UAA, the popular Tamil theatre group with Y.Gee. Mahendra at the helm, completes 60 years. The Hindu joins hands to celebrate the memorable milestone.

The actor playing villain on stage had just come down from New Delhi. Madras was new to him. His curly mane, piercing eyes and scary demeanour, gave him a look that was rather unsettling. So when he went near his opponent on stage menacingly, the latter swooned! A doctor in the audience hastened to help revive the actor, who had suddenly become a patient, thanks to the realistic portrayal of the villain! The villain who went on to hold Tamil theatre audience in thrall with engaging social plays in the decades to come! “YGP must have reminded people of the inimitable screen malefactor, M.R. Radha,” laughs Mrs. YGP, as she recalls the birth and rise of her husband’s theatre troupe, United Amateur Artists, begun in 1952.

These and several such reminiscences make the DVD titled, ‘60 Years of Passion,’ to be presented on the morning of December 23, at the inauguration of the eight-day celebration of UAA, organised by The Hindu, interesting. The drama troupe founded by YGP stands as a proud symbol of Tamil theatre. And the title of the audio-visual seems to reiterate Y.Gee Mahendra’s undying passion for the stage. “Not just mine, but that of the YGPs and Pattu. My mom was a pillar of support to my father in his theatre endeavours.,” Mahendra notes.

As Mrs. YGP mentions in the DVD, Tamil theatre in the early 1950s concentrated more on period plays and costume drama, and the groups comprised professional actors. Probably for the first time it was at UAA that actors who were otherwise employed, teamed up to write and enact plays, driven solely by the love for theatre. UAA was also a pioneer in taking up message-oriented social themes, making dialogue on stage colloquial and conversational, using English titles for Tamil plays and bringing female actors to the stage.

“UAA’s earliest heroines were Sandhya and Vidyavathi, mother and aunt of our present CM of Tamil Nadu,” remembers Mahendra. “And even the CM has acted in our plays -- ‘Under Secretary,’ and ‘Malathi.’ In fact all three of them acted in ‘Under Secretary.’” Even after her debut as heroine of ‘Vennira Aadai,’ Jayalalithaa found time to continue with her UAA assignments till she became extremely busy on the big screen.

Time is no constraint for a person who is willing to go the extra mile for a task he loves, I realise, when Mahendra says he never allowed cinema to make him ever give up the stage. “Even when I was working in 30 films a year I was doing 20 plays a month.” How was it possible? “Because people in those days respected theatre,” is the succinct reply. And now despite doing three television soaps, he continues to be busy on stage.

When Mahendra was shooting for the film, ‘Villianur Maatha,’ in Puducherry, he would be on the sets from morning till afternoon, and religiously drive down every evening to Chennai to be in time for the play. Such has been the commitment of the son who has seen to it that the flag of UAA hoisted by his father flies high.

Revival of hits

At present, besides its new plays, UAA is in a mood to revive old stage hits. After ‘Vietnam Veedu’ it could well be another moving classic ‘Pareetshaikku Naeramaachu.’ A play such as ‘Ragasiyam Parama Ragasiyam,’ in the 1970s, with which Mahendra began helming the troupe, has been staged innumerable times and is still going strong, thus exemplifying the long shelf-life of UAA products. The troupe is also known for its experimental efforts that included four 30-minute plays, such as, ‘Seithigal Vaasipadhu UAA’ and philosophical approaches such as ‘Upadesam Seivadhu UAA.’

The number of actors, writers and directors that UAA has given to cinema is countless. Even Kamal Haasan has been on UAA’s stage. “That happened when he had come over to watch a play. He entered the greenroom to wish YGP. We were running short of an actor and appa roped him in,” laughs Mahendra. Kamal mentions the experience in the AV. “YGP threw a 40-page note book at me and asked me to get ready with the dialogue,” Kamal smiles in the recall. Beginning with Cho several actors started off at UAA. When it was thought that satellite channels could scuttle theatre, UAA was one of the few troupes that withstood the onslaught. “Ups and downs are a part of any effort. During dad’s time, we didn’t have many sabhas to nurture plays. Later soaps threatened to subdue theatre. But UAA takes vagaries in its stride and moves on unscathed,” says Mahendra.

After quite a while as actor and director on stage, YGP groomed ARS as actor and director of UAA’s ventures. But when ARS found it tough to straddle his office commitments and stage direction, Mahendra was asked to step in as director. “‘It’s time for you to take over,’” father told me. Unlike some of our cricketers, he knew when to retire.” Such light-hearted innuendos are typical of Mahendra.

“Did you watch my grandson Ritvik in the DVD? It was a spontaneous reply from him,” rejoices the grandpa. “In ‘Nadagam’ (a recent UAA play) I’ll be Sabakaran,” says the nine-year old. “That’s the role I do,” contends Mahendra. “No… No, you can sit among the audience and watch me,” is the child’s reply.

A happy indication that the sexagesimal equations of UAA will continue for generations to come!