S.P. Muthuraman's approach to life could be an inspiration for many. For more on it read on …

After a few furtive glances at the gentleman at the adjacent table in the five star hotel, the person walked up to him hesitantly and asked, “Sir, don't mistake me. This morning I think I saw you relishing a cup of tea and a ‘masala vadai' at a roadside bunk.”

The man turned around and said, “You are right, it was me.” As the stranger gaped at him he added with a smile, “I enjoy the eats at a tea stall as much as I relish it here. Practise it. You can too.”

“No sir, I don't think I can. I'll throw up,” he said with a puzzled expression. The man for whom social status has always meant little was S.P. Muthuraman, the only person to have directed 25 films of Rajinikanth, besides 10 of Kamal Haasan and three of Sivaji Ganesan.

Rajinikanth's blurb for Tamil writer Ranimaindhan's biography of SPM that was released recently, describes the doyen as the ‘Gandhiji of Kodambakkam.'

“That's very generous. But probably my equanimity and calm approach to life and work made him comment so,” is Muthuraman's modest reply.

Some of Rajini's best films in various genres have come from SPM – ‘Pokkiri Raja,' ‘Netri Kann,' ‘Guru Sishyan,' ‘Sri Raghavendra'… the list goes on.

Directing imposing actors must have been hassling, particularly if they came to the sets with inputs of their own. “I've never been the self-absorbing kind. Nor have I allowed myself to be cowed down by pressure. I accepted suggestions if I felt that they would help a scene. Otherwise very softly but clearly I made them see my point,” he says.

How was that? He explains: “See, if Rajini wanted a particular punch line in a scene and I felt it to be redundant, I would tell him, ‘It sounds very catchy. But we'll use it later,' and when I found a sequence where it could be incorporated I would remind him of the line and say ‘Rajini, we can use it here.'”

Friends for life

The approach explains why, be it friends or colleagues, they've travelled with him throughout life. Beginning with ‘Kanimuthu Paapa' in 1972 till ‘Thottil Kuzhandhai' more than 20 years later, his crew has been almost the same throughout the 71 films he directed! “If I hear that a person is upset with me, I don't think twice about talking to him, and redressing the grouse at the earliest,” he says.

Has he always been the quiet, passive kind? “Not at all,” he laughs candidly, “I would hit the roof at the slightest excuse, but thanks to my wife, I began to realise that patience pays.”

The very title of Muthuraman's biography, ‘AVM Thandha SPM,' suggests his affinity for the AVM family. In fact, it's been mutual. Muthuraman entered the portals of the epoch-making studio in 1955 as an assistant in the editing department and has remained part of it ever since!

“I couldn't get over my wife's death. At that point, the void made me decide to return to my roots in Karaikudi,” he recalls. But AVM Saravanan would hear nothing of it. “As long as you and I live, you will be with AVM. Help us in our social and educational activities,” Saravanan advised, and SPM stayed back. “It was Saravanan's magnanimity that made me a co-producer of ‘Sivaji,' he avers.

Yet, though AVM was his training ground in editing and direction his directorial debut was with an outside banner. With A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar's blessings, Muthuraman moved out to make his debut, after his mentor A.C. Trilokchander began to direct films for other banners. It took another eight years before he directed his first film, the runaway hit, ‘Murattukalai,' for his foster-home banner!

Only that AVM Senior wasn't around to see the fledgling he had nurtured take wings and fly high on home ground!

Success sits lightly on Muthuraman. Be it the commercial ‘Sakalakalavallavan' or ‘Mr. Bharat,' ‘new-wave' ventures such as ‘Mayangugiraal Oru Maadhu,' or sentimental drama of the ‘Aaarilirundhu Arubadhu Varai' variety, Muthuraman turned up trumps!

The family man

Today, Muthuraman has an office room at AVM Studios. He returns home after work to a caring son, daughter-in-law, two daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

“Cinema is a very dicey profession. I'm glad my children haven't entered it,” he says. Evenings are spent at the various literary fora or catching up with the latest plays staged in the city. “But I'm guilty about not having spent more time with my family in the early days. I worked 18 hours a day – after the day's shooting I would head straight for the editing table,” muses the ace editor-director. His wife Kamala took care of the home front. Her sudden death, while he was busy on the sets of ‘Pandian,' shook him. In fact the Rajini-Khushbu starrer is the last big film that Muthuraman directed, and after ‘Thottil Kuzhandhai,' and the popular ‘Nimmadhi Ungal Choice' franchise on television he hung up his boots.

Not that he doesn't get offers, but today's cost of production is proving a deterrent because he likes to see his producer laugh his way to the bank. “Also television has weaned old folks and women viewers away from cinema and cost of tickets has made the middle classes shy away,” he says.

Today, the septuagenarian also draws sustenance from his huge family that includes brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. “Around 52 families of my relatives live in Chennai and we may lose each other if we are not in touch. So every month we meet on a Sunday at one of the homes, chat, enjoy the entertainment provided by our tots, discuss issues, dine and depart. Each family gets a chance to play host once in 52 months and even the younger generations now know how one is related to the other,” smiles Muthuraman, with contentment writ large on his face.

The peace within him stems from his association with Vedadri Maharishi's ‘Mana Vala Kalai Mandram' in Azhiyar, near Pollachi, which trains both the mind and the body. His visit to the ‘Arivu Thirukoil' there changed his outlook to life even more.

He enrolled himself at the Mandram's Chennai branch for a course and qualified himself for the title of ‘Arulnidhi.' “I've learnt that weakness and strength are a state of the mind. If you exercise restraint the mind wanders aimlessly, but once you realise, it can be controlled with ease,” he espouses.