A POWER-PACKED PERFORMER
Positive or negative, Prakashraj’s roles are charged with intensity. D. S. RAMANUJAM talks to the actor, who won a National Award recently.
‘‘FOR THEY can conquer who believe they can,” wrote Virgil and such determination and self-confidence propelled a theatre artiste into national limelight twice in a span of five years, for excellence in acting. Strangely, the films were not in his native tongue Kannada. One was a Tamil movie ‘Iruvar”) and the other, a Telugu one (“Anthapuram” now re-made in Tamil).
“It will be the third time that I will be receiving the award from the President”, said Prakashraj, throwing a mild surprise, during an interview at his office in Valasaravakkam, Chennai. “In 1981,1 was chosen the “President's Scout from Karnataka” and received the award from Mr. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. I worked towards that target for three years,” he said.
A small mask in clay, a figure of a reclining Buddha on the table and a picture of a mother and a child captured one's attention as one entered his room. “The mask is for people who come here to talk business with me. I tell them, “Let us remove our masks and talk”. (Prakashraj has started his production company, Duet Cinema, and is now making two pictures, “Poopol Manasu” and “Stalin”). The Buddha is a means to control my anger. That picture of a mother and a child caught my fancy. I love my mother a lot. She was my source of strength.” These works of art give an indication of his personality. He is a man who loves his mother, prefers frank dealings and is outspoken. He may be tempermental, but is quick to gather his faculties.
Born to a Christian mother, a Homeo doctor and a Hindu father, a book binder in the government press, Prakashraj never dreamt of becoming an actor though his dreams when young, were filled with unbelievable acts of bravery such as jumping into a snake pit, piloting a plane and encountering ghosts, thanks to “Irumbukai Maayavi”, the only available Tamil comic book in Bangalore. He had a knack of giving convincing explanations to his younger brother and sister when they asked questions for which he had no ready answer. He just hated the words “I do not know.”
Prakashraj’s oratorical skill came to the fore when he agreed to take part in a competition in school without knowing what it was all about. His father, who was constantly pestering him to take, interest in extra-curricular activities, helped him write an essay on Netaji. The essay fetched him the first prize and the recognition that came with it kindled the spark in him. From that day onwards, the cheers for his performances have not stopped, be it on stage or on the big screen.
Though he was admitted to a science college, his mind was not there. He sought a transfer to St.Joseph’s College, the reason being that the institution had a Kannada poet and an actor as lecturers. Besides, the college had many associations for other languages. But his love for the native language met with a setback there. Of the 110 students in the class, only 22 were Kannadigas and the rest, North Indians who had studied in elite convents. Prakashraj English was suspect. He banked on a great fiction writer to improve his English — James Hadley Chase. The characters in the books also helped him see the other side of the world.
In the final year of graduation (B.Com.), Prakashraj was faced with the question of “what next”. While assisting in the stage production of “Othello”, one of the actors failed to turn up and Prakashraj was asked to take his place. He played the role with ease and adulations followed. The golden period of Kannada stage was between 1973 and 1980 and to some extent in 1985. Prakashraj entered the scene when stalwarts like Karanth, Girish Karnad and Prasanna were leaving it for cinema and other media.
“I took to stage during this period (of decline) and my love for the theatre has not diminished though the remuneration was very meagre. I stayed away from my parents for I did not wish to be a burden. The advent of television further dampened the hopes of theatre, though it provided lucrative openings. A brief stint as art director yielded good dividends. Cameos as a doctor and lawyer, where my skill for dialogue delivery came to the fore, brought me the much-needed income. I also worked for AIR. It was while doing a TV serial with actress Geetha, that the much wanted break came. Geetha recommended my name to director K. Balachander. That was in 1993”.
“The veteran director was giving finishing touches to “Vanamae Ellal”. He gave me a 15-minute appointment which lasted three-and-ahalf hours. His first impressions of me were “Engada poyirunthae ethina naala (where were you all these days). Ananthu (a confidant of Balachander who is no more), avan kanna paaru, neruppu, neruppu” (Watch his eyes, fire, fire in them). “Wait for me” he said. I waited for over a year till the call came. I was offered a role in “Duet”. Before that, I had done a cameo in Mani Ratnam’s “Bombay”. After “Duet”, I was noticed by the industry. Director Vasanth, who was watching me while talking to Balachander on the sets, told me, “I have found the villain I was looking for my movie “Aasai”.
According to Prakashraj, the shooting of “Aasai” was another new experience. The film threw a challenge for the three principal players — Suvalakshmi, a debutante, Ajit Kumar, trying to stabilise his career and Prakshraj, another new entrant facing an awesome task in a negative role.
Talking about his award-winning roles, Prakashraj says, “The chance of a role in Mani Ratnam’s “Iruvar” was hanging in a balance till two days before the shooting could commence. It was a delicate and difficult role because it dealt with two great personalities of our time and the artiste chosen had to draw a balance between the real personality and the character fashioned on the well-known playwright, author and administrator. Perhaps that thought worried director Mani Ratnam, for the impact after the release would be quite severe if the character ran counter to what the public had in mind. It was like walking on thin ice”.
“Mohanlal and Aishwarya Rai were already in. The actor to play the role of Tamil Selvan had not been chosen. Nana Patekar was considered but he withdrew. Mammootty declined the offer. Kamal Hassan was also approached. Mithun Chakravarthy almost made it when I received the call from Mani”.
“Two days before the shooting, I landed in Chennai. I told Mani it was not fair to ask me to do a delicate role in two days time. He concurred and asked me whether I want to see some cassettes about the Dravidian movement. I politely refused. “You tell me what I am supposed to do before the camera. I will do the rest”, Prakashraj said, the fire of self-confidence burning bright in him. “The first shot took 25 takes, not only because of the lengthy script but also because of the perfection the director expected. It started at 3-00 p.m. and went on till 9-00 p.m. And all the while, Mohanlal was with me. An actor of 25 years of standing, patiently waiting for the word “okay” from the director. Tears welled in my eyes. That moment something struck me. There was some chemistry between me and that great artiste. I said to myself that something great is going to happen”.
“After the shooting for “Iruvar” was completed, I was not sure who was going to dub for me. I asked Mani for a chance to correct my Tamil. Mani took the risk and asked me to go ahead. I dubbed for four days. After it was over, Mani came out of the recording room and started clapping, “You have done a great job”. Mohanlal hugged me and said, “For the first time, an actor has taken the film (away) from my nose”. It was indeed a great feeling”.
“When the National Award was announced, I ran amuck with joy. But the realisation about the importance of the award came to me only when I went to Delhi to receive it. I was accepted as an actor. It was my benchmark and I am proud of it. It was in Delhi that Krishna Vamsi spoke to me about the story of “Anthapuram”. I told him I liked it and I never realised that it was going to fetch me another National Award later. I have so far won two Andhra Pradesh Government awards and Tamil Nadu Government award, apart from the National ones”.
About the choice of characters and his being typecast as a villain in most movies, Prakashraj says, Cinema is a writer's and director's media. A film is a director's dream and the actor is a colour in it. He cannot choose a role. I make it a point to bring in lot of intensify to my roles even if they are repetitive. Negative or positive, it is not my botheration. I give cent per cent to any role”.