Consummate theatre actor and voiceover artiste P.C. Ramakrishna on his tryst with music, the corporate world, radio and television.
Talent can be exhausting. P.C. Ramakrishna should know.
His restless search for a niche has led him from the mridangam to corporate life, radio, television, voiceovers and theatre. Today, he's The Voice — behind everything from advertisements to corporate shows. He's also one of the most prominent faces of the Madras Players, India's oldest English theatre group. Did he always know he was destined for the drama, colour and angst of theatre? “I had no idea,” he grins, “When I was a child, I wanted to be an engine driver.”
His parents had other ideas. Ramakrishna started learning the mridangam when he was three years old, and continued for 18 years through his schooling in Kolkata and college in Loyola College, Chennai. “If there was money in it, I might have made it a profession. I studied under one of Palghat Mani Iyer's disciples in Kolkata for six years, then trained under Mani Iyer himself in Madras, and later, Thanjavur.” He even landed a performance slot at the Music Academy in 1964.
“But when I graduated, I lacked the courage to make this a profession,” Ramakrishna says. “Even my master, who was one of the highest paid musicians, earned just Rs. 450 a concert. I developed cold feet, and went to IIM.” It might have been a pragmatic decision, but he doesn't seem to have come to terms with it emotionally — even now. “I see all these contemporaries of mine on stage. And, yes, there's a twinge,” he says, adding after a pause, “I regret it sometimes.”
Meanwhile, he was being drawn into theatre. “The Principal of Loyola College asked me to direct a play — Loyola's first move out of Bertram Hall, into the Museum Theatre.” It was 1969, and the first LADS (The Loyola Amateur Dramatic Society) play ever. “Also my last as a director,” says Ramakrishna, grimacing. “It was terrible. Every actor on stage sounded like me! I don't have the breadth of vision to see an entire play, and also focus on single scenes. Some people have it, and I admire them; I don't.”
The play, however, led to an audition, courtesy Ammu Joseph, of the Madras Players. Ramakrishna read for The Crucible, landed the role, and never looked back. “I haven't counted, but I must have done upwards of 100s of plays since then. At least two major productions every year, with smaller productions in between.”
Being a corporate drone during the day (“The only thing that would get me through was the thought of rehearsals in the evening”), and transforming into a new character every month under the arclights by night was challenging enough. Ramakrishna, however, used what was left of his time to put his extraordinary voice to work. All India Radio was an obvious venue, and from there it was one small step to Doordarshan. “What I really enjoyed were the names of places and people. Names such as Thirunavukkarasar were like halwa to me!”
With his magnificent voice, voiceovers were the next logical step. They enabled him to quit the corporate world in 1993, to settle down to a life of doing what he loved — voiceovers and theatre. “Even today, nobody gets paid anything for a Madras Players production. Not even conveyance.” However, evidently, voiceovers do far more for Ramakrishna than just pay the rent. “Most of the scripts I read today are probably as dull as ditchwater — to most people. It's all about ball bearings, turbines and lathes. But, I enjoy them,” he says, adding, “You need stamina to read with enthusiasm. Mikes are unforgiving instruments. I recently did a 150-page script on valves, and it took me the better part of two days. Unless you approach it professionally and you love it, you can't do it.”
Today, he's best known for his lead roles. “For the first 10 years, I played the chocolate hero, which I detested,” he grimaces. “All the lover-boy roles. They'd say ‘PC's there. Give it to him'.” It took about 10 years for people to start giving him more weighty roles. “In many ways, it was right that I played those early roles,” he says, thoughtfully. “When I did Macbeth in 1972, I was only 26. It was a disaster. I now believe that only an actor who is 52 or 53 can understand Macbeth. It's only then that ambition dominates. That's the age when the next step is CEO.”
Ramakrishna has learnt a lot along the way. “No one comes into a scene in a vacuum. You have to live the character. Carry his baggage. This can be very traumatic. When I did Mercy, for instance, which was about euthanasia, I was living through that man's pain. You can't shake it off once the rehearsal ends. There's no switch. All credit to my wife for having lived through it.”