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July 6, 1999


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Bad back, great future

Ajith. Click for bigger pic!
Ajith Kumar's career as an actor looks more like the Sensex graph now. It goes high and then suddenly tumbles down to near anonymity.

He became the most sought after actor in Tamil after the stupendous success of Aasai. Kaadal Kottai also grossed a lot of money. Just when he seemed all ready to fly, his career hit turbulence in the form of a string of flops, including a much-hyped ABCL film.

As Ajith's market began slipping, another young actor, Vijay, surged ahead to take his place. People in the Tamil film industry had almost written Ajith off. And then came his new film, Vaali (with Simran) and Ajith is back again in the reckoning. It is considered as one of the biggest hits in recent times, perhaps bigger than even Rajnikant's Padayappa.

And ahead lies Amarkkalam with Shalini, his 25th film. The young man has indeed come a long way.

Ajith was undergoing physiotherapy for his recurrent back problem at the Apollo hospital when Shobha Warrier met him. Sophisticated, cultured, well-mannered, yet impulsive and frank, she found the young star easy to chat with.

You are from a non-filmi family. How did you get interested in films?

I dropped out of school after my tenth standard. But both my elder brother and younger brother are highly educated. My elder brother is a cost analyst in New York and my younger brother is a B Tech in naval architecture from IIT, Madras. At present, he is doing research at the University of Michigan.

But I, the middle one, was not into academics at all. I would not say I was not interested in studies -- it just wasn't there in me to pursue academics. I would open a page in the textbook and start thinking about everything under the sun except what was there in the book. I was more into extra-curricular activities and sports like NCC, rifle shooting, aero-modelling, bike racing etc.

Even now, I don't read anything other than the newspapers, Reader's Digest or National Geographic. I don't want to put up this act of being a voracious reader, which I am not.

So your parents might have been very disappointed with you.

No, no. I was very good at whatever I chose to do. I played cricket for my school. Because I dropped out of school, I could not pursue cricket or NCC or anything connected with schools and colleges, further. I had to put an end to all such interests.

Do you regret the decision?

A still from Vaali. Click for bigger pic!
No, not at all. I was on my own after my school days itself. After my school, I worked as an apprentice with Enfield and got a diploma. From there, I moved on to garment exports. But modelling and bike racing were my favourite hobbies then. I pursued motor racing with more passion, as I wanted to be a professional motor racer.

Now motor racing is picking up and you have people like Narain Karthikeyan doing so well. But when I was racing back in 1989, it was considered only as a hobby. Because it was expensive and sponsors were hard to get, I could not take it up very seriously. I used to finish fifth and sixth at the all-India level. Still, I didn't get any sponsors. I guess it is the timing. You have to be at the right place at the right time. I was not there at the right time.

Ahead of time?

I think so (laughs). But then nobody approached me with sponsorship and I didn't approach anyone either, as I was a fiercely independent person. People thought I did not need any help, as I always looked confident. Even if I needed help very badly, I would not show it.


No, no. I would say, I was fiercely independent. There is a very thin line between confidence and arrogance. I was very confident which was misconstrued as arrogance most of the time. But I can't help it, can I?

Did motor racing give you the excitement you sought?

Of course, of course. The split second decisions excite you a lot. Everything happens so fast in the race. Adrenaline is flowing all the time with people cheering you loudly. And, when you are on the bike, you forget everything. May be because of my character, I could relate to the sport very well.

If given a choice, what would you opt for, motor racing or films?

To be honest, motor racing. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professional motor racer. It was only due to lack of sponsors that I could not do it.

Do you take decisions fast in real life too?

Yes, I guess the ability to take decisions fast has helped me a lot. Whatever I am today in this industry, from nowhere, from scratch to be a successful actor is only because of that. I take my own decisions and there is no godfather to back me up. I have committed mistakes but I don't regret them, as they are all part of growing up. And I feel proud today to be where I am on my own merit, not having pulled strings.

Was it a difficult journey?

Click for bigger pic!
It was and it still is. The journey had been very difficult not only in films but in the other jobs too. I worked with a garment exporter for four and a half years, then quit to start a textile-processing agency. And then I lost a lot of money in the business. And I was only 20 when I started this business. I was racing and modelling too then. Do you know all the money that I got from my modelling assignments was pumped into buying spare parts for my bike, helmet, etc?

It was then that I got an offer from Poornachandra Rao of the famous Lakshmi Production company to act in a film. They had seen some of my ads. That was how my first film, Amaravati, happened. But first film was shelved in between because of the director's death.

Were you excited when you were called to act in films?

Like any other normal person, I too was nervous. I wasn't excited at all, as there were a lot of other things, like clearing the debts that I had incurred in garment exports. I took to films only to make some money so that I could pay off all the debts that I had.

When did you start looking at acting as a profession?

Till my sixth film, Aasai, I did not even think of continuing in films. I just wanted to clear my debts so that I could start my business all over again. After Aasai became a big hit, I thought, 'This time I am not going to let it go'. See, I tried to pursue NCC, I couldn't. Next came cricket. That also did not happen. Then, motor racing. I couldn't do whatever I wanted to. But I met with a very serious accident after my first film. And that put an end to motor racing too, my passion.

Was it a racing accident?

Yes, it was a racing accident. A week before my race, we had a practice session and I had a very nasty fall. I injured my back and I had to undergo three major surgeries on my back. I was in bed for one-and-a-half years.

It must have been very traumatic for you.

It was. But I was always a gutsy person. I had always been a fighter in life. I never got anything on a platter; I had to fight for everything in life, even when I was working, racing and acting in films. It has always been a big struggle for me.

Do you know what happened during the shooting of my first film? The director of my first film died in front of me and the film was shelved. I was only 20 then. You can say I have seen it all by the time I was 20. Finally when my first film got released, I was in bed after the race accident and I had to be in bed for one-and-a-half years. Those were very depressing days.

What did you do to climb out of it?

A still from Amarkkalam. Click for bigger pic!
Work, work and work. Once I started walking again, K Subhash called and offered me Pavitra with Nasser and Radhika. That changed the course of my life to a certain extent. After Pavitra, Aasai happened, and after Aasai, Kathal Kottai came...

After Kaathal Kottai your films flopped one after another. What was the reason? Wrong choice of films or bad luck?

Yes, it was a very bad time for me after Kaathal Kottai. I was perhaps the only hero in Indian cinema, I think, to have given five consecutive flops in a year. None of my five films ran for more than two weeks in any theatre! Is it not a record of flops after the huge success of Aasai and Kaathal Kottai ?

You must have felt terrible.

Terrible. It was very, very demoralising too. Then I went through a very bad relationship, a relationship of three-and-a-half years. I am out of it now. So, a lot of things happened to me, both personally and professionally and those things shaped me, made me grow as a human being, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It was traumatic for me, profession-wise, health-wise and relationship-wise.

It was and still is very difficult to come to terms with all that. I still have not yet taken control of myself and accepted reality. I don't know whether I should describe my feeling as 'depressing'. But sometimes I feel, things happened too fast for me. I guess I have the experience of a 40-year-old.

My problems did not end there. I had one more back surgery in November 1998 and then in January 1999 too. I started shooting for Vaali and Unnai Thedi immediately after the surgery. So, work helped me get out of all those problems to some extent. If not for my work, I would have gone haywire.

Do you look at work as an escape route from all your problems?

Yes, I was escaping from all the bad experiences through work. Just to forget all that, I worked. But today I enjoy my work. It is no longer an escape route for me. I enjoy my work so much that I try to be a part of all that is concerned with a film. I think I can be a good technician too now. My suggestions are accepted and appreciated by directors now.

'Thanks to my relationship, I've stopped trusting people'

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