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ARS in conversation with the Hindu

Drama with dignity

GEETHA VENKATRAMANAN

Drama artist, A.R. Srinivasan

Stage, TV or cinema, ARS has made decorum his USP.

A chance entry made stage A.R. Srinivasan’s favourite play field, apart from cricket, of course. He donned grease paint thanks to a persuasive YGP and now looks back at the 47-year journey with satisfaction. Crowning glory has been nomination for the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (2011) for his contribution to Theatre. ARS’s voice reflects surprise, three months after the announcement.

“It beats me,” he says. “You know, I’m only the fifth Tamil to get it, after Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, T.K. Shanmugam, S.V. Sahasranamam and Poornam Visvanathan. All Jambhavans, pioneers in their own way. I’m proud, of course, that recognition has come our way after two decades,” he adds. “And it gives me fresh responsibilities.”

At 78, ARS is fit and active. Apart from appearing for UAA whenever they rerun their productions, he is busy with TV serials. But he is not ubiquitous. “No way,” he shakes his head. “I’m appearing in two – ‘Aval’ (Vijay) and ‘Suryaputri’ (Kalaignar) – and in both cases, a request was made. I have reached a stage when I can’t overwork, but can’t give up either.” There are plans to celebrate UAA’s 60 year in September and ARS will be a participant.

GRATEFUL TO EMPLOYER

ARS directed and appeared in key roles in 17 plays for UAA (including ‘Kannan Vandhan,’ ‘Kurukshetram,’ ‘Padma Vyuham,’ ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna,’ and ‘Ragasiyam Parama Ragasiyam,’), Vani Kala Mandir and Jai Theatres. ‘Kannan Vandhan’ was made into ‘Gauravam’ and ‘Mezhugu Bommaigal’ became ‘Pilot Premnath.’ ARS mentions that in both films Sivaji Ganesan played his role.

A successful career with Philips adds sheen to ARS’s profile. “I’m immensely grateful to my employer. The company was so understanding. I was meticulous too, working overtime to complete assignments. Never neglected office,” he explains. What about home? Between official tours, rehearsals and shows, little time was left for the family in the initial stages. When I caught up with them, the children – two sons and a daughter – were in college. “But I was lucky to have parents, who took care of everything,” says ARS, a qualified lawyer.

The joint family was led by A.S. Ramamurthi and A.R. Saraswati (she was ARS too, the veteran points out). The late Ramamurthi was a strict disciplinarian and his word was gospel. “A Loyola College graduate, he was a remarkable man. He went back to Alangadu, native village in Mannargudi, to look after the property. He commanded great respect there.” The family maintains the house in his memory.

YGP had seen ARS perform in a skit at a cultural show and was keen to rope him in. The orthodox father did not give his approval. But YGP was a good friend and he relented when the son promised not to compromise career. ‘Undersecretary’ happened (1964). “Ms. Jayalalithaa and myself made the debut in this play and I went on to be paired with Jayalalithaa, her mother Sandhya and aunt Vidya. It was fun,” recalls ARS.

Celluloid was not far away. Impressed with his performance in ‘Undersecretary,’ Sridhar wanted ARS to play the role of a police officer in ‘O Manju.’ “Sorry,” said ARS, not bothering to even mention it to his father. But the director’s determination won and ARS joined the cast after his father reluctantly agreed. The promise was that everything would be within the confines of decorum on screen.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would embarrass my employer either,” informs ARS, who turned down several offers for this reason. He steered clear of sleaze but got trapped once.

“One thing led to another and I found myself playing cop in a series of movies including ‘Nayakan,’” observes ARS. The fine cameo of a Police Commissioner, helpless father of a girl raped by a Minister’s son, drew accolades. ‘Ranga,’ ‘Uchakkattam,’ ‘Poonthalir,’ ‘Pournami Alaigal,’ ‘Sattathin Thirappu Vizha…’ were all hits. The uniform suited him perfectly, observed magazines. Another role was that of a Jesuit priest.

So how did he err? “Destiny,” laughs ARS. “The film was ‘Raman Parasuraman.’ Sivakumar, my good friend, was the hero, taking revenge on three men, who raped his wife. The Telugu actor, who played one of the three opted out with the film almost complete. Now, Siva requested me to fill the gap to save the venture. I refused saying it was against my principle. Finally I obliged, on the condition that I’d just stand back and watch the scene while the others ‘acted.’

“The film was released and the next time I went on tour, an acquaintance asked me, ‘ARS, was that necessary?’ Imagine my plight when the film was telecast and taking a casual look at the screen my father found me there and settled down to watch! He was horrified when the scene came and I had a tough time explaining the circumstances.”

Very much like his peers, ARS feels that the three decades from 1960 formed the golden period for Theatre. “There was competition, from stalwarts such as Sahasranamam, Sivaji Ganesan, T.K. Shanmugam, Major Sundarrajan, Seshadri, Cho and so on. We had to keep raising the bar,” he says. He thanks the sabhas for providing a captive audience for the troupes. “The members came in large numbers. It was a huge encouragement. We didn’t have to worry about a full house or gate collection.”

Have shows drawn response from the audience? “‘Thoppil Thani Maram’ was a play about the duties of parents for which they should not expect anything in return from the children. ‘Take care of your future by saving for the rainy day,’ was the message. At the end of a show an old couple from Kumbakonam entered the green room and prostrated at my feet. I was aghast. ‘You have opened our eyes,’ they said.

“‘Mezhugu Bommaigal’ was reaching the denouement when there was a power failure. I wished to know whether we could complete the play without the mike. ‘Yes,’ said the audience and none left. There was a standing ovation at the end.”

ARS’s black and white album is full of pictures from those days, majority UAA. “We were like a family. The bonhomie was incredible,” he says. A ravishing Jayalalithaa, young and mischievous Cho, charming Kanchana, ARS receiving Kalaimamani from MGR, sharing a thought with Sivaji Ganesan… “I’m glad I had this habit of getting all those moments photographed. We were at once casual and earnest. Least commercial. On the whole we enjoyed ourselves.”

That in fact has been ARS’s refrain. “I’ve had a delightful stint, on the stage of life too. No regrets at the end of the day,” he signs off.

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