Actor Sachu about a time when legends were down-to-earth, and an air of friendliness prevailed in film studios

I was all of six when I gave my first dance performance. Dance was not taught to such young children; I had gone only to watch my sister, a Bharatanatyam dancer, perform. But, as I stood there waiting for the curtain to rise, I sneaked onto the stage, and signalled them to start the music — and that is how it all began. There were never enough auditoriums for dance in the city, and everyone vied for the Shastri Hall or the Egmore Museum.

I was one of 10 children born into a house in Mannadi, now known as Park Town. Children were never sent to school before they were at least seven, and neither were there day care centres or kindergartens. Convent schools were notoriously strict then — when we approached one for admissions, we mentioned that I might miss a few classes because of films. The Mother Superior was astonished, appalled rather, and asked me to leave and never come back.

There were almost no child artistes in those days; I was one of the very few, which meant work was hard, and my grandmother would accompany me to the sets every time.

There used to be a famous roundtana where the Anna Statue now stands on Mount Road. It had a public restroom beneath it, and you would be surprised to see how many people sat there every day, despite the unbearable stench!

I was about 10 when the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev came on a visit to India. We, as representatives of Tamil cinema, were asked to come together in a show of solidarity and friendship. So, there we all were, at the very same roundtana on Mount Road, everyone from Lalita, Padmini and Ragini, to the junior artistes. We were dressed in white, the decorations were white, there were white flowers everywhere, and there were hundreds of white doves. We waited for their car, trying hard not to breathe! But, we waved with all our might when they passed by.

Padmini and Vyjayantimala once invited me along for a performance aboard an Army ship. We were quite a sight — dressed in complete Bharatanatyam regalia, on a small boat headed out to sea, climbing the long ladder onto the ship's deck, to perform on a cold night, so windy it made standing straight impossible.

Newtone, Neptune and Gemini were the famous studios then — particularly Gemini because of its fountains and roundtanas. These were the favourites not only for the Tamil industry; films in every single language and State made their way here — Oriya, Sinhalese, Hindi, Malayalam and Telugu — all telling their diverse stories from one studio.

The kind of cultural exchange that happened because of this was invaluable. If one crew was shooting, several others would stand around and watch, learning, asking questions and making friends. It was also a place where legends gathered. Imagine Meena Kumari, Nirupa Roy, Raj Kapoor, Shankar Jaikishan, Naushad, Pran and Om Prakash (who was always trying to talk in Tamil!) all in one place. The warmth, the happiness and edification you received at the studios was incomparable, and irreplaceable.

We all had the same meal times as well; the directors, technicians, light boys, make-up artistes and actors would come together, arranging the tables till it looked like a wedding hall! We would wait impatiently for these tiffin breaks. N.T. Ramarao would stand up and shout: ‘What's there at the Kerala table today?', and soon there would be Bengali roshogullas and Keralite pazhamporis along with our curd rice.

Everyone had their favourite restaurants from where they would order treats. MGR liked the milk sweets from Durga Bhavan, Sivaji Ganesan liked bondas, and Sridhar would order kulfis from Paul's every single day. Buhari's cutlets, Bilal's faloodas and bun-butter-jams, Jaffers' ice creams and the marzipan from the Bosotto Bros would all find their way into the sets.

There was also a little-known studio in Mylapore, where Venus Colony now stands — the Shobhanachala Studio. Almost every single horror film of those days was shot here; there were no lights in the building, and our dark make-up rooms would be full of snakes.

There was a much more extensive culture of sharing the stage with fellow actors for performances back then. We helped each other with make-up, and learn lines. The industry was cohesive, working together as one. We collected money for wars, and held silent agitations for protests; we stood up for one another. That was the golden period of cinema, and I am blessed to have been a part of it.

I REMEMBER

We would head to the beach in our battered 1938 Austin (with a self-starter that didn't start), feeling self-conscious. Once, we came across a gleaming 1956 Chevrolet parked by the road. Whenever people passed by, we would nonchalantly lean on it, with an air of ownership. One day, as we stood there pompously, a man walked up to us, and wordlessly inserted his key into the car's door.

One of the first child artistes in the country, Sachu has completed 57 years in Indian films. She has acted in more than 500 films, including major hits such as “Kadhalikka Neramillai”, “Avvaiyar”, “Mayabazar” and “Annai”. The veteran actor has been felicitated with several honours such as the Kalaimamani and the Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha awards.

As told to Chithira Vijaykumar

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