical knowledge. The primary advantage of being a short filmmaker is that you focus on the emotions of a character unlike assistant directors (who work under someone and focus more on the execution and technical aspects). I am good friends with many upcoming filmmakers today, including Venkatesh Maha, Bharat Kamma and their counterparts; we meet regularly to discuss our work.

Jayamma Panchayathi - the story

Jayamma Panchayathi is a story born out of several incidents I grew up watching in my village in my early years. Most of the characters are real people who lived around me. I was always against social evils, superstitions and other dogmas in my surroundings though I couldn't raise my voice about it. The film is a simple story about a wife who fights for her husband and a cause. As a filmmaker, I don't think of stories as genres; it's the conflict that decides how a story should progress. 

Several stories are so simply told and still ensure a great high. Children of Heaven, for instance, is a story about two children and a pair of shoes. Jayamma Panchayathi is also about an aspect so ingrained in our daily lives and will have audiences thinking. Most of the characters in the story may be behaving seriously, they bring a smile to your face and there's an innocence about them. 

Like every other first-time director who wants to make a mark in the industry, even I wanted my career to take off with a project featuring a big star. But for that big project to materialise, it was practically necessary for me to deliver an impressive film made on a shoestring budget and prove myself. The initial idea was to choose a team that I was completely familiar with, with people I can trust, keep the budget under control and wrap up the project within Rs 60-70 lakhs. However, it grew bigger with time.

Casting Suma as Jayamma despite initial hesitation

Casting is the lifeline of any project and a lot of my friends, despite having great stories, couldn't make successful films because of choosing a non-descript cast. For a story like Jayamma Panchayathi, several mainstream actors could've played Jayamma but audiences would have already seen them in such roles earlier and we wouldn't have anything fresh to offer. After considering several names, some of my friends suggested I approach anchor Suma for the lead role. 

I wasn't sure about casting Suma at all. I always saw her in high spirits on the stage and it was hard to imagine her in a subtle, composed role like Jayamma. Even when I was giving Suma the narration, I had my own set of apprehensions because I couldn't imagine her in such a role. She liked the story immediately and gave her nod to the project. We next proceeded for the look test but still, I wasn't convinced. 

Only when she and I got talking about films and web shows, Breaking Bad in particular, I understood her awareness about minute expressions given by actors in situations that any regular viewer may haven't even noticed. When someone is so clued into the nuances beneath a performance, I gained confidence that she could grasp the essence of my story and pull off Jayamma too. There's a reason why Suma is different from all other television anchors we have - she is a quick learner. It's very easy to communicate with her and there was no hesitation whatsoever to ask her about anything during the making. After watching the film, now I have realised that she is the best thing that could've happened to Jayamma Panchayathi.

Working with Suma, MM Keeravaani and some casting wonders

While Suma liked the story initially, she showed greater faith in my abilities after she watched my short films. It was similar in the case of MM Keeravaani (garu too). One may wonder how a debutant like me got to work with experienced people like Suma and MM Keeravaani, but only when you know them, do you realise how simple and accessible they are. Even when I tell MM Keeravaani that I didn't like a particular tune, he immediately moves on and gives me another option. We commenced shooting for the film after the first lockdown and the shoot was halted due to the second wave. An OTT release was never in the picture.

Several actors in the film were exactly what I needed for the characters. The actor who played the pastor, for instance, had a reasonable understanding of the functioning of a church. The man cast as the priest is very good with hymns and can narrate puranas at the back of his hand in real life too. Another supporting artiste had to be half-knowledged about Sanskrit slokas and hymns and he was just that off-screen. Everything fell in place for the film, including the promotions, where the biggest names in the industry including Nani, Ram Charan, Rana Daggubati and Pawan Kalyan came forward. All of this would've been possible only with someone like Suma.