The Rediff Special/ M D Riti
He was the perfect visual representation of Malgudi's Swami. Till then -- this was the eighties -- child actor Manjunath was a familiar face only to Kannada film watchers. It was actor-director Shankar Nag's television serial Malgudi Days, based on R K Narayan's novel, that made Manju a familiar face all over India. Malgudi Days also happened to be the first Hindi serial to be made in south India.
Manju's slightly husky child voice and impish smile etched itself on the memories of serial watchers and movie goers the world over. Nag's full-length movie version of Narayan's Swami And Friends went on to bring Manju half-a-dozen international awards.
Today, Manju leads a life far removed from his tinsel days. He is the project leader of onlinebangalore.com, a website on the city of Bangalore, and is about to switch jobs. "I quit acting about five years ago, Now, I am completely focused on my career in managing content for Net publications," he says, talking to rediff.com at his mother's tiny house in Yeshwantpur, where he had come for a quick lunch in the middle of a busy day. "I belong to an era where the kind of films being made were solid, good and truly entertaining. I don't want to depend on the kind of cinema being made now for my living. I would prefer to be able to choose particular roles that appeal to me. But, as of now, I am going to have no time whatsoever for cinema or television acting; my career is taking all my time and energy."
Though the face has matured, Manju's sparkling eyes and gamine grin remain unchanged. Always a rather short child, Manju has grown into a not-very-tall young man. Married last year to a woman in his current profession, he lives in Koramangala. Yet, all you need to do is go to Triveni Main Road in Yeshwantpur and ask for the house of 'Master Manjunath,' which was his screen name, and anyone will show you the tiny house built long ago with Manju's own earnings.
"I had the privilege of meeting R K Narayan just a couple of times when I was shooting for Malgudi Days," says Manju now, a faraway look in his eyes. "I did not interact much with him because we were in the middle of hectic shooting schedules. I was just introduced to him and he patted me on the back and said good show or something like that.
"However, I will never forget one thing that he said to me: after the movie and the serial based on Malgudi Days became a great hit, there was a small celebration party at Woodlands Hotel. Mr Narayan was also there. It was then that he paid me the biggest compliment I have ever received in my whole life. He said, 'Manju, you acted exactly as I imagined Swami to be.' This statement meant more to me than all the international awards I got.
"Mr Narayan was a great person. He was not well on that day. His brother, Mr (the famed cartoonist R K) Laxman was also there. It was nice gathering of people. I did not get the opportunity to talk much with Mr Narayan but, even with the little that I did, I learnt a lot from him. I was already familiar with his writing as I had studied one of his short stories in school. Later, I went on to study English literature and got to know his writing even more. That was when my respect for him really grew."
Interestingly, Manju had never read Swami And Friends before he enacted the role of Swami so perfectly on screen. In fact, he did not even know the outline of every story in advance. All he did was to think about the scenes to be enacted on any given day and try his best to bring them to life. "That's how it should be," insists Manju. "If I had known in advance what the conclusion of a story was going to be, I might have played my scenes differently."
The times that Narayan actually came on the sets, he would be busy talking to Nag. "He would come to meet Shankar Nag and they would discuss scripting changes," saysManju. "At that time, he would speak to me very informally and in a particularly friendly manner. It was only at that memorable party that we had a long conversation. Later, I met him at some award functions. But I cannot say that I was very close to him. He knew me probably only as the boy who played Swami, nothing more."
How did Manju come to play Swami? "Shankar Nag suddenly called me up one day, said he was sending a car to pick me up," recalls Manju. "There was a role he wanted me to try out for. I went to Woodlands, where there was a small casting room with a lot of kids. He asked me whether I could speak Hindi. I told him I did not know one word of that language! But Shankar knew me and knew that I could master anything quickly.
"He got me to try on a couple of costumes. And that was it! I have no idea why he chose me over all the others." One clue could lie in the fact that Shankar and Manju had, by then, done a number of films together. Manju had even won a state award for his role in Shankar's home production Parameshi Prema Prasanga. He was a particularly successful and popular child actor, known for his versatility and professionalism.
Initially, Manju did one episode titled Hero for the first block of 13 episodes of Malgudi Days. This story went down so well with the viewers that Shankar decided to devote the next 13 episodes entirely to Swami And Friends, with Manju in the title role.
The serial was simultaneously shot in two languages, Hindi and English. The episodes were also linked into a tightly made film, which won international acclaim. "Till today, I have never read the book Swami And Friends," confesses Manju. "I have acted it out, so I know every line. I don't feel able to read it now. At that time, I was going to full day school and I was also in the middle of a hectic career as a child star. I had no time to read books or do anything other than cope with my hectic schedules."
Manju still considers Malgudi Days one of his toughest assignments ever. "I did not know a word of Hindi," he explains. "I had to learn and dub for my own lines. It was like doing two films simultaneously, as we were doing it in two languages. We had a gruelling, three month schedule in the hilly region of Agumbe (on the South Karnataka coast). It was tremendously hot and I worked almost 14 hours a day. In a way, it was a unique experience. Shankar and the whole team were fantastic."
Shankar, in fact, was a close family friend who kept popping in and out of Manju's house. So there was no question of Manju not doing the role of Swami, once it was offered to him. "Doing a Hindi film was by itself a fantastic opportunity. Also, it would be aired on DD1, which was the only television channel those days," Manju says. "I never looked at it as a chance to enact a literary masterpiece. Now, I'm glad I didn't. There might have been too much pressure on me if I had!"
Manju admits all of them were basically working for Shankar Nag, and not for Malgudi Days or a Narayan serial. "We all trusted, loved and cared for him," he says softly, speaking with a great-remembered fondness for Shankar, who died in a car accident 10 years ago. "We were all one close family. So much so, the person in charge of the food would offer advice on lighting! None of us kids and unit hands knew Mr Narayan. We were all there just for a Shankar Nag project and we worked out of love for him."
Still, when Narayan passed on, Manju felt great regret. "I second Khushwant Singh's suggestion that an Indian village should be named Malgudi in his memory," he says. "I propose that Agumbe which, because of our film and serial, was immortalised in public memory as Malgudi should be chosen for that honour. That will be the most fitting tribute to Mr Narayan, and Shankar, and the greatest celebration of our best performance."
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