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A huge hit on the small screen

"Raghuvamsam", "Sathya", "Chitti"... quality performances in several Tamil serials have made Deepa Venkat a popular face in many homes. Her small screen "Payanam" seems all set to continue for some time.

"WE ARE not a `filmi' family," says the mom. True. There is no larger-than-life blow-up on the wall; no self-indulgent album on the end-table next to where you sit; no ayah coming in to tell you `baby' just returned from shooting. It is a middle-level apartment in a far-from-level street. There is no `cine' directory in sight. A Distance Education prospectus on the table points to a student on the premises: and that's Deepa Venkat. She is preparing for her MCA internals. You can catch her sweeping the terrace or doing the dishes when she is not studying. (Hey, did you watch "Raghuvamsam", "Kaiyalavu Manasu", "1936 Love Story", "Kadal Pagadai", "Premi", "Chitti" and "Sathya"? Do you follow "Payanam"? Do you switch to "Geetanjali" over "Kavyanjali"? OK, you know who Deepa is.) But it's a `filmi' route that brought Deepa to the small screen.

Dad's friend in Kavithalaya - looking for fresh faces for a serial - Meena and Deepa introduced - okayed - dad opposed - mom had always encouraged co-curricular activities - got them trained in music and dance - pushed - dad lost - mom and director won - Deepa signed up for "Chinnanjiru Ulagam". So what's new? Nothing except Deepa was in class VIII.

Then came "Raghuvamsam". Cinderella-like student Deepa became heroine Radhika in the evenings. She was a `mega' hit. While her classmates shirked schoolwork to call up friends Deepa drove to the studios to call sheets. For the next five years this was her routine: back from her Ashok Nagar school at 3 p.m. and report at location (Velacheri) at 4.15 p.m. Mom would copy class notes and Deepa would solve Math between scenes. Sometimes shooting went on till early next morning. And for her Commerce course in Plus Two, she had to take tuition after school hours.

Deepa did well — both in school and in front of the studio camera.

"My higher secondary teachers told me I could stay away from classes if I secured 70 per cent marks. I always managed above 90 per cent," she smiles. "I am meticulous in my work. And I have a good memory. That helps." Yet regular college was impossible. Her clear, slightly high-pitched, recording-friendly voice now had a career of its own. Hindi diction learnt during her Mumbai days had launched her as Chip 'n Dale's `native' voice.

On the days she was not shooting round-the-clock, she dubbed for cartoons and she dubbed for artistes whose speech wasn't `suitable'. She joined a BCA correspondence course and squeezed time out for the compulsory contact classes.

Into her MCA in Financial Management she would like to tell the spate of new TV-comers: "Continue your education." She is able to because she is choosy about roles. With her popularity established, producers now tell her, "If the role is not substantial we will not call you." Her seniority and solid performances have also ensured that she can pack up at 9 p.m. if she has been working for 12 hours. Also, a mega serial demands only 10 days' shooting a month — each day covering one-and-a-half episodes.

"I did my TV schooling under Balachander and CJ Bhaskar," she acknowledges. "I became a fixture in a million living rooms after "Chitti". I was the quiet, soft-spoken, accept-what-comes Viji in "Chitti" and the powerful, break-the-mould Sathya in the serial of the same name. The contrast proved my credentials as even guys appreciated Sathya's `freaky' character."

Thorough professional that she is, she is aware of the absurdity that passes for story lines in the serials. Unemployed school teachers live in swank homes, small town girls wear the season's best saris; predictable dialogues spoken in regressive situations. "TV sequences are low-risk enterprises. It costs around Rs. 70,000 to shoot an episode. Only those who have `climbed down' from the big screen are paid fabulous sums. Actors in serials have to take care of their make-up, clothes, jewellery and transport. The insecurity of this profession drives them to do four shoots a day. You apply make-up in the morning and rush from location to location. No one has time to get involved in roles. Most artistes mouth dialogues prompted by someone off screen. They cannot vary their performances; nor do they have the wherewithal to buy different sets of clothes for different serials." Which is why bewildered viewers watch the same actor in three different serials on an evening saying the same things and even wearing the same clothes! They are also in wedding clothes while cooking, look like they have had a `fix' at a beauty parlour at the end of an office day or in a hospital bed, speak in accents totally alien to what they are portraying....

"Very few directors pay attention to such details," complains Deepa. "Instead of looking their part actors want to look their best. Unless everyone plays well, the whole product cannot be good." Are buckets of tears considered `playing well'? "Most artistes are fed up of crying. Crying is supposed to lure audiences. Only the weaker side of women is projected. At the shooting venues selling glycerine is good business." She quickly adds, "But I have done some bold characters." Do you have to shriek to `play bold'? "Simulating in soaps is not always realistic," she agrees. "With modulation and right body language emotions can be well etched. In our serials subtlety is a big casualty."

For Deepa, acting is essentially `reacting'. "You act by getting into the skin of the character. But what do we do if the character is changed completely when the serial enjoys an extension? Actors have no say in how the role develops. I have no idea what I'll do in the future", she says cautiously.

"Tamil serials are doing well and people associate quality with me." So her small screen "Payanam" is likely to continue for some time.


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