December is here upon us and here in Chennai December is famous for its cool mornings and hot music season. December is also the time when my assistants insist that I stay off work and finally spend all the leave- a long list of off-duty’s and accumulated vacation time I am entitled to, but have not taken till now and which are in danger of lapsing with the year end. I sympathize with their desire to be free of my hands on management at least for a few days and try to accommodate their wishes as much as I could by taking a leave here and an off there, whenever possible. And that’s how I found myself with a holiday on a Tuesday morning with nothing to do but stay home and watch TV. And utterly bored of the reality shows on music TV channels, and music shows on news channels, I decided to try and renew my acquaintance with some old friends I had not been in contact with much. The person who suddenly popped into my mind was my old friend Rajesh, an area-friend I grew up with. He had drifted into the world of television and the last time we had talked to each other, had boasted that he had by then directed at least 300 episodes of Tamil mega serials. And when I expressed my astonishment at his still remaining so sane and cheery after that impossible feat, he had invited me to go visit his shooting spot one day to see in person what goes on in the making of a TV soap serial. So that morning utterly fed up on with what was on TV I picked up the phone, made the call and invited myself to the shooting spot.
As Rajesh had told me they were shooting their latest episode of a mega serial at a place called Tinnanur or Thirunindravur, at a distance of around 40kms from Chennai, I opted to skip breakfast and make an early start to beat the ever present traffic and be there in time. I need not have bothered for it was fine drizzling weather and I enjoyed the journey as much as reaching the destination. The reason, according to my friend Rajesh, for the popularity of this particular little town as a base for shooting all mega serials was because it is an up and coming vacation spot for Chennai’s rich and famous. For those who have an estate or two in the hills but find it difficult to travel all the way up there but are looking for a nearby vacation home, a garden house to spend the weekend communing with nature, places like Tinnanur were now becoming popular due to its proximity to the city. What at first glance looks like just another small town on the highway, something you pass by on your way to somewhere else, has garden houses and bungalows built on massive scales of 10-12 grounds and lavishly furnished all over, but closed all week until the owners come over to host their weekend parties. And these savvy millionaires also rent out their bungalows during their weekdays to Television production houses for shooting their mega serials and making enough pennies from the rent to pay their watchman, gardener and assorted housekeeping staff. You don’t become a millionaire without knowing a trick or two on money management right?
Anyway, after I reached the shooting spot and after being warmly welcomed by my friend Rajesh, who at last showed off in front of me that he really was this big shot serial director, something for which he had waited a long time I suspect, we had breakfast with all the technicians. They were a cheerful bunch and looked to be having a lot of fun, which Rajesh explained was due to the absence of anyone from the production house that day to oversee the shoot. So when the cat is away mice are at play concept applies here too, was what to mind. Anyway, it was getting on to noon and I was still waiting to see my first scene canned, the reason I had traveled all the way on my vacation day. When I asked Rajesh about the absence of any actors on his set, he said mildly that his stars had already arrived (in fact, before me) and were in the make-up room getting ready. “What the?” I spluttered incoherently. But Rajesh patiently explained that their TV serial featured a big bunch of actresses who all vie with each other to look their bestest in front of the camera even when a scene calls for them to cry their eyes out. And as per protocol the junior most artiste will be the one to walk out of the makeup room first and to be followed by others in order of seniority. And as even the junior most actress took a minimum of at least two hours to get her face pancaked, none of the serial shoots started before noon. And right on cue, one by one of the actresses sauntered in, with their faces heavily made up and the makeup standing at least a couple of inches off their faces, unsupported. I took the time to reflect on my own television experience a few years ago when I had conned my way into a compeering job, for a breakfast show on a newly launched channel and the makeup guys after a cursory powdering of my face had sent me in front of the cameras after assuring me that I was a natural beauty and didn’t need much in the way of make-up. God, how naïve I was back then. And to think that I could have demanded and got at least an hour’s worth of makeup, if only I had known the secrets of the trade.
The shooting of the scenes for the day was a surprisingly fast job, for either the actresses were very good or my friend the director was easily satisfied as most scenes were canned with the first take itself. When they had shot up to a dozen related scenes in one smooth flow, a break for lunch was called and my friend insisted that I accompany him to the actors side of the dining room where he introduced me to the television actresses there as an up and coming film actor waiting for my big break. This was in reference to an old in-joke among us, where we had once promised each over endless cups of tea in our local tea shop, the Diamond tea bar in Mint Street, that when and if my friend Rajesh directed his first movie, he would launch me as his first hero. I was glad to find that he had not forgotten his old promise even after ten years or so and after life had taken us both in entirely different paths. He was now firmly ensconced as a TV serial director, making a good living with a steady income from it and unable (or even unwilling) to make the jump into the whirlpool of film direction, while I had long since given up on the idea of being in films and had gone away into a completely different career.
Anyway, after a post lunch cozy chit-chatting with the actresses, all of whom looked almost the same to me with their heavy makeup’s and identical sarees, I told my friend I now had a clear idea of what goes on behind the scenes at a TV serial shoot and so I would no longer disturb him at work but take my leave. He protested at this and wanted me to stay on as he shot a few more heavily emotional scenes but I declined the offer and told him I had to leave then to be in time for my evening practice. As he walked me back to my car, he enquired whether I would be willing to do a role for him, a doctor’s role in his serial. I stopped and told him in a careful voice that I would be damned if I ever acted the role of a doctor in a TV serial. That would be the end of my professional career. For any patient who came to see me after that, would always assume that I was just an actor masquerading as a doctor and would never believe that I am a real doctor. I also told my friend petty firmly that I would not do any itsy bitsy character role and would only play the protagonist’s central role in a serial.
My friend told me that the protagonist’s role is usually decided only when a new serial is launched and never added midway, at which I volunteered that I am perfectly willing to wait for a new serial to be launched, however long it took. He then told me that they were in the story discussions of a probable idea involving a historical serial, to be launched in the next few months, but it would require horse riding and sword fighting skills from the central character. I assured him that my horse riding was second to none and my sword fighting skills are to be seen to be believed. As I took my leave from him, in a solemn voice I asked him to remember that he had promised to launch me in films with his first film and because of that promise I had sentimentally declined so many other famous directors who had asked me to do their films. And then I laughingly told him that this was my audition scene to show off that I could still act convincingly and then I drove away from the shooting spot with a satisfied feeling that this was a vacation day well spent.
Now to start practicing sword fights and learn horse riding. Any tips anyone?