Theatre

Actor Neelu on his 60-year old bond with Cho

 Cho Ramasamy

Cho Ramasamy

“A friend is someone who is with you in the days of prosperity, in the days of poverty, through the days of fame and ignominy and be there at the burial ground when the mortal remains are disposed of.” - This is a rough translation of a sloka, which Neelu often quoted to Cho. “Yes, he was a true friend and I have just returned from the crematorium,” said Neelu. “And for 60 years we were there for each other,” he added.

“I will miss him terribly, but he wanted to go. He was suffering and life had become a burden although he was guiding the Tughlak editorial team, dictating articles and correcting proofs till a week ago,” he says almost in a whisper. Neelu was moved to find that 87-year old Sethuraman and 84-year old Kathadi Kittu were there to see their beloved friend off.

It was a quartet - Neelu, Cho, brother Ambi and Narayanaswamy - that met almost daily over a cup of coffee for small talk. This has continued till today. Narayanswamy is the person who engages Cho in a dialogue as prelude to the episodes of the teleserial ‘Engae Brahmanan?’

Cho’s entry into journalism was not planned just as his foray into theatre was accidental too. “He was only assisting the UAA with their sets, etc. Of course the skits he wrote for Vivekananda College in the inter-collegiate contest won shields and the seeds were sown. It was Sambu Iyer of Triplicane Fine Arts, who was instrumental in his stepping into drama in a big way. Cast as detective Chandru in Devan’s ‘Sriman Sudarasanam,’ Cho’s style of interrogation stole the show. The audience simply loved him and there was no looking back,” recalls Neelu.

Young Men’s Fine Arts, the troupe friends had formed became Viveka Fine Arts, a reference to their alma mater . Bhagirathan wrote a play for them with meaty characters for both Neelu and Ambi. Cho threatened the playwright with dire consequences if he was not given a good role. The result was ‘Thenmozhiyal’ in which Ramaswamy was cast as Cho, a sobriquet that would become his name for the rest of his life. Tamil journals raved the play and Cho’s acting. Kalki’s Sama’s cartoon clinched it for the budding dramatist.

‘If I get it,’ ‘Why not?’ ... a string of plays followed. Why this fascination for English titles? “This question was raised even then and Cho responded with ‘Quo Vadis,’” chuckles Neelu. Ever the prankster, he refused to take anything seriously. Viveka found patronage in all parts of the City. A feat at that point in time when theatre was flourishing with stalwarts staging their plays at regular intervals. “Raja Annamalai Manram, however, was an exception,” says Neelu. The all-male troupe did not impress them.

“But we had no choice. We were doing this quite against the wish of our parents. Imagine having a girl in the troupe! Cho actually passed off very well as a woman, we thought,” says Neelu. Sukumari’s entry changed all that. “Frank and friendly, she quickly integrated herself into our team, which had become a family of sorts.”

Behind the success of the plays was Cho’s acumen in casting. “He knew how each of us would fit into his characters. The roles that he gave me, as Yamadarmarajan, politician and the advocate, brought out different dimensions in my acting talent,” he elaborates.

On the personal front, Cho was in a way supporting his friends, being the only earning member. Bread winner of sorts? “You can say that again,” affirms Neelu. “He had finished his study of law and was legal advisor to a private firm. Rest of us would visit him at his chambers in the High Court and he would treat us to tiffin. He was heartbroken when I found a job and had to go to Calcutta. I would come down for shows and we exchanged letters but he was not happy.”

In one such missive, Cho sought Neelu’s opinion regarding a chance to act in films. “Why not? I encouraged him and the rest, as you say, is history.” Neelu shared screen space with his friend in quite a few films. Cho went on to write dialogue and even direct. “You know, till the end, his mother never approved of his cinema entry and did not see a single film in which he acted. But Viveka had her whole hearted support,” supplies Neelu.

Did Cho aim to carry messages through his plays? “Are you kidding?” counters Neelu. “He did it for fun and the ambience lent itself wonderfully. ‘I’m not a Buddha or Ramana Maharishi to preach and who will take me seriously?’ he quipped when someone mentioned this aspect,” remembers Neelu. In fact, over the mike before the start of a play, Cho thanked the ‘present day politicians’ for behaving so predictably and making his plays a success.

But the friends strongly advised Cho not to dabble in journalism. But Cho went ahead with the support of Ananda Vikatan Balasubramaniam. ‘Tughlak’ was born and was the only journal that defied Emergency continuing to print.

Was it not a painful decision to wind up Viveka Fine Arts? Cho was quite practical about it, according to Neelu. “He began to show signs of detachment long before he decided. He often said, ‘Let’s just meet as usual and talk, have fun. Why bother with plays?’ And took the call one fine day.”

Neelu is the only Viveka member active in the theatre circuit. Crazy Mohan’s ‘Chocolate Krishna’ and ‘Google Gadotgajan’ keep this 80-year old veteran busy. ‘Nataka Padmam,’ conferred by Brahma Gana Sabha recently is yet another feather in his cap. “I showed Cho the letter from the sabha and he was very happy. ‘Rather late, you should have got this long ago,’ he remarked. He spoke warmly to Ambi about an interview that had appeared in an English daily recently.”

Deeply spiritual, Cho’s knowledge came through in his articles. ‘Engae Brahmanan,’ book that was serialised for television, however, had a tremendous reach. “Viewers in the U.S., and Gulf responded to say his simple interpretations were so useful.”

Each chapter of ‘Vande Mataram,’ that Cho wrote in Tughlak (later released as a book by Alliance), had a Sanskrit verse, sourced from the Upanishad or Kautinya. At the end of the final chapter, after 50 weeks, Cho confessed that the verses were his own! “You wouldn’t have given it a second look if I had told you that. Now the purpose is served,” he wrote.

An angry young man, Cho mellowed in the later years, reveals Neelu. “We always travelled together for shows outside Chennai and he never sought privileges for himself. Opinions were given openly; no behind the back stuff, be it Vajpayee, Morarji Desai or Narendra Modi. This was born out of fearlessness and the determination to not seek favours,” underlines Neelu.

World as a stage

After reading ‘Naadagamae Ulagam,’ a beaming Cho congratulated Neelu on the effort. “He was thrilled that our salad days and the bonds of friendship some of us shared came through. Knowing that he was ill, I was in a hurry to finish the book and was happy when I got the copy printed. Yet to be officially released, it is my humble offering to a friend, who was an elder brother. I owe everything to him,” says Neelu. Published by Alliance, the conversational first person account brings the narrator close to the reader.


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2022 12:51:52 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/Actor-Neelu-on-his-60-year-old-bond-with-Cho/article16778091.ece