"Knock and the door will be opened to you."
THIS is the Biblical verse 51-year-old 'Address' Karthikeyan keeps coming back to between quotes of Confucius, Bernard Shaw and the Gita he uses to explain his undying motivation to make it big in cinema. Karthikeyan is no evangelist, but he calls cinema his religion.
For many strugglers in the industry, though, he's almost a lifesaver. In fact, in Yaruda Mahesh, an extra character was written just for him after an associate told the director about what Karthikeyan does. And in an upcoming film about strugglers, 'Address' Karthikeyan gets to play, well, himself.
In production circles, Karthikeyan is an emergency contact. So, when small film crews discover that their lead has disappeared or when a short film needs to be dubbed asap, they know who to call.
So, Yaaruda Karthikeyan? And why the prefix of 'Address'?
'Address' is a title fellow strugglers gave him after he developed the habit of maintaining an address book with the details and contacts of every film being made in Chennai. What started out as a personal record to help him land a role has evolved to turn into something that helps hundreds of people like him.
In 2003, this ex-boxer had just moved from his village near Karur after a personal crisis and a failed marriage. On a friend's advice, he found a job at a restaurant in nearby KK Nagar "because that's where it's easiest to meet directors and actors". "A job at a restaurant also meant free food and stay apart from a small monthly salary," Karthikeyan says. One day, when a photographer walked in wearing the crew shirt of a film starring the late Murali, Karthikeyan approached him with what would become his signature smile. They struck up a conversation, numbers were exchanged and Karthikeyan refused to let the man pay for his breakfast. A week later, the photographer called back — Karthikeyan landed a one-line role.
The initial days were very difficult. He would pursue these one-line roles and adjust his shift. But, eventually, he had to quit his job. Many people quit their acting dreams because of money, and Karthikeyan was struggling too. The need to survive saw him join an agent who would supply junior artistes for what are called 'atmosphere' scenes — no dialogues, but actors would be a part of crowds or groups for scenes set in public spaces. One day, an agent saw Karthikeyan flout an unwritten rule: one cannot simultaneously try for bigger scenes in the same films. He was evicted from the Gym Boys group (another group is called Rich Boys And Rich Girls) and he lost the role with dialogues.
"That's when I took a call. I wanted to become a 'proper' actor. So, I decided to visit production offices every day and seek better roles instead of settling for smaller ones." In 2012, he visited 360 film production offices. This number could go down to 100 or up to four times that, but he devotedly goes on his rounds, ever since he felt the 'absolute magnetism' (odambukulle current panja eppadi irukkum) of Kodambakkam when he first visited the 'Mecca of South Indian cinema'.
The same photographer came in handy to shoot a portfolio, with Karthikeyan dressed as everything from a cop and doctor to a rowdy. A costumer had let him in on what roles he might be called for — the heroine's father, teacher and, of course, a policeman." He decided it was worth his while to buy a police uniform — he's so far worn it for the 40 cop roles he's played!
There's a link between the Address prefix, the costumer and the everyday trips to the offices. And, it all began with an A4 sheet. He would write down all details of films being made and the office addresses on a sheet to help him plan his day better. By the second or third year, Karthikeyan had become a database unto himself, the A4 sheet turned into a book, and it was natural that the moniker 'Address' became a part of his name.
"I would speak to everyone on the sets, right from the lightmen to the assistants in the various departments. I would do the same even when I visited offices, always making sure I took down what they told me about the films and the people who worked on it. It soon became easy to make connections and I always had an idea of who was working on what at any given point in time."
Very soon, his 'address' book developed the legitimacy of a service. "I won't call it a service, because that would mean I'm taking money for it," he interrupts. Gradually, Karthikeyan became the go-to guy for every struggler looking to find a way to reach a production office. "Chennai is huge and these addresses are not what one can find online. It requires groundwork, and a functioning human network."
After a point, groups of actors across age groups started joining Karthikeyan as he walked from one office to another. At the Mani Tea Stall in Saligramam, Karthikeyan also started keeping photocopies of his address books so that strugglers could benefit even when he was not around.
His major expenses would be taken care of by the three or four days of shoot he would invariably be booked for each month. "My struggler-friends would pitch in to buy me lunch, tea or dinner," says Karthikeyan, tearing up at the thought of one of them who passed away recently. "He was a tall fellow who wanted to play the villain. Because he was short on money like I was, he would get his aged mother to cook sambar saadham for me, and we would both share it. He never got the role he had wanted."
Fellow strugglers see Karthikeyan as one among the few 'good' people in a sea of jealousy and competition. They recall several incidents where actors Karthikeyan had taken along ended up getting the role he was originally shortlisted for. They also speak of others who started charging aspirants for the same 'service' using the same address books Karthikeyan had made. "But that's the nature of this job. There's no point in withholding any information from anyone just because you think they will take your job. Everyone has their own destiny," he adds, oblivious to the fact that data has become the new oil.
The temptations have been many in all these years. Apart from regular aspirants, those approaching Karthikeyan for his contacts include successful doctors, engineers and IT professionals. From the production side, "people have approached me many times asking for the details of the well-to-do people who come to me. Once, a wannabe 'director' offered me a big share if I were to take Rs.10 lakh from an aspiring actor by telling him that he would be made the film's hero. The second he did this, I blocked him and warned everyone about him. But these things happen constantly in our business."
Karthikeyan's iconic address book has now evolved to include important information, including landmarks that keep changing. A warning for dogs too is part of this, after an Assistant Director was bitten. "So when I Whatsapp director Komban Muthiah's address, I include the emojis of SIX dogs, because that's how he many has," he laughs.
And, for women, he has another set of guidelines for them when they're approaching offices. "1) Go to these offices only during the day. 2) Take someone along with you. 3) Get a new SIM card just for this purpose. And 4) If you have to go alone, at least tell the people in the office that someone's waiting for you outside."
Despite all that he does and how helpful it is, Karthikeyan says he's often been insulted or hurt. "Some assistants are rude and look at you with disdain. They also look down upon you as someone who will never achieve anything. But that just means that they don't know anything about cinema."
Karthikeyan recalls the number of people who've made it big after decades of trying. "I remember Yogi Babu waiting in line to collect Rs. 750 as his payment. He now charges Rs. 10 lakh a day. The same way, Vijay Sethupathi has taken several addresses from me when he was considering quitting the field altogether. See where he is now!"
Karthikeyan says he will never stop until he achieves his dream — win a best actor award and make it to Hollywood. Even if that does happen, he has no intention of stopping his address service. "This is why I call cinema my God. If you believe in it and work hard for it, it will take care of you. I will keep knocking until the door opens."