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April 4, 1997


Stranger than fiction

Shobha Warrier

This is the story of a man whose life was stranger than the fiction he wrote.

A man whose fictional characters were rooted in everyday reality, yet who himself lived a life as charged with melodrama as the protagonists of pulp fiction.

Needless to add, he is a very successful as a storywriter, equally successful as a storyteller on celluloid. Telling tales laced with bathos, bittersweet tales revolving around characters as ordinary as you and me.

His name is Bhagyaraj - the man who, almost a decade earlier, had earned plaudits from Amitabh Bachchan who he directed in Aakhri Raasta; the man who is now directing Bollywood's reigning thespian, Dilip Kumar, in one of the latter's increasingly rare appearances on the marquee.

It is natural to hold, in one's mind, an image of the man you are going to meet - and so it was when photographer Sanjay Ghosh and I went to meet Bhagyaraj. The image, it must be added here, was nowhere near the man.

For three hours, Bhagyaraj wove a magic spell, telling the tale of his life as though narrating the subject of a film he intended filming. His voice changed in tone and modulation as characters entered and exited centrestage, his mobile face ran the gamut of emotions - and Sanjay, who intended to finish his work in 15 minutes and then race off to other assignments, was as riveted for that length of time that I was.

So here, without more ado, is the story of Bhagyaraj, storyteller par excellence...

Like most women in Tamil Nadu, Bhagyaraj's mother and grandmother had a passion for movies. And women need escorting, so who better than the youngest male member of the household? Thus it was that from his earliest years, Bhagyaraj found himself dragged, evening after evening, to darkened cinema halls.

One of his earliest memories centered around the applause that would rock the theatres when reigning marquee icons M G Ramachandran or Sivaji Ganesan appeared on screen. And this observation in turn brought with it realisation - that if you want plaudits, you have to become a performer.

The young boy, even then, was hungry for applause... and this hunger was to change the entire course of his life.

In school, 'What is your ambition in life?' is a question ritually put to all students. engineer... IAS officer... are the as cliched answers. Came the day Bhagyaraj faced the question, and he stopped cliche in its tracks when he blurted out, "I want to be an actor like MGR or Sivaji!"

The class rocked with laughter. Till, that is, the teacher shushed them. What is wrong with his ambition?, the teacher demanded. 'You should understand that it is like any other profession. Try to pursue what you want.'

If the applause in movie theatres sparked the lad's ambition, its validation by his teacher was to reinforce his determination.

Bhagyaraj's tryst with his future came when, in his tenth standard, he received a chance to act and direct a play. Came rehearsal time, and the young director kept finding fault with the boy playing a female role in the play. What is the problem, demanded an exasperated teacher. "Sir," said Bhagyaraj, with the straightest of faces, "See how he is fiddling with the school badge on his shirt pocket? If he does that on stage, that too when wearing female clothes, how will it look?"

The teachers fought to hide their smiles. Years later, Bhagyaraj's audiences would laugh loud, as the same impish humour burst forth at unexpected moments in his films. But the incident also was prophetic of Bhagyaraj's future prowess as a director - he, then and now, wanted every single nuance just so.

Bhagyaraj passed his tenth, but then flunked pre-university, and refused to study the course again. "How could I face all those girls I used to meet on the buses? I could bear anything, but the prospect of facing those girls again was unbearable! What would they think of me? I was firm that I would not go to college again."

Again, illuminative - for Bhagyaraj, the motive force was applause. That too from members of the opposite sex. Much later, his characters were to be built around that mould - shy men, looking for the approbation of good-looking women.

One struggle - with academics - ended, and another - with his family - began. The family wanted him to go into one of their factories, which manufactured plastics, machinery for sinking borewells, water pumps, etc. Bhagyaraj was not interested in the monotony that prospect entailed - his hunger was still for applause, adulation.

Instead of going to the factory, he took to hanging out at the local youth club, playing carrom for days on end with whoever happened to walk in - and if none did, then all by himself. Very late at night, when the household had retired, he would climb up the drainpipe to his first floor room that he shared with his brother.

"Why do you do this?" his brother would whisper in the dead of the night. "What else can I do, I hate going to the factory," Bhagyaraj would whisper back.

Came the day he was halfway through his climb when the local watchman happened past. He saw the figure on the pipe and set up a cry of 'Thief, Thief!'. Later the night, the neighbourhood was disturbed yet again, this time with the young lad's cries as his brother mercilessly thrashed him for having embarrassed the family.

The next morning, Bhagyaraj's greatest fear came true - he was the laughing stock of the neighbourhood, more especially of the womenfolk. The younger ones giggled as he passed by, the order ones exhorted him to quit leading a wastrel's life and to make something of himself.

Bhagyaraj ran away from his home in native Coimbatore, wandering the south - Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kakinada... Till, finally an empty pocket and an emptier belly forced him to retrace his steps back home.

Needless to add, his escapade had only made him the butt of more humour in the locality. Vikramaditya, they called him, after the legendary king who spent six months in the forest and six in his kingdom.

"What am I doing here?" Vikramaditya asked himself. "I am proving to be a failure,"

What do I want to become?, he asked himself. An actor, his mind flashed back the answer, recalling that long ago ambition. To become another Sivaji, another MGR.

The place to achieve that, he realised, was in Madras, the celluloid capital of the south. Not Hyderabad or Bangalore, where he had whiled away his time during his previous escapade.

Wandering the Kodambakkam area of Madras, where most of the studios and producers and directors are located, Bhagyaraj's hopes plummeted as he saw the hordes of handsome young men hanging about, all hoping for a chance. Disheartened, he approached technicians, hoping to take the backdoor route to his dreams. But which technician wanted an inexperienced assistant, when qualified ones were a dime a dozen?

That was when he realised there was one option that did not entail any previous experience - story-writing.

The realisation came - and, just a week later, the first script. Nee Sirithal Naan Siripen(I'll laugh if you do) - a script that was sparked by memories of those long-ago nights spent in dark movie halls, never did get made.

"It was my maiden effort," he recalls. "And someday, I will make it into a movie."

The struggle continued. Days of fruitless foot-slogging, nights of barely checked hunger - and all of it fruitless.

It was then that he met the beautiful starlet Praveena. Her basic problem in getting roles was that she didn't know Tamil - Bhagyaraj, asked if he would teach her, readily agreed.

And loved blossomed between the teacher and the taught, as it has in so many film-scripts...

Praveena began noticing that her young lover had taken to pledging his belongings to earn money for the next meal, and exhorted him to give up the struggle and return home. Love succeeded where parental pressure could not, but before he left Madras he promised her, "One day I will come back, and I will marry you."

Bhagyaraj entered the family factor at long last - but did not last long. Years of abusing his system with untimely meals, or outright starvation, had presented him with an ulcer that necessitated that he go back to Madras for treatment.

Again, it happens all the time in movies - the hero struggles towards a goal, and fails. Then, out of the blue, success arrives...

When Bhagyaraj went to Madras to break into films, he got an ulcer. When he returned to treat the ulcer, he got his break! Rising director Bharati Raja took him on as part of the unit then making 16 Vayathinile (remade in Hindi as Solva Sawan), starring Kamal Hasan, Rajnikanth and Sridevi.

The director, much impressed with Bhagyaraj's dedication, thirst for knowledge and eagerness to work, made him a permanent part of his unit. And the tide had turned.

But Melodrama was not done with Bhagyaraj yet. His mother, happy that her youngest son had finally found his metier, predicted that he would fulfill his boyhood ambition and become a film hero. Bhagyaraj laughed. Then came the opportunity to star in the film Puthia Vaarpukal, for which he had already written the story, screenplay and dialogues - and he stopped laughing and worked his heart out.

Midway through, came the news that his mother was ailing, so he dropped everything and rushed home, with stills from his first film as hero. His mother had lost consciousness - and died, without ever seeing the realisation of the dream she shared with her son.

Happens only in the movies, right?

While preparing to direct Chuvarilla Chitrangal, he met old flame Praveena - and, remembering that long ago vow, promptly married her. But a couple of tubal pregnancies later, the love of his life died, and Bhagyaraj was shattered.

Bhagyaraj wandered about, trying to get over his life. And landed in Bombay, accidentally meeting up with Poornima Jayaram who, at the time, was the reigning queen of the Tamil and Malayalam film industries.

She invited him home to watch the Dussera procession - and it was while standing with her on the balcony of her flat, listening to her as she explained the history of the festival, that he realised there was something in the lady that struck, in him, a chord he thought was long dead. Not knowing how to broach the subject, he merely asked her if she would call him after she returned from Paris, France, where she was headed for a shoot.

Back in Madras, he went on with the daily business of film-making. Till the day an assistant casually mentioned, during a break, 'Sir, there is this girl who keeps calling from Parrys Corner (a locality in Madras, referred to by the locals merely as Parrys), troubling us a lot wanting to talk to you, we don't know what to do!"

"Hey," yelled Bhagyaraj, "that is from the real Paris!"....

Just the sort of little comic touch that is part of a Bhagyaraj script, right?

To cut a long story short, the two got married... and have two kids today...

"Now she looks after everything," Bhagyaraj smiles. "I have studied only up to pre-university, I don't know much English. So she has to look after everything, take care of me and the studies of the kids. Do you know, the kids talk in English among themselves, with their mother, grandparents, uncle, etc. But they immediately switch to Tamil when talking to me. They know that their father knows only Tamil!"

The joke is on him, and he laughs loudly in appreciation.

It is this sense of humour that keeps him apart from others. Even in adversity, he could smile - and find reason to smile.

"I was extremely hungry and without work when I was in Hyderabad," he recalls of his long ago escapades. "Unable to bear it, I went to a tea shop and asked for work as a server. He asked me if I had any experience. I was shocked - you need experience to supply tea, to wait on table? I realised then that I should never take any job lightly, that every job requires a certain level of expertise..."

"From there," the recollections continue, "I went to a circus company, bluffing that I was from another circus and wanted a job. I didn't know that in a circus the clowns had to be good acrobats as well. When they learnt the truth, they gave me a job selling soft drinks to the crowds. Meanwhile the owner checked my bag, found the card giving my home address, telegraphed them without my knowing, and someone came and dragged me back...

"I don't look at all this as suffering. If I had just sat inside my house, would I have had all these experiences? No. I saw life as it is really lived. And every experience, every person I met taught me something which in turn helped me in my writings.

"My heroes are taken straight out of real life. They are all ordinary human beings, they have all the weaknesses of ordinary people. They lie, they act in petty ways, they get bashed up.

"But," he adds seriously, "my heroines are always powerful characters. And there is never a villain in my films - the problems the hero has to face are the villains."

That, perhaps, explains Bhagyaraj's popularity as a director - he stays close to his roots, and his audiences identify with the stories he tells, the characters he etches.

This, then, the man who is in the process of putting the incomparable Dilip Kumar through his paces...

Never was cliche more merited, so we end with one: He has come a long way, hasn't he?