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In 1958, when I was 17, cinema was too distant to engage my imagination. However, I was deeply fascinated by the language of theatre and its many dimensions. I wrote, directed and acted in many plays. The breaking-up of joint families, unemployment, social inequalities—these were the complex issues I was keen to explore. When I look back, I think of those efforts as amateurish—the works of a beginner, a learner.
As a school boy, I was attracted to Gandhian ideology and when the Gandhigram Rural Institute was started near Madurai, in Tamil Nadu, I joined it. I was already well-versed in Malayalam literature. But the library at Gandhigram opened up another world to me. It was there that I discovered the major playwrights of the world—Ibsen, Brecht, Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder. It was a specialised kind of reading. I’d work through the entire ouvre of one playwright. I remember reading all of Bernard Shaw’s 50-odd plays at one stretch. Eminent world leaders would visit Gandhigram. We had the opportunity to listen to Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Martin Luther King Jr and others. That was a real education.
As for cinema, it was still cloaked in mystery to me: there was nothing real about it, as I saw then. While on a study tour to Madras, I remember watching a film-shoot for the first time. We’d gone to Bharani Studios, in Kodambakkam, the hub of the Tamil film industry. We had to take a horse-cart from Triplicane. Kodambakkam lay far away from the city, and the road wound through paddy fields. Completely different from the bustle you see these days. The film being shot was Veerapandiya Kattabomman, with Sivaji Ganesan in the dramatic role of Kattabomman.
Those were the days of low-speed film, which required high-intensity lights for proper exposure. With several such lights, the sets would become unbearably hot. After each shot, you’d see actors running helter-skelter to find cooler spots, fanning themselves and crying, “Soodu, soodu! (Heat, heat!)” We saw the elaborate sets: they were creating heavens and palaces. The art director warned us that the magic of the movies would be lost to us if we saw what lies behind. Yes, cinema was all very magical then. When Veerapandiya Kattabomman was released, I was curious, so I travelled to Madurai to see it. I was enthralled to see the crowds in front of the theatre.
I had not yet seen any English film. There was only one Hindi film I had seen—Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. It was at Gandhigram that I first saw Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Little was known about him then. We saw the film on a makeshift screen in an open ground. There were no subtitles, and we could hardly follow what the characters were saying. I can’t say I gleaned a lot from that film; but it did impress upon me that the people and the villages looked real (unlike the sets I’d seen in Kodambakkam). That was an interesting input, although I realised it only much later.
A couple of years later, I gave up my job as a statistical investigator with its fine salary of Rs 300 or so to join the FTII, Pune. At the interview, which was conducted after I cleared a written examination, I faced a panel of big names from the film industry. My reading helped, and I believe I managed to give the right answers. I was first on the merit list. The only government-sponsored scholarship, of Rs 75 per month, was mine.
As Told To Minu Ittyipe