When Lakshmi arrived in Bangalore on the Velankanni express, he was greeted by his cousin and fellow “Sandalwood” denizen of a roommate. They were men who took their gym seriously. They were also pleasant and warm and welcomed Lakshmi with yo-bro affable punches and hugs.
When Lakshmi followed them to their two-room – one for cooking and keeping their things in and the other, smaller one to unroll mattresses and sleep in – home in a part of the city that was sandwiched between a slum and a vegetarian middle-class neighbourhood, it dawned on Lakshmi that his cousin was still a struggler in the industry. He and his friend were stuntmen, in fact. Their routine consisted of working out in the gym several hours a day, cooking and eating chicken and heading off to jump off tall buildings, run through fire or ride motorcycles off of ramps.
Since Lakshmi had the looks, they were hopeful of him getting cushier roles that involved more heart and cash than muscle and small change, and advised him to not go overboard with upper-body workout: heroes must have just enough muscle to convince the audience that they could beat the hell out of beefy villains but just enough to not scare the heroine from romancing him. “You have the face for it. Don’t lose it with brawn. Do more cardio and easy toning exercises to stay in shape.”
He was also advised to join a theatre group – “do a workshop, go on stage, do a few plays, meet people and press your case”. Theatre and film scenes are closely connected. If you land roles – big or small – in TV serials, take them. It is a slow process but perseverance is important. “You are cute. You have a chance.”
What about them then? “We are too burly and our faces are too rugged for us to ever land lead roles. But we are optimistic about making it big in negative roles. In fact, we are in talks with some very important people and if everything works out right we might land roles in this big movie that will make our careers. It involves some pretty scary stunts – but with it, we will arrive on the dark side of the ‘Sandalwood’ scene”.
Lakshmi set down to working on the plan marked out by his cousin and friend, who were now his annas, older brothers. He joined a theatre group whose director had close connections with cinema personalities. He joined a gym but was careful to keep his physique loveable. But the biggest challenge for him was language. Although his family came from Karnataka, Kannada was not their tongue and unlike his cousin who had lived all his life in Mangalore and Bangalore, he had had no reason to learn the official state language. But rather than join a class, he began learning Kannada by watching films.
Four months into this routine he was making slow but steady headway. His Kannada was getting better by the day, his theatre director’s niece – whose uncle on the other side of the family was the highest paid character actor in Kannada cinema – had a crush on him, and his first play, a Kannada adaptation of Hamlet in which he played the eponymous role of Hemalathan was being staged next week.
The entire cast consisted of novices just like him and hence they were opening in a small-time auditorium near Lalbagh. But if they did well, they would do a rerun in Ranga Shankara, the mecca of Kannada theatre in Bangalore, a week after that at the Shakespeare festival which was scheduled to be graced by the presence of a famous film director who was known to be on the lookout for a fresh face for his upcoming detective-thriller-love-triangle.
Lakshmi was over the moon. His mother was travelling to Bangalore to watch him on stage for the first time. Another piece of good news was that his annas had landed that pivotal role they had been talking about. They were about to do their stunts on a helicopter. They were shivering with excitement about being in a chopper for the first time! The mood was celebratory in anticipation of success all round.
The Lalbagh show went well. Lakshmi shone as Hemalathan. “Iruvudo, illadiruvudo – embudey ee prashne, ghatakaadrushtagala kavane baanagala-nnu sahisuvudu...” as he delivered the translation of the iconic soliloquy in complicated, Sanskritised Kannada with practised ease and natural aplomb, no one could tell he had only learnt the language in the last few months. He knew he was good too. He was elated. He knew in his heart that the Ranga Shankara show was going to be decisive – that it would change his life. And it did.
The day of his show, his annas were taken to a large reservoir outside the city and told by the director that the scene involved a daring midair fight with the hero and they would all have to jump from a height of a hundred feet from the helicopter into the water. Don’t worry, they were told.
There would be a rescue boat waiting to haul them in the moment they touched the water. Neither of them knew how to swim. But they were assured that they wouldn’t spend more than a minute in the water. It was supposed to be their big break. They prayed to their family goddess Durga Parameshwari for courage and jumped to their deaths.
The rescue boat stationed close-by couldn’t reach them on time as the strong currents raised by the helicopter’s blades kept pushing it away. The hero managed to swim to safety, and the villains he was supposed to fight drowned fighting the water for a snatch of breath. The chicken-fed bulging muscles on their chest, the superlatively optimistic dreams of becoming celebrated bad guys in their heads were no match for the water’s cold and steady denial of air.
Lakshmi was given this news just before Girish Karnad’s recorded voice boomed on the speaker asking everyone to silence their phones – first in Kannada and then in English – as he readied himself to enter the hallowed Ranga Shankara proscenium. As the first scene unfolded between Maresha, Harsha and Barindra on the stage, Lakshmi dressed and made up as Hemalathan stood shell-shocked in the wings.
He did ghost-walk on cue onto the stage in the second scene. But instead of acting, he let out a heart-rending scream and collapsed to the floor sobbing hysterically. They had to carry him off the stage in a fireman’s lift. The director came on stage to announce the tragedy that had just taken place in theatre’s sister-field of cinema and cancelled the show for the day. With this ended Lakshmi’s dreams of having a home in Bangalore’s tinsel town. He was hospitalised briefly before being sent back home to the village.
Excerpted with permission from Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, Maithreyi Karnoor, Tranquebar.