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Nataka Kala Bharathi for Actor Neelu

Fine balancing act

GEETHA VENKATRAMANAN

Actor Neelu

Neelu’s is an amazing story of success, on three fronts.

He is down-to-earth and quite pragmatic about his long stint in acting – on stage and in films. But it is an extraordinary journey that Neelu has made; he looks back with cheer and contentment the path he has traversed. Even the fact that his service has not been recognised in a big way does not dampen his spirit. On the other hand, he is extremely happy that the Bharat Kalachar is honouring him during its art festival, the curtain going up tomorrow. Neelu will be conferred the title Nadaga Kala Bharathi at a function to be held at Vani Mahal.

Drama runs in his family. “His mother was a great raconteur. It was a delight to listen to her stories. So expressive and animated she was,” chips in Neelu’s wife Shanta, a retired school teacher. Both their sons are settled abroad.

Neelu’s brother Sivaramakrishnan acted in plays too. But the veteran attributes his success to his stint with the Boy Scouts movement. “The camps offered a great opportunity,” he says. “It was a sort of outlet. We presented small skits. Bonfire times were great fun,” he recalls.

Theatre has been Neelu’s constant companion. At the Hindu High School, Triplicane, he was a regular in stage shows, a trend he carried to Vivekananda College. It was here that he met Ambi, Cho’s brother. They participated in competitions and won prizes. Along with Narayanaswamy, the duo formed the Viveka Fine Arts. Cho Ramaswamy was their senior and he wrote a play for the troupe that was a run-away hit.

Enters Cho

It is interesting to learn that Cho was helping UAA with production and joined Viveka Fine Arts much later. Neelu is delighted to talk about it. “It was the play ‘If I Get It,’ known for a court scene, where the interrogation was the highlight. One of the actors, who had gained fame for his histrionics in the scene, could not make it that evening. After much deliberation Cho was chosen. After all, he was only a writer and his acting skills were virtually unknown. But that evening he literally stole the show, completely eclipsing the previous actor’s performance.”

Cho became a part of Viveka Fine Arts and went on to write over 20 plays, each making waves. Neelu singles out “Endru Thaniyum Indha Sudandira Dhaagam,” for the hype it created. “It is procedure that the script should be approved by the police. The department wanted a line to be removed and Cho refused. He stood his ground while the crew waited impatiently to stage the show. After three months the authorities relented.

“Meanwhile the press had gone to town with the news so much so that when we finally took the stage we faced a houseful audience that went berserk. It was a spell that we had created, beginning with ‘Quo Vadis.’ ‘Tughlak,’ ‘Unmayae Un Vilai Enna?’ ‘Yarukkum Vetkamillai’ and so on. I appeared in over 6,500 shows in major roles.”

Balachander directed Neelu early on. “KB wanted me to play a professor in ‘Why Not?’ It was a sober role, different from the humorous ones I was used to. It won accolades and much later KB used me in his films ‘Kaviya Thalaivi’ and ‘Nootrukku Nooru.’”

That brings up cinema. Neelu made his entry in 1966 through ‘Aayiram Poi’ directed by Mukta Srinivasan. He has appeared in over 160 films directed by all leading directors.

Perhaps he didn’t take cinema seriously? Neelu laughs. “You are right. I was a typical middle-class man, who didn’t want to take risks. I was employed with VD Swami and was doing well. I enjoyed acting but never allowed shooting schedules or drama rehearsals to interfere with my work. If I had chucked it and taken the plunge, I might have come up with better results but I never thought on those lines. I have no regrets.”

Neelu actually found that his career and acting complemented each other. He was much respected at his work place while his fame as an artist opened doors wherever he went. There always was someone who recognised him, whichever part of the world it was. Landing at the Charles de Gaulle airport (Paris, France) on an official visit, he had collected his suitcase and was contemplating his next move.

“Remember, they refuse to acknowledge English and I didn’t know French. Even as I stood wondering, a group came rushing to me. “‘Neelu Sir, what a surprise!’ They were Tamils who were working at the airport. They took charge and I cannot forget the affection they showered on me during my stay there.”

His charisma got a long-pending cheque with the Naval Dockyard cleared for his company. “I had gone to Mumbai with the troupe for performance. I dropped in on this official to discuss the matter. I had hardly entered his room when the gentleman rose from his seat exclaiming, ‘Neelu, what a pleasure! I don’t miss your shows. What can I do for you?’” Neelu explained and the cheque landed in a week.

“I didn’t do a thing personal for these people to deserve such warmth. But they have adored my art,” observes an emotional Neelu. He was touched when he was honoured by the Bahrain Tamil community last year.

He remembers Narasimha Raghava Iyengar of H.H. School, who encouraged him in his theatre pursuits. Another person is Dr. P. Seshagiri Rao, a dental surgeon (brother of Vadhiraja Rao, popular physician), who nurtured Neelu’s talent. “Even now we are in touch. I never fail to mention that I owe it to him,” says Neelu, who describes 1960-75 as the golden period of Tamil theatre. “There were several troupes – Sahasranamam, Major Sundararajan, UAA, Triplicane Fine Arts (it was Nataraja Iyer of TFA who launched Neelu on stage through ‘Kalyani’)… the result was healthy competition,” he expands.

The actor in Neelu is very much active. “I never say no when a good role comes by. At present I’m there whenever Crazy Mohan’s ‘Chocolate Krishna’ is staged.” A connoisseur, Neelu does not miss good concerts. “Again I owe it to Scouts. I was a robust singer and developed a taste for the art. My sister was learning Carnatic music and I imbibed it.”

Melody flows and a cheerful Neelu hums along totally at peace with himself.

Fun and educative

“It was fun and educative, doing the role of a production manager in ‘Jerry,’ a film made by L. Viswanathan, a good friend of mine. I’m now qualified for the post and am available,” guffaws Neelu. Any takers?

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