He enters his 50th year on the stage and despite odds, Y.Gee. Mahendra has kept the flag of his theatre troupe flying high!
Half a century of continuous stage activity appears a mind-boggling proposition, but for Y.Gee. Mahendra whose rendezvous with Tamil theatre began in 1961, it has been a way of life. “The applause from the audience gives me a high. Probably that's what has kept my love for theatre intact,” chuckles Mahendra when asked about the reason for his unswerving loyalty to the proscenium. But behind the off-the-cuff remark you comprehend the perseverance and grit that have gone into the 50-year exercise.
Generally, a child's world doesn't extend beyond academics and sports. But Y.Gee. Mahendra, whose home has been a haven for theatre lovers from MGR and Jayalalithaa to Cho and Nagesh, grew up in a milieu where the accent was on the art. So his entry into the field began when he was just a 10-year old, with the hit play, ‘Petraal Dhaan Pillaiya' made even more popular by Sivaji Ganesan when it was made into a film (‘Paar Magalae Paar'). “I should have entered cinema when it was decided that Sivaji Ganesan would play the lead. Writer Aaroordas was my first villain,” Mahendra jocularly comments. “I even told him about it later. The story of two sons was changed into that of two daughters.”
Mahendra's spontaneity in fielding queries is remarkable. “It can be seen on stage too. Even when he performed as a young boy I noticed the spark,” says veteran actor Sowcar Janaki. “And he's so unassuming. You can never gauge his talent when you talk to him. But it unfolds admirably on stage and in front of the camera,” she smiles. “Sowcar Janaki is the first VIP who complimented me for my performance,” remembers Mahendra.
Janaki is also very impressed with the variety of subjects his plays deal with. “He goes in for strong themes,” she commends.
Coming from a family wedded to theatre, Mahendra's achievement may not surprise many. But for his mother, the son's performance in class was primary. Her emphasis on academics was in no way less than father YGP's passion for theatre. “Mahendra has been blessed with wonderful parents who saw to it that their son honed his skills in two diametrically different areas of excellence,” observes ‘Crazy' Balaji, a long time associate of the actor. If the father's dictum was, ‘Concentrate on acting and study now and then,' his mother's diktat was, ‘Study hard and try out acting in your spare time.' “Balaji is right. If I'm to have another birth I wish to be born to the same parents and also have the same supportive wife, Sudha,” says Mahendra.
“There's hardly a Tamil theatre troupe in the city whose actors haven't entered the scene through YGP and UAA. “‘Crazy' Creations Mohan and I are probably the only exceptions. Another incredible aspect about him is that even when he was very busy in cinema he never gave up theatre. People say that Tamil theatre has lost its hold and that it couldn't take the television onslaught. But he goes on unfazed,” Balaji observes.
“I might have had my highs and lows in cinema and television but in theatre the response has always been positive,” affirms Mahendra.
With time the pattern of comedy in films changed and after doing worthy roles on the small screen, as in ‘Sahana,' Mahendra wasn't too keen on routine, cliché-ridden stuff. But come hell or high water theatre will continue for him because here he is the master. “Also he feels committed to his troupe whose members need him to continue with the stage. He is concerned about their welfare too,” says Balaji.
“I'm fascinated,” begins actor Lakshmi, one of the several artists whose journey in histrionics began at the YGP camp. “A gold medallist at the B.Tech level he quit a lucrative job to devote his time to acting. I keep asking him even now, why he did it. ‘The academic record is for my mother, my heart is in acting,' he would say.” Lakshmi did UAA's popular play, ‘Kannan Vandhaan.' “What fun we had! I would keep delivering my lines in a serious scene and from the wings Mouli and Mahendra would try to distract me and make me laugh,” she recalls with a smile. “Theatre is taxing. Presence of mind is a prerequisite. Cinema is much easier. Many of us took the easy way out and moved on. But steadfast in his aspiration he has been continuing to do theatre with the same energy I saw some decades ago. Mahendra is unique,” says Lakshmi.
“I've been inspired by Pattu, my father's friend, another theatre aficionado. It was the two of them who began UAA. My taste for drama grew further at the college competitions where Mouli and I got together for some very successful plays,” says Mahendra.
After watching the play, ‘Swadeshi Aiyer,' Rajinikanth said on stage, “If Mahendra had compromised on theatre and accepted more films he would have been much wealthier, but his passion lies here.”
Has the superstar watched his brother-in-law's ‘Vietnam Veedu'? “He refused to,” laughs Mahendra. ‘You make me laugh easily with your comic take-offs on stage. So I'm sure you'll move me to tears in ‘Vietnam Veedu' and I don't want it to happen,' he told me.”
For Mahendra, playing the role of Padmanabha Iyer in ‘VV' is a dream realised. He next yearns to portray the part of ‘Maadipadi Maadhu' made memorable by the inimitable Nagesh. “The two have been my role models in acting,” he says.
This is also Mahendra's 40th year in cinema. “K. Balachander watched me on stage and gave me a role in ‘Navagraham.' Many for whom the stage has been the launch pad to cinema have forgotten their roots. I don't intend to, ever,” he says earnestly.
“It was ARS who first cast me in a role which he was directing for dad’s UAA,” says Mahendra. “I plead guilty,” guffaws ARS, the well-known theatre personality. ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram wrote the play, ‘Kannan Vandhaan,’ which was later made into film (‘Gauravam’) and YGP asked ARS to direct it. Mouli was roped in to script the humour segment. “I wanted Mahen to play the driver’s role, because I was taken in by his creativity, but Mrs. YGP would hear nothing of it. ‘He has to study,’ she said. That’s when I thought of a ploy. “Allow him to act during summer vacation. When school reopens he needn’t come here,” I said. She reluctantly agreed but once on stage nothing could stop him and he could manage studies and stage beautifully,” says ARS and adds, “Who can forget his part in the evergreen ‘Flight No.172’? But with all his yen for comedy Mahendra has evolved as a committed theatre person.”