Actor Nagesh in one of those rare moods when he decides to share his thoughts.
It turns out to be a very different kind of experience. Innumerable interviews and interactions notwithstanding, the tête-À-tête with the veteran is something I hadn’t bargained for. “My name is actually Gundappa,” Nagesh introduces himself as I smile at the irony. The erstwhile lean and lanky comedian nonpareil is now a septuagenarian, and though not exactly in the pink of health his sense of humour is intact.
It has taken six solid years of coaxing and cajoling to pin the man down for a meet. Surprisingly this time the call came from him one evening. “I hear you want to meet me. You are most welcome,” he said between bouts of cough. But soon another tinkle tells me that he’s too unwell to talk! Thankfully he recovers. “When I learn some one is eager to meet me I oblige,” he smiles as I enter. “Excuse me! It has taken six years,” I begin. But Nagesh is in no mood for comments or queries as he takes you on a stroll down his memory lane. He talks in riddles but the underlying poignancy and profundity reveal a stoic who has learnt to take ups and downs in his stride.
“I keep away from the media glare for very concrete reasons. When people praise me on a podium, I appreciate genuine words. Otherwise it only angers me. Secondly, I shy away when the media wishes to discuss my private life. That apart, I sincerely feel I’m no great achiever. I’ve nothing to impart,” says this character actor whose sense of timing in dialogue delivery, funny or serious, still remains a benchmark. He’s arguably the only actor who has had 58 releases in 52 weeks (one year)! How did he manage the feat? “But no one asked me for an interview then, why now?” is the repartee. “Anyway, I was running with Time and in turn it favoured me. The words of that man at the end of the street in a Darapuram lane who dismissed me and my folks as useless goaded me on,” he goes on.
The man who remembers an insult even after five decades or more should also be harbouring the other slights he has encountered. Does he forget and make up? “Yes. When I like the person despite what he’s done to me. But I never forget. My mother would tell me: ‘If another person’s words anger you it only means that he has won. Never allow others to win over you.’ Can you find greater words in any literary work?” he recalls with pride.
Photographer Ragu is in a tearing hurry for his next assignment and so we decide to finish the shoot. “You keep talking Sir and I’ll click on,” he says. That’s how it’s generally done. But even as Ragu gets his lens ready Nagesh comes out with myriad expressions that change every second! It’s not for nothing that stalwarts such as Kamal Hassan are his ardent admirers. He looks at you and cheekily says: “If you ask me questions such as what my first film was my reply will be, ‘The one that was released before my second.’” I get the message and let him do the talking completely.
“I learnt to derive inspiration from my aspirations. And I used my disappointments as stepping stones to victory,” he says. Nagesh has gone through a lot in life. “I’ve won over sadness and anger [He can just clam up for days on end.] in the same way as I won over hunger,” he reminisces. He worked in several places before he discovered acting was his forte.
“I worked in the pickles department of a firm. I could take it only for a few days. ‘My grandma makes better pickles. I don’t want to sell yours,’ I said and walked out.”
From pulling the punkah (fan) at an office (“Do you like the job?” the boss asked him. “Never mind whether I like it or not, you like my work, don’t you,” he shot back!) to the Railways, he tried his hands at several jobs. “I knew nothing about acting, but when it came my way I held on to it. I’ve no guru. I took various paths and came here and I had to succeed,” he states.
Does acting give him joy? “Not always,” he ponders. Then why continue? “Because I know nothing else. I don’t wish to idle away my time within the four walls of my room and I like to meet people and be in surroundings I’m familiar with,” he says.
Who does he rate as the best actor? He raises his finger solemnly and exclaims, “There’s only one artiste in the whole Universe (!). It’s Kamal Hassan. Without him there’s no cinema. Have you watched ‘Anbe Sivam’?” Nagesh will next be seen in ‘Dasavatharam’ with Kamal. The admiration is mutual. Kamal never misses a chance to use Nagesh in his projects. “Another person whom I salute for his boldness is Cho,” he adds.
As the exchange draws to a close he says: “Life works on three premises — I don’t like something that you like, so you don’t like me. You don’t like something but I like it. Hence you don’t like me. You like something, which I also like a lot and there again you don’t like me. So anyway, there’ll always be people who dislike you. You just have to make your choices and move on.”
I’m still figuring out that Parthian shot!