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July 8, 1998


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That deft touch

Nedumudi Venu in Bharatham. Click for bigger pic!
Nedumudi Venu needs no introduction to those familiar with quality cinema. One of the finest actors in Indian films, Nedumudi Venu is believed to have received short shrift from many an award committee. This, despite him having even national awards in his kitty. He has made his mark in a variety of films, ranging from the trite to the extraordinary, exploring a range far wider than most of his contemporaries have. Shobha Warrier met him at his residence, Thampu, in Thiruvananthapuram. Incidentally, it was with Aravindan's Thampu that he first entered films. Very intelligent, extremely articulate, it was truly an experience talking to him.

You spent you childhood in a village in Kuttanad. The tranquil village atmosphere, its temples, its folklore, its music, the greenery and the paddy fields might have had a great influence in your life. How much has the serenity and richness of Kuttanad helped you in your outlook to life, as a person and as an artist?

Our village with its lush green paddy fields, slowly flowing rivers, huge trees, quiet backwaters and extremely hardworking villagers is special in many ways. Do you know, in Kuttanad the farming is done below sea level? Only when you come and stay in a town do you miss the personal touch of a village. Here we do not even know who comes to the next house. We don't show any interest either. Not so in a village. There they try to find out who the new person is, what he is doing and why he has come to the village. Everyone in a village comes to know about the birth of a child or the death of a person.

More than anything else, villagers are people without masks. So, you meet unique human beings with unusual mannerisms. Here in the city, you see only masked human beings. If a villager does not like somebody, his feelings will either be visible on his face or he will tell the person point-blank what he thinks. He does not hide his true feelings. That is why I call them genuine human beings.

So, from an artist's point of view, let him be a painter or a novelist or an artist, any village is rich in life.... From where do we artists' get inspiration? From real life. So, as an actor, I have been inspired by many such genuine characters. All villagers are in some way or the other characters for you since each one of them is different. Those images get imprinted in your mind -- or the computer that you have inside. The images come alive only when you need them.

Did you observe people even when you were young?

I never observe anything or anyone for the sake of observing. It is a natural process. The vague, faded images attain clarity only when you need them, sometimes after several years. And I, as an actor, give life to them.

I can say that unlike today's children, we had a very rich childhood, a childhood of abundance and plentiful. Not in terms of money though. Nobody was concerned about money then. Culturally and artistically, the atmosphere around was immensely rich. A child of today will be surprised to hear that we had singing and theatre sessions everyday, and not homework. All of us who could sing or hum a little would assemble in our house and the evenings came alive.

Just in front of our house was the huge yard of the temple where we sat and played musical instruments, sang songs and during vacations enacted plays. We were five brothers in our family -- no sisters. So, in my village, youngsters belonging to all age groups literally grew up at our house. And the interaction continued for several years till I, the youngest, left.

As both may parents were teachers, they encouraged all our literary and cultural activities. In fact, my father was such a great lover of Carnatic music and Kathakali. He used to take us to all the places where a performance was being held. I still remember travelling in boats through the backwaters to Ambalappuzha, Chengannur, etc for concerts. We also had several artists staying with us to teach us classical music, Kathakali Sangeetham and musical instruments like the mridangam, ghatam etc.

In Sidhartha. Click for bigger pic!
So yours must have been a very rich family.

No, not at all. We had a small piece of land where we did a little farming. But my father was basically a teacher, retiring as a head master of a primary school. My mother also worked as a teacher.

It was a question of priority. According to them, the most important thing in life was education, both academic and cultural. They were very particular that all of us went to college and pursued higher studies. At the same time, they didn't want us to forget our cultural roots.

By the time I was big enough to learn the art forms in depth, my father had retired. Naturally, the income reduced. There was no pension in those days. So whatever little Kathakali Sangeetham, Carnatic music, mridangam I know, I had to pick up by watching others perform and not from any guru.

The way you recite poems is legendary in Kerala. And you've recited a lot of poems in your films. I still remember, in the eighties you were a rage among college students. How did you learn to recite poems so well?

That too I learnt from my father. He used to make us recite poems when we were young. In the evenings, after the lamp was lit, we were supposed to sit and do our prayers. My father himself used to write hymns, set them to tune and teach them. He was very particular about the way we pronounced the words and the way sang them. I think I grew up with a very strong foundation -- a big help in my later life. So, even if we had to construct many, many layers on top of the foundation, we never felt tired. We could carry all that with ease.

Like many others, do you also feel that today's children do not have that kind of a foundation?

I don't agree. Life has become very fast now. We cannot just pass judgements -- like, this is wrong and this is right. Today's children live in a world where knowledge is available at their fingertips. The opportunities and possibilities are tremendous. I know it is ridiculous to expect our children to live the way we did. Still.... From a father's point of view, I feel sad and helpless because I feel I could not give them the kind of the thrill, the excitement and happiness that I experienced as a child.

Do you feel they do not get any excitement from their life?

I feel they do not get the same kind of excitement that I had as a child. I would be happy if they got at least a little of that. For example, I wanted to teach my children music. Yes, they are learning music, the veena etc. But the learning process is totally different. There is no fun the way they learn. The teachers come here twice a week, teach them and go away.

Today's kids do not have adequate time to have fun learning and practising art. They have got such a lot to study. They cannot neglect that too. I feel nothing is done in a proper way. I feel sad when I see these children drifting away from our own culture. I blame the parents -- that includes me too -- for that.

What exactly do you mean by our own culture?

In the old days, we grew up listening to our grandmother's stories. We learnt to sing from them, even before we learnt to read. We recited shlokas and poems along with them, thus learning to pronounce words properly. Only later did we learn to read. While reading a book, we are also going with the author and creating and visualising a world of our own.

The image of a character may not be the same for two readers. But we have lost the power of imagination, the power of creativity with the advent of television. Where is the need to create an image when the image is created by somebody else and thrown in front of you. In most houses, television has taken the place of books, thus tampering with the creativity of a child.

Is it the case of a child who lives in a village too? Or, does it happen only in the cities?

With Mohanlal in His Highness Abdullah. Click for bigger pic!
Do we see any villages in Kerala now? They have disappeared completely. The difference between a city and a village is diminishing fast....

But you still cherish and memories of your village...

If I were to do a character from a village, some of them come up in my mind. I don't reproduce him as the character but I incorporate certain mannerisms of that person in the character.

How do you generally prepare yourself? Do you try to understand the character in totality?

The problem with us is that, unlike in Hollywood, we do not have enough to time to prepare ourselves for a particular character. There, if an actor has to portray a handicapped man, he understands everything about a handicapped man before the shooting itself. Here we lack that kind of time and facilities. Do you know that nowhere in the world are films are made at this pace? We finish shooting for a film in 20 days and release it the next month. Even art film-makers make films pretty fast.

But you must have taken some time to prepare yourself for at least some characters...

Actually, it is not possible. We come to know of the character only after the script is ready. And most often there won't even be a complete script. Later, there is a discussion wherein we ourselves create a portrait of the character -- where he was born, whether he is educated or not, whether he is a cultured man or not, what kind of clothes he wear, etc etc... It may not be necessary for the film, but only if we have a portrait of the character in our mind will we be able to portray him better. This kind of preparation is necessary only very rarely, may be in one or two films out of the 100 that one works in. Otherwise, it is 'switch off' kind of performance. Most film-makers demand only that much preparation from you and nothing more than that.

Won't the artist in you feel dissatisfied if you have to perform without getting fully involved?

Yes, the artist in me does get dissatisfied. We try to convince ourselves that this is only our profession, our livelihood and nothing more than that.

But some characters might have given you some satisfaction in your long career as an actor...

In the whole of my career, some ten-twenty characters might have really satisfied me. One such character I still remember is Achuvettan of Achuvettante Veedu (the Balachandra Menon film in which Nedumudi acted opposite Rohini Hattangady). Achuvettan's agony, the agony of a government servant belonging to a middle class family with two daughters was quite understandable to me. I also understood the pains of the retired school teacher in Minnaminunginte Nurungu Vattom. I had seen my father going through the same pain during his retirement. So, I could identify with him very well. You also see several people around you, like the alcoholic Ramanathan in Bharatam.

One gets attached to a particular character due to many reasons. If a character is familiar to you, you get attached to him. If the character is what you are not in real life, it is a great challenge. Because then you have to create the character totally from your imagination. So, both remain in your mind.

Which is more challenging to you, portraying a real life character or creating a new character?

'We cannot and should not carry the dead body of a character all the time'

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