Mouli on long commutes by train, play rehearsals at Gandhi Mandapam and Madras' languid lifestyle
In the 1960s, steam locomotives connected the northern suburbs to the city. These trains were slower and the service was infrequent. As I lived in Ambattur, I had to rely on these locomotives to reach my college. After disembarking at Madras Central, I would cross the road and take an electric train from Park Station to reach A.M. Jain College in Meenambakkam. The long train travel left me drained at the end of the day. So, I shifted to my maternal uncle's house in Old Mambalam. Those days, there was a lake behind Lake View Road. During the monsoon, the lake would be full and made a lovely sight.
The move to downtown Madras brought me into theatre in a big way. My day no longer whittled away by long train journeys, I could devote time to writing plays. A peer, Visu shared my passion for theatre and cricket. Both of us were in a group that staged plays to earn money to buy cricket kits.
Despite going on to study a demanding B.Tech at AC Tech College of Engineering, I continued to work in theatre. At AC Tech, there was no dearth of histrionic talent. Before a performance, we practised for hours on end at Gandhi Mandapam, which was almost always deserted. An intercollegiate competition at Anna University showed us how very different we were from most other student theatre groups in Madras. Without exception, these groups staged timeless classics such as Shakespeare. However, our comedy, entirely our creation, drew much laughter from the audience. The play would not cut ice with the judges, or so we thought, and stayed away from the presentation ceremony. It turned out we swept the board. Besides the best play award, all the individual performance prizes came our way. As the team was absent, one of my friends, who was in a dhothi, went up to collect the prizes — he borrowed someone's trousers before stepping on stage.
The Madras of those days is in sharp contrast to what it has become. Its citizens led a languid life, and seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere. In what are now prime localities, milkmen brought their cows and milked them at the doorsteps of customers. There was no anxiety on the roads, and the risk of a road accident was almost non-existent. In those days, five of us would often ride our bikes side by side.
As they lived in a society untouched by overreaching ambition, youngsters had more leisure. There were many theatres where they could catch up with the best international films. The Elphinstone Theatre was a favourite not just because it screened top Hollywood movies. Jaffar's, an ice cream parlour in one of its corners, added to its charm. A glass of faluda from Jaffar's enhanced the film-watching experience — the foot-long glass would take forever to finish! Every cinema hall had a character of its own. For example, Globe seemed to specialise in James Bond movies.
The hospitality industry was disappointing — there was a singular lack of variety. South Indian cuisine ruled without a challenge until the 1970s. Some of the restaurants tried to make North Indian dishes with pathetic results. The chappathis made at the south Indian restaurants were hard and unpalatable. Shanta Bhavan at Pondy Bazaar was among the few places where one could hope to have authentic North Indian food, and thin chappathis.
Another remarkable feature of Madras was its ‘compactness'. The city was small and easy to walk around. I realised this when work commitments required me to live in Hyderabad for a while. The weather was pleasant, and there was nothing to complain about. But, I missed the unrelenting heat of home.
(As told to PRINCE FREDERICK)
MOULI Born in 1947 he is a multi-lingual film director. A B.Tech graduate, he worked as development officer at Pond's India for nine years. After giving up his 9 to 5 job, he took up theatre and cinema. He has directed 45 films, acted in about 80, staged over 80 plays and made over 3,000 stage appearances.