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And then he became Raja

ROHINI MOHAN

Prakash Raj, the talented Kannada actor, had to knock on the doors of Tamil and Telugu film industries before he became a big star.



THE DECISION `I didn't just move. I moved on. It was part of a journey.' — Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Prakash Rai's (that's how Kannadigas call him by force of habit. He is now Prakash Raj in Tamil and Prakash Rajj in Telugu) PA had wondered what I wanted to meet the actor about: "None of his movies are slated for release any time now; so what will you ask him?" But I am granted the interview nevertheless, and given a slot preceding a reporter who arrives to zestily query Prakash about the women in his life.

On the sets of Ponniyin Selvan, Prakash's latest Tamil offering, from his own Duet Production, he sits sipping chai, talking to me as if there is no hurry at all. But the only time I have, I know, is the few minutes before and after the Assistant Director's shouts of "Shot ready!" and "Cut it!"

"This might be too hard on people from Karnataka," he says, after learning what I want him to talk about, "You tell me... do you really want the truth? Because the truth might seem too simple and undramatic, I think. You might be stuck with a boring article." That's all right, Mr. Prakash Raj, I'll risk the truth.

No resentment

"I didn't leave the Kannada industry because I resented it. I left because I'd outgrown it," says Prakash, who started out as an actor in Kannada theatre. "I knew I was capable of much more than it could offer me." It was only after he moved to the Tamil industry did he grow, and mature as a performer, he says. "I keep thinking: I couldn't have done that great role of Karunanidhi in Iruvar if I hadn't decided to move. No, no. I'll correct that: I didn't just move. I moved on. It was part of a journey."

But considering that far too many people from Karnataka have migrated to other film industries, wasn't it almost a natural progression now? "Kannada movies build themselves around the actor," he says, "No cinema based on actors will survive - because film is definitely not an actor's medium." When I offer similar trends in Rajnikant, MGR, and Vijay films in Tamil, Prakash reasons: "It is only off late that there are such out-and-out commercial movies in Tamil. And they can afford the big budgets for these because for decades on end, the industry has been producing fantastic, director-centric, script-intense films too. Even the commercial movies are very experimental, and throw challenges at actors." He remembers the time when "there was a movement of very serious, amazingly wonderful Kannada films" when talented directors had the guts to explore options. "The last passionate director I remember was Puttanna Kanagal," he says, shaking his head, "After that, it looks like everyone's just given up." Prakash is dismissive about the now-scabbing scratch between theatres and the Kannada film industry. "It was so childish. And instead of aspiring to be like film industries that go beyond geographic barriers, they want to impose themselves on people. It was bound to backfire."

It is the co-existence of varied lines of thinking that he appreciates in Tamil and Malayalam cinema. "Maniratnam, Bharathiraja, Shankar, K. Balachandar, Selvaraghavan, Fazil... notice the range of images when you think of them? You could never slot them in separate genres. Because they consciously try not to repeat themselves."

He doesn't blame actors for moving from one industry to another, because "they have to earn" after all. "I admit I was someone who didn't make it in Kannada films. Only losers would want to move, right? So I went to Chennai with Rs. 140 in my pocket, knowing just one person - K. Balachander." And for his debut in Balachander's Duet, Prakash Rai had to become Prakash Raj. "Balachander gave me an explanation that made a lot of sense then. I might not think so now. The movie was being made during the peak of the Cauvery water issue, and he didn't want my name to betray where I came from."

Transcending barriers

In the middle of a soaring career in Tamil and Telugu, Prakash did Nagamandala, in Kannada. "I couldn't have pulled it off of if I'd done it 10 years ago. I never say I've deserted one home for another. I've transcended language barriers ages ago. It's that little homework you do." He narrates an incident when, for the first time, he agreed to let someone else dub for him: "I kept suggesting try-this, try-that. I was actually asked to get out!" Since then, he's picked conversational Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam, apart from Kannada, and his mother tongue, Tulu. "Once I wondered what language I think in," he says, pretending to read an overhead thought bubble, "But I'd get too conscious, and stop thinking!" he laughs.

As I wonder why female actors almost always choose to go with dubbing-artistes, he sighs that most of them don't get any significant roles in most films. "There itself the passion dies," he says. Then, after a thoughtful pause, he continues softly, "I don't know why it's become like this. People have stopped respecting women. Bharathiraja — what women he created in his movies... Silent, strong, explosive, sensual." Another pause. "People have forgotten how to love a woman. How much they're missing... "

Wonder what Prakash meant when he said his truths would be "boring".

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