The Star I Spotted… Dr. Vivekananda Murthy Kadiyala
The Star I Spotted
I stopped writing stories of late. The urge was suddenly lost. There is a story behind that.
I always believed that those stories which ultimately reach Kanchi[i] are the best stories. I happened to visit Kanchi when I was writing prolifically. I was searching every nook and corner of Kanchi, sharply focusing my eyes like searchlights to see if I could find any of my stories there. But in vain. I reached Kanchi but none of my stories did. Therefore, I concluded that there wasn’t a single good story in what I had written so far. I was disillusioned and felt very disappointed. I stopped writing. Having done that, I could not find proper pastime. I started frequenting cinema houses. Gradually, it had become an obsession. Finally, I yearned to see myself on the screen. Instantly I decided to quit the vestige of writing and become a star on the silver screen. The next moment I donned a lungi and took the first available train to Madras.
Madras was a magnificent city. I got into Hotel Sudhara in T Nagar dreaming of my screen life. I had even technicolor dreams the whole afternoon while taking rest following an arduous train journey. In the evening, I locked my room and went to Pondy Bazar. With trees standing high on either side of the road, and agog with activity, Pondy Bazar reminded me of the reign of Ashoka, the Great. I entered the VK restaurant to have a cup of coffee. Someone greeted and sat opposite to me.
“Coming for a role in cinemas, isn’t it?” he spot-diagnosed in chaste Telugu and ordered, “Coffee!”
“May I know who you are?” I solicited.
“They call me Velumani. I have been in this field for twenty-five years. Before coming here, I was Venkata Narasayya. I changed my name due to exigencies of survival. I’m so popular now that any tree in this bazar would sing my story merrily by swaying its branches. Here is Coffee. Let’s have another round,” he said. I ordered for another round.
“Let’s get out of here and talk while walking,” he said pressing the bill into my hand.
He appeared to me an established actor. But I could not recall having seen his face in any movie.
“Shall we go to the beach?” he asked lighting a cigarette and offering me one. While I was lighting it, he called out “Taxi!”
We got down at the beach. Velumani looked into the meter and read out the fare. I paid.
We left the road and started walking on the sands. Velumani began once again:
“ I started my acting career twenty-five years ago. I played many roles. Many press reporters repeatedly ask me which of the roles I played I like the most. But tell me, can any mother answer if you ask her which of her children, she likes the most? Just like that mother, I too can’t reply. Let’s have some fried peas.”
We had fried peas.
“I am sorry. I don’t recall any of the roles you played,” I said apologetically. Munching the crunchy peas, Velumani said, “That is exactly what acting means. An actor cannot be seen when the role makes such an imprint on the spectator. I liked all my roles. That is why, the closer the roles came to my life, the farther I went from the people.”
We were already walking farther away from the people.
“You have not told me about the roles you played,” I insisted.
“I am coming to that,” he continued, “recently, I played the role of a palace guard in a folklore movie, “The Sword Sans the Handle” and performed with unparalleled proficiency. I was the person who stopped the queen from going out stopping her with my spear. The queen’s role was played by the most renowned heroine of our times.
“Have you noticed? In ‘The Daunted Warrior’, it was me who stood in the front row of the soldiers and exhorted others ‘Move on… Move on.’ Not only that, in the mythological movie ‘Hidimbi’[ii] I played the dual role of a demon and the hermit, which were totally contrasting. I deeply studied the characters and thoroughly understood them. I gave a sterling performance. When I said ‘studied’ it barely reflects what I did. Suppose in the role of a hermit you have to harass a hermit. You have to first decide whether you would pull him by the beard or by the locks of his hair. Similarly, when you fight with a king you must learn how to hold the spear without actually hurting him. If I were to narrate all such roles I studied closely and performed, all the hotels in the town would close for the night. I acted as a Paper Boy, Postman, as Police Constable, etc. etc. in umpteen pictures. I was always in the front row of onlookers in club and street dances in many social movies. Though I was allotted one frame in each, I used to put all my histrionic talents into that.”
Velumani did not allow me to speak.
“Before I came up to this level, I used to lend my voice for dubbing. Once I saw the dubbing movie for which I lent my voice sitting among the audience. In one particular scene, the dialogue ran long after the action was over. With that, I lost respect for dubbing pictures. I swore that I would never associate myself with dubbing.”
We bought Pakoda. Munching it, Velumani started his story once again, “You did not ask me how I entered this field. In fact, I entered the field as a producer. I wanted to produce a social movie upholding lofty ideals. I sat on the script myself. I pooled all my resources and poured into the production. That was the only picture I acted as hero. It was titled: The Adjacent Street. I was also its director. Do you know the theme? Let me tell you: The heroine commences her journey to the adjacent street to meet the hero. Before she reaches the adjacent street, she comes across many incidents that depict the good and evil of the society, the plight of the poor, the dogs and the drains, and even sees a Telugu cinema on her way. The movie ends with the heroine reaching hero’s house. Of course, it was a tragedy. The hero will not be at home. He locks his house and goes somewhere. It ran upto interval in all A class Centres. With that I was established as an actor. I was destined to reach stardom and the picture came in handy.”
The Pakoda was over. It was pitch dark.
“Let’s get back,” he said.
“Incidentally, I haven’t asked anything about you. Do you have any recommendation letter?”
“Don’t worry. If you don’t have one, I am here to help you. It is my primary duty as a celebrated artist to help all upcoming artists. You have good features. Therefore, you have very good future. For some time to come, follow me to the studios and shootings. Slowly you will be able to comprehend. I have a call sheet tomorrow at Mohini. I am playing a role totally different from any of the roles I have played so far. I will take you along.”
It was late in the night by the time I bade good night to Velumani and returned to my room. I forgot about my screen chances and started thinking about the new acquaintance Velumani. He asked me to be there at VK restaurant by eight in the morning. I was deeply engrossed in thinking about the next day until I dozed off.
It was dawn again.
As proposed by him, I went to Mohini with Velumani. He soon went into the makeup room. I met my childhood friend Yadava Reddy there. He was in charge of publicity. During conversation, I came to know he was also one of the producers of the film in which Velumani was acting. We entered together the floor indicated by Velumani earlier. The floor looked like it was a rice mill once. I started feeling suffocated. The set was looking like a forest; the paper stones were looking very heavy to the eyes. The withered leaves and the branches making up the set looked like the producers of flopped movies. There were plastic flowers and creepers here and there. People were busy adjusting their spotlights and cameras. It was the shooting of the film “The benevolent Thunderbolts”… a folk tale. After a while, the hero entered in the role of crown prince smoking a cigarette. I immediately recognized him. I saw many of his pictures. The stunt masters along with the hero and a gorilla came up before the camera. The stunt masters were explaining the shot.
The day had advanced.
It was so sultry that the two giant air circulators were grossly inadequate, just blowing enough air to make breathing possible. The gorilla could not withstand the suffocation and pulled out the head mask with both hands. I was surprised when Velumani’s head popped up. I wondered if this was the totally different role he was referring to earlier. Velumani was wiping out the sweat from all over his face, breathing heavily. Before he could finish, the stunt master poked at him to put on the mask. Velumani obliged. With the mask on, it was difficult to believe that there was a human being behind that mask. He looked just like a gorilla. The gorilla slowly walked up to the hero and embraced him from behind like any heroine in a Telugu movie. Unperturbed, the hero thrust his elbow hard into gorilla’s stomach. Velumani fell flat on his back. “Cut!” shouted the director. Velumani tried to get up holding his stomach in excruciating pain. The stunt master yelled at him, “Get up! Get up!” The hero came up to him and lifted Velumani offering his hand and said with a smile, “Did I hurt you brother?”
Unable to put up with the suffering anymore, Velumani removed the mask. I couldn’t bear the sight of Velumani writhing in pain. The shooting continued for one more hour with several retakes for the same shot. I couldn’t stand his agony any longer and proposed to Reddy, ‘let’s go.’
“It’s time for coffee break. Let us have it and go,” he suggested.
I could not take coffee. It looked like slop to my eyes. Though I did not enter the field, I enacted the scene of ‘taking coffee’ very well.
Before leaving the floor, I looked at Velumani. Holding the mask in one hand he waved at me with the other. He looked very pathetic. Forcing an inconvenient smile on my face, I moved out. Velumani looked like a dupe to the one who moved so gallantly with me the previous evening.
“How was the shot?” asked Yadava Reddy.
“Very heart-rending,” I said.
“You have very tender feelings, it looks. Do you really think that the gorilla would kill the hero? No. It only gets killed ultimately in his hands.”
“Yes, I saw.”
“The funniest part of it is, it is not a gorilla.”
“I know. It’s Velumani,” I said.
“It’s neither Velumani nor Venkata Subbayya,” he said rather derisively, “It’s Seetha Mahalakshmi, the sexiest dancer of the film industry. In fact, the gorilla was an angel under a curse. After getting killed as gorilla, she gets liberated to her original form and dances with joy. When she is cast in the movie, there will be wonderful collections at the box office.”
I spent a lot of time listening to him. Reddy asked if I had come to Madras on any specific work. I said I was on a vacation.
That evening Reddy forced me to vacate my room and took me to his house.
After leaving Velumani midway through the shoot, we did not meet again. Other than feeling sorry for him, I made no attempt to meet him either. So did Velumani.
After seeing him, I lost interest in acting career. I roamed about the town for four days. On the following day, I was sitting with Reddy in the publicity section. Velumani entered the room like a cat on it’s paw. He bowed and saluted Reddy. Without even looking up, Reddy asked, “What’s the matter?”
I looked at Velumani. He looked back embarrassingly and answered him, “nothing in particular, sir”
“Then? You have already taken your due. Any outstanding balance will be settled after the picture is completed,” Yadava Reddy said curtly.
“It’s not for that sir! Kindly include my name in the titles at least this time.”
Reddy burst into laughter and said, “Oh! It’s for that! OK. Ok. You can go.”
Velumani went out feeling humiliated. Reddy looked at me as if inviting me to join his laughter. I forced a half-smile very inconveniently.
The following day Reddy left me in the office and went out somewhere. While moving about in the section, I saw the title-sheets of “The Benevolent Thunderbolts” lying on a table. They were half done. The names of the Producers and Director were yet to be done. I could not find Velumani’s name anywhere. I felt sorry for him again. I sank uneasily into the easy chair and closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw the back of Velumani disappearing from there. There was no trace of Reddy yet. Sensing something I reached for the title sheets. On one of the top sheets, under the credits of secondary characters I found a shabby scribble: “Gorilla: Velumani.”
The title sheet looked even more shabbier after his scribble. It was my impression up to that time that the best part of the movie was its titles. Even that hope was lost now. But still, I felt a little comfort out of my empathy for Velumani.
Before I left Madras, I saw the preview of the movie. To my surprise, Velumani’s name did not appear anywhere in the credits. It must have been scissored off. All his pains had come to nought. His “extra” life had become even more “extra”neous! The most pitiable part of it is, that Velumani was appearing with a human face up to that time in all his movies. He was deprived of that in this movie. He looked exactly like a gorilla and died like one. However, I felt it was Velumani and not the gorilla that had died. Audience will never come to know that it was not a real gorilla but Velumani. They mistake him for a real circus gorilla. He contributes to the success of the movie at the box office without any credit. Poor Velumani! Like the coolies who built the Taj, he remains an invisible star on the film firmament.
I went to Madras to become a star and returned back as a writer. Thanks to Velumani, I gave up the idea of ‘giving up’ writing. I will not go to Kanchi anymore.
From “The Palette”
About the author: Dr. Vivekananda Murthy Kadiyala was born on the very day the first ever Atom Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima… the 6th Aug 1945. He started writing short stories at 17 and in a very short time got compliments from a reticent critic like Sri Nanduri Rama Mohan Rao. A graduate in Medicine from Andhra Medical College Visakhapatnam, Dr. Kadiyala was a good actor himself besides being a good mimicry artist. He has about 35 short stories to his credit and a Collection Neelaveni (1977). His comedy playlet ‘You Only Love Twice’ swept generations of AMC students off their feet.
[i] Kanchi : As the legend goes, Kanchi was the place where the quality of a story was supposed to be ultimately judged.
[ii] Hidimbi: A mythological character from the Mahabharata. She is the wife of Bheema, the second of the Pandavas