V.R.Selvaraj, a headload worker, moonlights as an actor in the evenings but even Selvaraj himself does not realise how very good he is. Cinema was a natural progression, after Selvaraj had acted in a few ad films.
Sweat and toil: It just happens to be V. R. Selvaraj's life. Every morning, every afternoon, this theatre actor slogs, lifting loads, his shirt sticking to his back, sometimes feeling the stinging pain creep up his legs and arms. All the while Selvaraj waits for the evening, for the streetlights to shine, for the stage to come alive. He lives for the evening.
A head load worker by day, Selvaraj is transformed to an actor in the evening. The arc lights brighten up his life and he turns into the Greek hero Jason, Bhima, Ravana, Bali… myriad characters. Theatre, stage, rehearsals is Selvaraj's life.
“For me theatre is everything. Right from the time I stepped on to the stage for the first time, 25 years ago, it has sustained me. Not that it has given me money, for I have never thought of it that way. But it has kept me going through all the tribulations in life,” says Selvaraj who plays a significant role in the recently released ‘Kutty Srank.'
A small role in a school play was what set the spark aglow. “I was in the eighth standard when I played Lakshmana in C.N. Sreekantan Nair's ‘Saketham.' The play was directed by Kamalam Teacher, my first director. Incidentally, after all these years, numerous roles later, I'll be acting in another CN play. This time I play Ravana in his classic ‘Lanka Lakshmi,' directed by Chandradasan Sir for Lokadharmi.”
Chandradasan and Lokadharmi played a significant role in moulding Selvaraj the actor. “I had done a few plays before I joined Bhasabheri, Tripunithura, in 1991, where Chandradasan Sir was working for the play ‘Gopuranadayil.' From then I must have done around 10 plays with Chandradasan Sir. And some of the characters in his plays, like Jaison in ‘Medea,' Caliban in ‘Chathankattu' based on William Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest,' Karna in ‘Karnabharam' and Poranadi in the play of the same title by Kavalam Narayana Panicker, helped win me recognition as an actor.”
In life's theatre it was a different act altogether. Selvaraj was struggling to keep his family going. His father, Raghavan Asan, was an exponent of various folk arts like sasthampaattu, kolkali and kaikottikkali. After his death the burden of the family fell on Selvaraj and his younger brothers. “My father imbibed in me the nuances of rhythm. I also picked up a bit of sasthampaattu and longed to become a Kathakali singer. I even studied Kathakali to learn the movements and of course singing. All this came in handy when I joined theatre. I did a lot of odd jobs but always kept my dream of becoming an actor going. I bought an autorickshaw but had to sell it off, almost at scrap value. This was again because I was usually not there for days, regularly during evenings when we had rehearsals.”
His wife Dr. Leela is a guest lecturer at the Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady. “It was an arranged marriage. She wanted to study and complete her Ph.D and I did what I could to help her,” Selvaraj says with a smile.
Selvaraj attributes his five-year stint with theatre-person Jose Chirammel as the most educative, that gave a new dimension to his understanding of theatre. “He instilled so many aspects of theatre. There were complete sessions on so many subjects like imagination, tempo and rhythm, Stanislavsky's method of acting and so much more. It was a complete educational phase. Of course, every director I worked with has helped mould me into the actor I am today.”
Selvaraj has trained with esteemed theatre ‘gurus' like Habib Tanveer, John Martin from England, Gautam Majumdar, H. S. Shiva Prakash, Probir Guha acted in important roles for eminent directors like P. K. Venukuttan Nair, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, and Ramesh Varma. “Three plays stand out in memory. They are the Malayalam versions of Asif Currimbhoy's ‘The Dumb Dancer' directed by Venukuttan Nair Sir, ‘Maamathil' by Kavalam Sir and Ramesh Varma's ‘Madhyama Vyayogam'. In the first one I did the role of a Kathakali singer. For this I studied for nearly two months from Venmani Haridas. The play was staged at the Tagore Theatre and included celebrated actors. Kavalam Sir's play was very different from what he usually presents. I played the lead role, that of a soldier in this patriotic play. There was this climax scene where I had to walk right across the huge hall, past a line of dead bodies, singing. It was a challenge to sing in tune and also act. And in Ramesh Varma's play I did the role of Bhima. For the rehearsals he asked me to hold dumbbells in my hands when I moved. And the role involved a lot of complicated movements. This was to build that power in me, to help me transform into that character.”
Cinema was a natural progression, after Selvaraj had acted in a few ad films. “Most of the film roles were small but meaningful. The circus artiste who does cycle tricks in ‘Kuruthipookal' (directed by Ambily), autorickshaw driver Saravanan in ‘Pachamarathanalil' (Leo Thaddeus) who is a crucial link in the story, villain's aide in ‘Big B' (Amal Neerad) and as Panchi, Mammotty's associate in ‘Kutty Srank' are all important personal landmarks.”
Selvaraj hopes that Panchi in ‘Kutty Srank' will be a turning point in his career. “I'm one of the six stage artistes in the film. Those who saw the film in Goa said that I will be noticed. I have a few scenes with Mammukka including a Chavittunatakam sequence.”
He has also starred in lead roles in a few documentaries like ‘Charithrathinte Vazhiye' as Kalluvarambil Appakunju, as P. J. Antony and as poet Edappally Raghavan Pillai in ‘Maninaadam' He has also acted in a couple of telefilms.
But surely his heart lies in theatre. There is nothing that Selvaraj has not tried out here. He has directed more than 12 plays, composed music for Chandradasan's ‘Chathankaattu,' acted-directed numerous street plays, organised theatre workshops, and was also awarded a fellowship by the HRD Ministry for his study on ‘masks in traditional theatre and its potential in modern theatre.'
Selvaraj has remained unrecognised for his acting talents. Awards have not come his way though he has been part of many award-winning plays like Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2008 for ‘Karnabharam,' accolades for his role as Jason in ‘Medea' in Greece and best play for ‘Poranadi' at the National Theatre Festival at Cuttack, to name a few. Selvaraj, a sure-bet actor, a virtual scene-stealer, is yet unsung in a world where sometimes PR matters mare than talent.