Tribute Theatre

Neelu — the gentle giant

“Geetha, ... Sabha is honouring me with an award. I’ll send you an invite, do come. If possible, announce it in Friday Review.” — the booming voice of Neelu is not easy to forget. Secrets and surprises could never have been a part of this man’s life. And the characters he played were often an extension of his persona. Big and hearty. Little things pleased him and he expressed his joy unabashedly.

“An award, so late Neelu!” — this rhetoric on another occasion was met with his characteristic guffaw. “How does it matter? I’m being recognised and I’m thrilled,” was the reply when the laughter subsided. “You are one of the few outsiders I’m inviting for my sadabishekam. Come and get blessed,” — the message was cryptic but the sincerity could not be missed. It was this down-to-earth attitude and optimism which made conversations with Neelu easy and delightful. ‘Drama’ as he called theatre was his oxygen and age or awards therefore didn’t matter.

Exclusive club

Making a tour of the Gulf states he turned up with a CD. “I was felicitated and given a title. See if you have any use for it,” he said and was thankful when it was published. And he came in person to collect it. “Oh I was just driving by. No problem,” he disappeared in a flash. The sonorous voice became sober, only when Cho Ramaswamy passed away. Neelu was in that exclusive group, which met daily over a cup of coffee and hot snacks.

While Cho, after disbanding Viveka Fine Arts, found full-time occupation in Tughlak, Neelu continued lending his service to groups, which wanted it — Crazy Creations benefiting the most. Looking back, it was nothing but love for theatre, which made Neelu integrate himself with crews many years his junior. And they loved having him around.

On the several occasions this writer had the opportunity to speak to Neelu, the conversations always veered round his friend of six decades. Stage was part of his life and in both Cho figured prominently.

“He was an elder brother, from whom I learnt a lot just by observing,” he said. Respect for Cho’s genius, admiration for his courage and affection for a man with all his warts were evident when he spoke. So much so that when the latter passed away, it was to Neelu one turned for a homage. And he was ready to talk late in the evening, having just returned from the funeral of his bosom pal. His voice choked more than once and silence fell now and then but he soldiered on. “I owe it to him,” he said simply. “I can’t think of a life without him,” he ended the conversation after an hour. Well, Neelu didn’t have to be ‘alone’ for long.

Book, in his own words

Neelu was proud of the book, Naadagame Ulagam, which Alliance published. Shankar Venkatraman, who wrote the first-person biography records his feelings here:

“With the passing away of Neelu, the Tamil stage and the tinsel world might have lost a very good actor; but I have lost an octogenarian friend. Naadagame Ulagam was Neelu’s brainchild. Narrated in his own style, the biography was released on his 80th birthday. My first meeting with Neelu sir happened at the Malar hospital, where his relative was recovering after a surgery.

“The Life-time Achievement award given by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha brought us closer and one fine evening I was noting down anecdotes and the biography was born. V.S. Raghavan, Koothapiran, Delhi Kumar, (ARS) A.R. Srinivasan, Mrs. YGP, Carnatic musician T.V. Sankaranarayanan and Crazy Mohan are among the many, who shared anecdotes.

“Neelu himself paid rich tributes to Saambu Nataraja Iyer, Cho Ramaswamy, M.S. Subbulakshmi-Sadasivam and the Mylapore Club, apart from his own mother and wife. The wrapper was specially designed with a beautiful caricature by Crazy Mohan.

“Charukesi, Sankarabharanam, Kharaharapriya and Thodi have come to a grinding halt — an avid Carnatic music fan, Neelu was constantly humming a raga. Completely devoted to Narayaneeyam, he recited the slokas with telling effect. ‘Agre pasyami thejo...’ lingers in my ears, only that towering personality is no more. The Tamil Nadu Government should have honoured him with a Kalaimamani title for his yeoman service to the theatre. But then it was passion that kept Neelu busy throughout his lifetime.

YGP admirer

Although he did not figure in their plays, Y.Gee. Mahendra and Neelu shared a unique rapport. “I didn't know the meaning of the phrase, ‘Stentorian Voice,’ until I heard Neelu speak on stage in ‘Sambavami Yuge Yuge,’” says YGM. “Of course as a child, I had seen Neelu with Cho when the latter was a part of UAA. But his role as a sloka chanting lawyer in ‘Sambavami...’ took my breath away,” he adds. He made it a point to attend Cho’s plays just to see Neelu and Ambi on stage. And there was this special factor — Neelu was an ardent admirer of YGM’s father YGP, who was equally fond of Neelu.

Neelu caught up with Mahendra in films. Says YGM: “It was my good fortune that in my early films — ‘Nootrukku Nooru,’ ‘Ranga Rattinam’ and ‘Gowravam’ — I was with him in meaty roles. It was absolute fun. His laughter would drown out all other sounds. He never could whisper, it was said. He was truly a big gentle giant. Just a month ago, I spent an hour with him. We boarded a time machine recollecting all those golden days in Theatre.

“He was always in high praise of my performances and passion for theatre but invariably ended up saying, ‘YGP madhiri varaduda.’ He never gave up stage.. the last 10 years he was doing cameo roles for Crazy Creations. As Fate would have it, I acted with him recently in the film, ‘Vedanta Desikar,’ which probably was his last.”

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 10:24:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/a-tribute-to-neelu-the-gentle-giant/article23914023.ece

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