On the 1st of January 2020 I found myself, again, on the set of a Mani Ratnam film. It was the same date in 1990 that I first set foot on a film set. If I were to look back 30 years, there are a few things I remember vividly, and others very likely imagined. One thing is for sure, when we were filming for Anjali at Venus studios, it never felt like work. We were dancing and having fun, and getting to skip school. It was also the time when one nonchalantly worked on a Mani Ratnam set, and danced to Ilaiyaraaja’s music. In retrospect, these things seem rather awesome.
Mani sir has remained as energetic and as exacting, and his set remains among the best film sets to be on. In many respects, it is a blessing that my first film experience as a kid happened to be with him. It set my expectations of what makes for a fun, comfortable, and, in retrospect, a safe film set. Many of us returned to the movies as adults. There is Vishnuvardhan (the director of Billa, Pattiyal, Arrambam), his brother Krishna, Tarun (who played Anjali’s brother) and Shamlee herself. Richard is also an actor.
Coming from a regular school system, it was also the first time I got to spend extended periods of time in the company of kids of various ages, interests, talents, and backgrounds. This proved to be great education. I was among the youngest on that set, with the most to learn, and my exposure to a larger world around me coincided nicely with the zeitgeist of the decade that was to come.
After Anjali, I became a rather choosy and mostly indifferent child actor. But, growing up, I realised that I liked the movies and the processes involved. I did have a shoe in the door as a familiar, and, hopefully fondly, remembered face.
It all began in late 1989, when — through a school friend — I came to know that auditions were on for Anjali. I was familiar with the school stage, plays and musicals. So my mother took me to Sujatha Centre in Venus Colony. Sundaram Master and a young dancer named Prabhu Deva were putting a group of kids through the paces — a few steps here and there and picking those of us who seemed to exhibit some ability. I got picked, then Mani Sir came in.
Haasini Ma’am took us clothes shopping. Things smoothly segued into endless supply of Frooti and other easy forms of sugar that kept us all bouncing off the walls and performing without complaint. Then, we shot some dialogue scenes, and for my first line on screen I took five takes. I still marvel at how Mani sir gets performance out of his actors. He didn’t treat us kids any different. Sometime during the shoot, Haasini Ma’am cast me in one of the episodes of her Penn TV series, and that ended up being the first time I was seen on screen. Before Anjali released.
You know how when you are younger, time seems to go a lot slower. A span of a few months seems to have lasted much longer to me. After many, many days we did some dubbing at AVM. All those memorably annoying screaming kids’ voices were done there. It was my first brush with sound engineering, with the legendary engineer Duraiswamy. Many years later, I got to work with him too, on films like Unnaipol Oruvan.
After Anjali, some of the bonds forged on set continued. Mr UV Pani, or Pani Sir as we all called him, remained a good family friend. He was Mani sir’s right hand on set, the one herding cats. He was later the post-production supervisor at Madras Talkies. My dad and he kept in touch pretty regularly. In fact, after returning to India after training as a sound engineer, he was among the first people I spoke to. I still remember when he took me to Media Artists to meet Shridhar sir, who gave me some great pointers on how to navigate the world of sound engineering in Tamil cinema. Over the years, I’ve slowly moved up to a point where I can proudly bear the credit of Audiographer on Mani sir’s films.
When Anjali did come out, I briefly basked in the fame and recognition, but afterwards, I quickly started to not like it so much. It felt like too much attention, and like how attention tends to be in some societies, intrusive, and sometimes embarrassing and demeaning. You’re an attraction and a spectacle, no longer a person. I suppose I was too young then to even understand this clearly, leave alone articulate it, but I did make my choices to do things on my own terms. I still get recognised on buses and trains and on the street. And almost always it is Anjali that people seem to remember me from. I’ve learnt to take it with a lot more grace than I used to.
Today, I know more about filmmaking, storytelling, its technologies, and business. I have, over the years, developed an aesthetic and a taste, which I use to make my living. And to think it all started on the first day of the last decade of the previous century.