Between Reviews: A Small Slice of Great Genius

Posted on February 14, 2009


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FEB 15, 2009 – THE FILM EXECUTIVE STRIDES INTO THE ROOM. He notices Raghavan (Muthuraman) and apologises for making him wait. Beside the executive is Mr. Pattappa, the producer behind Latha Movies. At this introduction, Raghavan smiles. Hands are shaken with excessive courtesy. No one has paid any attention, yet, to the nondescript Sundaram (Nagesh), who stands by the side of Raghavan with a palpable sense of unease. No one notices that he folds his hands in a hesitant greeting, hoping that the introductions would come around his way too. No one notices that he follows them as they head across the room and seat themselves in chairs. And then Raghavan makes them notice. He points to Sundaram, who’s seated himself on the floor with a singularly graceful descent into cross-legged deference.

As Raghavan introduces (his friend) Sundaram to the executive and to Pattappa, requesting that they consider him for a break in their movies, Sundaram greets his prospective benefactors. He raises just his backside off the floor – a posture midway between sitting and standing, executed with the effortlessness of a wiry acrobat – and plops back to his position. The executive commands Sundaram to rise. He does so in one smooth motion. The executive remembers something. He turns to Raghavan and enquires, “Isn’t this man a server?” Raghavan admits that he is, as Sundaram reminds us – as if he were in an exaggerated silent movie – what a deer’s face would resemble if a pair of headlights was suddenly switched on in its vicinity.

But that isn’t an issue. The executive requests Sundaram to perform. Sundaram looks down and across the room, as if praying for inspiration from the carpet, or a chair, or a pair of feet perhaps. The executive asks him to at least demonstrate a few distinct styles of walking. Relief floods Sundaram’s voice. “I can walk, sir,” he says. He turns and heads away from his audience of three. And as a trumpet issues a long, sharp note that dissolves into a stretch of jazz – possibly the only music fluid enough to accommodate the on-the-spot improvisations to follow – Sundaram extends a leg, as if stepping over a largish puddle. He brings the other leg over so the knees knock, and in an instant, his walk has morphed into modern dance.

For his next trick, Sundaram invokes Chaplin’s waddle. Then, emitting the cackle of a dreadfully ineffectual villain, he bends his torso backwards, as if that lean frame suddenly ballooned into an oversized paunch. “How’s the boy?” the film executive asks Pattappa, as Sundaram walks towards them. Before Pattappa can reply, Sundaram has begun to walk away, this time in mid-squat, his legs spread out at right angles to his body. Now he affects a shimmy, his upper half in sporadic spasms as his feet appear engaged in an attempt to scrape off chewing gum from the sole of a shoe. And finally, he’s all arms and legs, a discombobulated spider that’s dropped off a ceiling fan at full speed.

Such a breathless display of body language, it would appear, would clinch for Sundaram a place in the movies. But as if to prove the showbiz cliché that the laughter of a clown is forever commingled with tears, the executive turns to Raghavan and remarks, “All this is fine. But isn’t his face a bit ugly for the screen?” Sundaram rises angrily from the chair he’s settled into. He demands of the executive, “What about your face? Is that okay? You stand in front of a mirror, comb your hair and move away. If you stood there a while, you’d notice your faults.” His rage rises steadily. “Where were your brains when you asked me to walk? Was I somehow more handsome then?”

The alarmed executive wipes his face with a handkerchief, when Sundaram pokes his shoulder and demands, “I’m asking you, dammit!” Raghavan rises from his chair and slaps his friend. He shoves Sundaram away and asks him to get out. And now, the tiniest of quivers creeps into Sundaram’s voice as he tearfully turns to his friend. He tells Raghavan that he wouldn’t have minded if the executive had similarly slapped him. “But instead, why did he have to humiliate me in public?” The executive has had enough. He orders the guard to boot Sundaram out. And extraordinarily, Sundaram switches from sentiment to slapstick. Extending a hand out as if it contained a switchblade, he threatens the executive, who plays along, his hands up in the air.

Sundaram intimidates an onlooker into handing him a glass of water. He drains the liquid in one smooth motion and tosses the empty glass to the executive, who catches it in the manner of a magician’s trained apprentice. Sundaram, apparently liberated by the realisation that he’s lost his chance of making it in the movies (and therefore having nothing left to lose), advances towards Pattappa with a sinister snigger. Sundaram yanks the hapless producer out of his chair with a tug at his necktie. He positions Pattappa’s cheek alongside his own and begins to tango across the room. A few seconds later, he releases his victim and jumps on a sofa with a ta-dah flourish and lets loose a final cackle of liberated laughter, in as many demented variations as he demonstrated his walk earlier.

Raghavan approaches his friend, evidently confused. Sundaram demands to know who he is. When Raghavan reveals his name, Sundaram does a double take and rattles off variations. “Are you Vijayaraghavan? Veeraraghavan? Srinivasaraghavan?” The prefix-free Raghavan walks to the executive and worries that Sundaram may have lost his mind, at which point Sundaram reveals that he was just fooling around, “acting.” Everyone is delighted. The executive whispers to an aide that if they book Sundaram now, they can get him cheap. Pattappa writes out a cheque for the princely sum of a thousand rupees and hands it over to Sundaram, as advance for his forthcoming production that will feature the newly minted actor.

And at this point, as Pattappa announces, “I’ve decided to cast you in my next film,” Nagesh does his most exquisite routine yet. “Your next film?” he repeats, still unable to come to grips with his good fortune. But then he stiffens, noticing Pattappa’s shiny dome. Running a hand over a couple of invisible hairs, he observes, very dryly, “Have you made many films so far?” Audiences that grew up with Nagesh will cotton on to the slyness of this apparently ungrateful gesture as the most identifiably Nagesh-like among everything that’s transpired during these five minutes of Server Sundaram, but every other aspect – the easy laughter, the easy tears, the easy contortions of that easily flexible frame – was as indispensable a part of the great actor’s arsenal. He could do it all. He did it all.

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