Madhampatty Rangaraj is no stranger to hard work. The engineer from an underprivileged background put in tremendous time and effort over a decade to become the go-to person for classy wedding catering in Western Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. But, on Friday, when Mehendi Circus released, he saw the result of the weeks of training in theatre and film acting and the leap of faith to explore his passion to turn actor.
What Rangaraj hopes to achieve is a good balance between catering and cinema. Those who know Rangaraj from his early days in Coimbatore remember a shy young boy who looked confident only in the one place that mattered — the kitchen! But, over the past month, as he moved from studio to studio giving interviews, he’s grown in confidence. “This has been a huge learning experience. I never used to speak much earlier, other than when I had to meet clients and pass on instructions. Now, I’ve learnt to speak freely to absolute strangers,” smiles Rangaraj, who is in his 30s and a father of two boys aged five and four.
Even four years ago, if someone had told him he’d turn actor, Rangaraj might have laughed. His photographer-friend Muralidharan, who accompanied him on his monthly Sabarimala trips, would keep shooting photographs of Rangaraj and send them to him, embellished with various filters. “He wanted me to go in for a professional photo shoot with his friend. We went to the Nilgiris and shot in elephant territory. The photographer loved what he saw, and soon, I saw myself applying to play a role in a Dhanush production. I also sent the photos to producer Gnanavel Raja, who is a family friend. He was surprised I’d never told him about my acting dreams. And then, we listened to stories, finalised this one, and before I knew it, I was in front of the camera,” he says.
The family was deeply concerned though. Catering is a business that calls for enormous effort and focus, not very different from what cinema expects. Would Rangaraj be able to hold on to his position while experimenting with films? And so, he decided to focus on prepping for films post 6 pm, after wrapping up work on the catering front. “I worked out, invited actor and trainer Shanmugarajan to Coimbatore and we created a workshop space above my office. At the end of 10 days, I put on a seven-minute-long solo act on the importance of access to clean drinking water. That was when well-wishers got worried, because it was evident I was serious about acting.” He later trained with Aadhira’s Naveena Koothupattarai in Chennai.
At one stage, the unspoken concerns of many got to Rangaraj. He had to think of the 2,000 families he was supporting, the 15 years of goodwill earned, and the long road from poverty to prosperity. But, something about cinema drew him.
It helped that Mehendi Circus had a great team backing it. There was production house Studio Green, award-winning filmmaker Raju Murugan who was writing the story and dialogues and music by Sean Roldan. Murugan’s brother Raju Saravanan was making his debut as director with the film, and there was a good buzz about it. In the initial days, Rangaraj struggled with dialogue delivery, and even though a system was in place for the catering business with his family taking over, he was its public face and had to meet people.
It took co-actor and powerhouse performer Shweta Tripathi of Masaan fame to give him a tip that helped most. She told him to correlate the mood of the scene to life, and because it came from someone whose acting he saw first-hand, Rangaraj adopted it with the confidence that it would work. He tried it for a scene where the mood was one of pathos. “I remembered my tuition mate Anand who died an untimely death following heart surgery. That’s a grief that will never go away, and like he used to help me during school, he helped me do well in that scene too.”
Rangaraj shares a warm relationship with actor Sivakumar’s family (he also catered for Karthi’s wedding in Coimbatore) and relied on Suriya’s cousin Ramesh Babu and Gnanavel’s father Veerakeralam Eswaran to handhold him through the process. “This put a greater responsibility on me, because they invested in the film for me. I have to ensure they don’t regret it. I’ve always wanted to be called a perfect businessman, and I believe that an actor is indirectly one too, for he helps create wealth, build market value.”
The bulk of Mehandi Circus is set in the 1990s, and the film sees Rangaraj play a 25-year-old and a 45-year-old. “I won’t say it was a breeze; I confess I struggled with my expression and dialogue delivery. It did not help that I am an introvert. Now, I realise that we all are actors; we all do act in real life, right? It’s just a matter of translating them to the big screen.”
While he hobnobs with the stars, and caters to crowd of up to 1,50,000 people at a single sitting, at heart, he’s still the same boy who wore rundown slippers and ate the mid-day meal provided at school, even while his father Thangavelu cooked and struggled to keep the family afloat. Today, the managing director of Madhampatty Group of Companies hopes to make a mark in an industry that’s not exactly new to him. For now, he’s figuring out how to ensure his staff and their families and regular clientele get to watch the film he’s worked so hard on, on the day of release.
“I think it’s shaped up well. I watch any movie as an audience; I think it should be worth the ticket money,” says Rangaraj, and you’re prone to believing him. For, value for money is something he constantly works on. Be it coming up with new chutneys every six months, moving towards plastic-free wedding catering or using jaggery, palm sugar and coconut sugar as sweeteners and drawing up a seasonal menu. He created something similar for filmmaker SS Rajamouli’s son’s reception in Hyderabad, for which he handled the South Indian vegetarian menu.
It is the goodwill of this vast client base that Rangaraj banks on. “Initially, many wondered why I veered towards cinema. Now, they don’t think twice before playing the trailer and songs of Mehandi Circus during functions. They introduce me to everyone as ‘namma payyan ippo hero’.”