Student filmmaker Leela Malladi is laughing through the pain, one film at a time


Photo courtesy of Leela Malladi

During her sophomore year of high school, Leela Malladi wrote wrote “Hey Dad, It’s Me,” a film that reflected on the death of her father.

Anita Li, Development and Recruitment Editor

For Communication freshman and student filmmaker Leela Malladi, creativity has always been a form of self-care. Before Malladi was awarded for her work and became a film producer at Northwestern, she was a competitive gymnast for 15 years looking for a diversion. However, filming “Dance Moms” spoofs vaulted her into the filmmaking world.

“I would not say (the spoofs) are part of my creative masterpieces,” Malladi said. “(But) since I was 10, I knew what a close-up shot was and I learned how to do a shot/reverse shot editing style.” 

Now, Malladi is the co-producer of “INB”, a Studio 22 New Student Grant Film. The dramedy short film, which is being created by freshmen and first-year transfer students, premieres June 3. 

Malladi also wrote, directed and performed in the short film “Hey Dad, It’s Me,” which reflects on the death of her father. The film won the 2022 Atticus Award at the inaugural Daddying Film Festival, which recognizes films that address father-child relationships. 

Malladi said her love for filmmaking came from watching television after lengthy gymnastics training sessions. After practicing up to 32 hours each week, she would wind down by binge-watching shows like “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” In her spare time, she would also perform in theater productions with Applause, a performing arts program in New York City, where Malladi grew up. When her theater director started a new film class her sophomore year of high school, she was excited to try something new.

But then, in 2019, Malladi’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“The minute he got diagnosed, I pretty much knew within a year-and-a-half he was going to die,” she said.

After her father died in October 2020, Malladi’s mother suggested she go to therapy. Instead, Malladi wrote the screenplay for “Hey Dad, It’s Me” to express her emotions toward his death.

The film grapples with a serious event, but Malladi said she likes to discuss dark topics through a comedic lens. 

“I want to tell painful, hard stories, but make them kind of funny,” Malladi said. “For me, personally, something like that in a comedic lens about something more serious is a lot more powerful.”

Malladi attributes her artistic voice and sense of humor partly to her family. 

She remembered that after her father’s funeral, her uncle brought the family 15 boxes of White Castle burgers. Malladi said she probably ate her weight’s worth in burgers that day, and there was a lot of love to go around. 

“We were making jokes about how my dad passed away the day he passed away because none of us could really process what had happened,” Malladi said. “Laughing through the pain has always been my thing throughout my entire life.”

Malladi has brought her artistry with her to NU, where she has participated in many short films. When she arrived at the University, she said she already knew she wanted to go into producing before petitioning to be the producer for “INB.”

Communication freshman Jackson Heller, the director of “INB,” remembers that petition. 

“She had gone through the script and picked out all the props that we needed, all the locations — she had drafted a preliminary budget,” Heller said. “She really killed it.”

Heller said Malladi went above and beyond organizing bonding events, running the “INB” Instagram account and secured countless last-minute locations to film at.

Both Heller and Communication freshman Jasmine Rao, the key grip, a crew member of “INB,” described Malladi as passionate.

“Everything that she does, she puts her all into,” Rao said. “She’s very on top of everything. If one shot is happening, she’ll be doing hair and makeup for the next shot … She has such an aura of awesomeness.”

Malladi said she sees herself working in film for a long time. Her dream job is to be a showrunner, where she can write and produce at the same time.

“There’s always more stories to tell,” Malladi said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lifeisfab02

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