THE HINDU Sunday Magazine

Theatre of passion
Sunday, January 25, 2004

P.C. Ramakrishna, veteran artiste, talks about the Madras Players, his plays, co-actors and the Chennai theatre scene in a freewheeling conversation with SHREEKUMAR VARMA

The Madras Players, fast moving towards its 50th year of existence, tells the story of English theatre in Chennai. Its star performer and former president P. C. Ramakrishna embodies the story of The Madras Players. The voice is recognisable anywhere. The diction is exquisite. As we sit in the Amethyst's open veranda, sipping coffee and paying tribute to theatre, heads turn as he speaks. Eyes admire as he sits. A koel calls out.

THERE must be passion. You can be very fluid, very professional, but if you don't have the passion---the audience will know!

How much depends on the director?

Hell of a lot! Without a director there's no play. He puts everything in perspective. You think about your performance, how to make your character come alive. The director looks at all the other characters and sees how you should be in relation to them. Different directors work differently. For instance, Bhagyam's forte is subtext. Something has happened before a scene, something will happen afterwards. So there's an unwritten subtext. If you're husband and wife, she'll say: what kind of husband and wife are you? There's a cross-examination going on. Then we'll play out that scene and she'll critique it till she's satisfied.

And you can find the difference?

Yes, definitely. There's a certain continuity, and you feel yes, this is what the playwright has created. Really get into the character — even to the extent of, how many times does he have sex! You must sneeze like the character, laugh like him!

When different people come together there must be drama during rehearsals as well!

It's a lot of fun. And if someone's not well at home, someone's daughter hasn't done well in the exam — you carry all that tension. But the rehearsal is a release. You forget all that. It's fun! Different people do different things. You play tennis, someone else plays golf. I do plays!

Which is a play you feel was memorable?

There are several I remember for several reasons. "Dance Like A Man" I remember very concretely.

"Anna Weiss"?

Definitely! "The Good Doctor", which Ammu Mathew directed, where I played my first major role. And "Lizard Waltz". "Tiger, Tiger" where I played Mir Sadiq. "Shadow Box", where I played a terminal cancer patient. And "Uproar In The House", directed by Noshir Ratnagar. I remember 10 or 12 plays. Now, because I'm older, I do a range of roles that are not available to younger people. Older people have memories and tragedies ...

And baggage?

Yes, they carry a baggage. It becomes richer for an actor. I'm at a stage when I really enjoy this.

Have you had problems with critics?

Well, over the years I've been extolled by them, I've been ripped — and raped! It has never bothered me beyond the day's reading. So long as I believe in the honesty of the person who's writing, I've no problem. When I first did "Macbeth" in 1972, the critic wrote there were certain things he didn't like — the furniture, this thing, that thing and — Macbeth! I was livid. I was playing lead and he didn't like it. Later I realised it was the worst role I ever played, because I was only 26, too young for Macbeth. Macbeth, of all Shakespeare's plays, has to be 50. It's only at that age you realise what a dominating wife could be. Or what ambition could be.

In your case, the voice and timing seem so effortless.

It's all very exact; it looks as if it's just happening! But it's very hard. You would have worked at it to almost micrometric precision. There are so many techniques.

Can you feel the audience reaction?

I know an audience, which is warm, and one which is tight.

Oh, you know that?

Yes, within the first three-four minutes. And if there's a problem invariably it lies with you, not with them. You're not giving it to them. The audience is coming there to enjoy. They're sitting in the dark. But if you hear chairs squeaking or someone going (he coughs very genuinely), then you know they're not with it.

So everything should fit together nicely...

Yes, a good working relationship. There are giving and non-giving actors. Some are very good individually, but they don't give to the other actor on stage. You feel you're talking to a wall. Take Mohd. Yusuf. A more giving actor I've never come across. I remember a scene in "Tiger, Tiger". For 10 minutes I was ranting about something. He had no words. He knew it was my scene. He almost turned himself completely from the audience and reacted to my every word. Ultimately, with tears in my eyes, I hugged him. Another actor would probably stand there, strike a pose and wait till his turn came. I have a photograph where you can see only his back.

Okay, with your personality, do you tend to upstage people?

Nobody has told me so far, and I hope nobody does! I have no problem with co-actors.

What's the difference between doing plays and serials and films?

It's a different ball game. You see, in theatre, you go chronologically. There you do one scene from the beginning and the next from the end. It's very difficult.

It's not satisfying?

It is satisfying. It can be my medium if I chose to do it full-time. Theatre excites me much more — the immediacy, the audience right in front of you. And every day's performance is different.

You left your job one fine day and got into theatre and voice work full-time, didn't you?

After 27 years of corporate existence, I wanted to do something on my own time that excited me.

There's scope for three more people doing my kind of voice work in Chennai alone. But they're not available. Because we need consistency.

We have to read scripts for 30-40 pages, sometimes 120. And people don't want to read an awful lot of Indian names. To me that is masala! Whether it's an Indian name or a Sanskrit shloka, it's something I enjoy.

Did you ever sing?

I sing bass with the Madras Youth Choir. But I can't sing by myself. The breathing for singing is diametrically opposite to the breathing for speaking. Speaking involves short breaths; singing involves long breaths.

You played the mridangam, didn't you?

I used to play. I could have become a professional. But now I've lost the edge. I played for 18 years. I've played in the Music Academy. In 1966, I had to choose between a corporate career and a career in mridangam. There was no money in mridangam. I took the easy option!

Are you tense on stage?

Yes, yes. Lawrence Olivier, in his book, writes: "After the 300th performance of `Othello', I still had butterflies in my stomach before my first entry. If I didn't, I couldn't give a performance." If you don't have that tight knot in your stomach, your performance will be flat. We're amateurs only in name. Every performance is professional; there are no hitches.

Have you ever trained your voice?

The British Council brought a voice coach who conducted a two-day workshop for singers and speakers. She said, "The way to liberate your voice is: in the morning, take a deep breath, expand your diaphragm, push your voice through your lungs, through your vocal chords, hit your sinuses, and out — a sound that starts with an "aah", goes into an "ooo" and finishes with an "m"." I said, "This is nothing but our AUM or OM!" She had to come all the way from London to tell me what I ought to know myself! I do that exercise every morning.

Do you ever get bored with your work?
Never! The sound of the word fascinates me. I'll never get bored, even if it's voice-over for a film on lathes or grinding machines. I know there's an audience, which wants to listen to this. The day the word stops exciting me, I'll stop this work.

But theatre's like a holiday for you?

It's... passion! It allows me to do things I've never even dreamt of. Like "Funny Money", which is mad comedy. And "Anna Weiss". It's a range I get an opportunity to play. And "Dance Like A Man", which, to my mind, is Mahesh Dattani's most beautifully written seamless play. The actor has the opportunity of ageing with the change of a shawl — and he becomes his own father. You have to have fire in your belly to do that!

I've been wanting to ask you about Anna Weiss.

It's the only play we rehearsed in camera. Nobody was allowed other than the two girls, Kavery and Divya, myself and the director Mithran. Because it was very tense, nerve-wracking. It's about sexual abuse of children. The daughter accuses him in the psychiatrist's office. I had a daughter of that age. For one month when I rehearsed that play, I'd come home and couldn't sleep. It was so disturbing.

And the audience?

They were absolutely thunderstruck. They stayed back to ask questions. They were so disturbed; you could feel the shock transmitting through them. It was the only play they gave us a standing ovation. It's not a long play---at the end it leaves the actors totally drained. You must have passion to do that kind of play. You can't switch off at the end of the rehearsal. It has to live with you; it has to eat you up.

In the sudden silence that follows the roll of his voice, you hear only the koel's call.