One of the most vivid memories of his childhood that director Radhakrishanan Parthiban cherishes is the time he spent with his mother, assisting her as she made adhirasam (a sweet made with rice and jaggery).
His mother used to prepare the delicacy during Deepavali, and every year, the taste and texture would vary, depending on how the paagu (jaggery syrup) turned out.
“One may be a great cook, but one has to be extraordinarily patient to get paagu in the right consistency. Else, it is a disaster,” says Parthiban, “Just like film making. If one aspect goes wrong, the entire film goes awry.”
Known for his quirky films, Parthiban won a National award for his debut film Pudhiya Paadhai (1989). He started his career as a stage artiste and later joined as an assistant to K Bhagyaraj.
As his family was poor, he had to discontinue college and start dabbling in odd jobs. At one point, he took up stage acting. “One of the reasons why I started acting in drama was food. Food was the biggest attraction for me, as the drama troupe was served food by the oor jamin (village head) of whichever village we performed in,” he says. Later, he says he started dubbing, and one of the main incentives again was that he would be served meals at the recording studio.
All that his mother could afford to pack for his school was plain cooked rice mixed with minced onion, salt and turmeric. “But those days, it tasted heavenly and I was glad I had at least that to eat,” he says. “I have never been able to afford to eat even in small restaurants, and when I was assisting Bhagyaraj sir, he took me to a five star hotel to attend an event. Back then, I had no clue what a buffet was. But I was hesitant to ask anyone. So I just went ahead and started piling up all the food that was on the buffet table on my plate, right from the starters to dessert. I realised a little later that one could go back to the table for a refill. That was the most embarrassing moment of my life. I left the plate and stepped out, eyes filled with tears,” he reminisces.
Parthiban has travelled across the globe, but for him Chennai is where his heart is.
“Even today, I drive down to see the Pallavaram Corporation School where I studied until Class III. I also go to Jagjivanram Colony, Royapettah, where I spent my teenage years. Today, I smile to myself thinking of all those days, when I lacked in confidence as I believed that I had no identity.”
Two months ago, Parthiban visited Cafe Amin, Royapettah, for tea. As a college-goer, he says he used to be fascinated by the decor there. A photo of Jai Shankar and Jai Chitra used to hang on the wall (they had inaugurated the stall). “Those days, a cup of tea cost 25 paisa. I had to either take the bus (25 paisa was the fare) to reach college, or drink tea and walk the distance. Invariably, I ended up walking.”
“I love to eat in small eateries when I travel during shooting, and I love to explore food, while on a train journey,” he says.
P ichipotta kozhi with k eeri potta sambar is his all time favourite combination, just like parotta and salna . But nowhere can he get the kadalaparuppu appalam kootu made the way his mother used to cook it.
Parthiban says he used to cook his own meals when he was working as an assistant director.
“ Upma was my saviour those days. When there was enough money, I used to make k esari , and if there was no money, it was u pma . Many assistant directors survive only on u pma even today. It requires less ingredients and it is a one-pot dish that can be made in a short time. Upma must be declared the national dish of India.”
A fortnightly column on film personalities and their trysts with food