The curious case of Skylab space station crash and a new Telugu film

Debut director Vishvak Khanderao discusses ‘Skylab’, a fictional story that stemmed from real incidents at Karimnagar in 1979

Updated - November 30, 2021 07:24 pm IST

Published - November 30, 2021 07:21 pm IST

Nithya Menen plays a journalist in ‘Skylab’

Nithya Menen plays a journalist in ‘Skylab’

Vishvak Khandero, the debut writer-director of the Telugu film Skylab , grew up in Telangana’s Karimnagar. As a child, he would come across people named Skylab Reddy or Skylab Raju and his curiosity was piqued. He learnt from his elders of the looming fear of NASA’s space station Skylab crashing in the region in mid-July 1979. Decades later, he wrote a fictional comedy-drama set in Bandalingampally village, with the Skylab events as the backdrop.

The film Skylab , scheduled to release in theatres on December 4, is co-produced by Nithya Menen. The ensemble cast includes Satya Dev, Rahul Ramakrishna, Vishnu Oi, Tulasi and Subbaraya Sharma, and Nithya Menen.

Vishvak settles down for this interview after wrapping up the post-production and says with satisfaction: “I am happy I could make my film and take it to the audience.” Filmmaking has been Vishvak’s 12-year dream. Vishvak, 30, completed writing Skylab in 2016 and collaborated with his peers from the LV Prasad Film & TV Academy, Chennai. “In film school, I used to write dramas and thrillers. For my first feature, I was looking for a personal story that will have a wide appeal. I remembered my elders talking about Skylab and began researching.”

Skylab is falling

The space station that was expected to crash in the ocean south of Cape Town, South Africa, changed course and the debris was strewn across western Australia in July 1979. However, in the weeks preceding the crash, residents of Karimnagar and Nizamabad lived in fear of the space station crashing in their vicinity. Some took refuge in the homes of their kith and kin in other cities. A few sold their homes and land at throwaway prices and left the region. According to reports, a near lockdown situation prevailed: “A few people vowed to name their children after Skylab if they survived the crash. Reports state that insurance to the tune of 36 crore was sold during the time.”

Vishvak describes his film as a comedy that has been treated like a musical. He and cinematographer Aditya Javvadi arrived at a cooler colour palette, moving away from the traditional reddish browns associated with the depiction of Telangana.

“I chose my grandmother’s village Bandalingampally for the story since it has a funny ring to it. The main characters are eccentric and the story not only explores what happens when the news of Skylab’s crash breaks out, but also the human psyche. The comedy is situational and in sync with the characters,” he says.

Vishvak was helped by his friend, Vishnu Sai, in the writing process. Suggestions also came from editor Ravi Teja Girijala: “We knew that the Skylab incident alone cannot sustain interest for over two hours.”

Backing the dream

What helped the first-time director steer clear of the mainstream formula is the staunch support of producer Prithvi Pinnamaraju: “He is all of 26, in sync with what is happening in the international film circuit and other Indian language films. He is passionate about making quality films in Telugu.”

Through producer Prithvi, Vishvak pitched the story to Nithya Menen. During an elaborate narration that included research notes and a typewriter-themed musical composition (music by Prashanth Vihari) for her character of a small-town journalist, the actor asked Vishvak if he had found a producer who would stand by his vision. She also chipped in as co-producer.

Vishvak remembers his early creative pursuits in high school. He used to write poetry and later took to storytelling, deeming it as a more accessible form of art. Eventually, he wanted to make films. For a family in Karimnagar that had no contacts with the film industry, it seemed like a far-fetched dream. He studied engineering in Warangal and in the meantime, broached the idea of a career in cinema to his father. “I knew I would have his attention during the bus journey from Warangal to Karimnagar, which would take four hours. I pitched my interest in cinema to him. Later, he suggested I take up a filmmaking course.”

Formal training in cinema helped Vishvak learn the craft as well as find his direction in cinema. “I would watch everything from mainstream masala films to Mani Ratnam films, as well as films made by Krzysztof Kieślowski and other masters. I needed to find out what kind of stories I wanted to tell. Film school helped me in that process.”

The film school training also helped him shoot the film in sync sound. He and his team would plan even the smaller details before going to the sets. The film went on floors in March 2020 and after the first day of shoot, the lockdown was announced. Vishvak used the lockdown to further fine-tune the script and says the trust his actors had in him kept his morale up: “I never thought I would get such a fine set of actors for my first film. Now I am eager to see how people respond to Skylab .”

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