Learning Silambatam- the indian single stick technique
For the past week I had been looking for someone to teach me silambatam, the single stick fighting technique of the ancient Tamils. For those wondering at my new found interest in learning the art of stick fighting, let me console you with the happy thought that my enemies have not multiplied enough to start looking for ways to thrash them with weapons. If you rewind a few posts back you can read how I was informally offered a lead role in an up-coming television mega serial (a historical story based one) but the script needed proficiency in sword fighting, horse riding and in silambatam, which involves twirling a stick and beating in all the heads which get near. After my last unsatisfactory television experience from a few years ago, when I had compeered an early morning breakfast show, which was telecast so early in the morning that the only persons who ever watched it regularly were my loyal parents (even I having difficulty in waking up that early to watch my own show), I had decided that television was “never more, never again” for me, and henceforth I would only star on the big screen, if ever I wanted to switch careers. But after staying away from the cameras for so long and concentrating on my other career (and after finally realizing that making even a half-decent movie with my own earnings would mean I would debut only in my fifties), I decided to lower my standards a bit and go back to television. But only prime time television. No early morning, shows, no afternoon cookery shows, no late night music shows. Either a prime time serial or nothing. And when a friend offered to get me such a role without auditioning for it, I decided to accept with reservations. The reservations were due to certain physical requirements for the role which involved acting bare bodied (exposing the upper body only thankfully) and also involved horse riding, sword fighting and stick fighting. All of which I had cheerfully told my friend that I was a master of. I mean, if I was gonna be an actor, the first thing to do is act confident, right? With a camera or without it, I was going to act all knowing and all talented, despite the butterflies in the stomach.
Come to think of it, I really don’t understand the craze of these modern day TV directors to insist on their actors learning such obscure skills when they will feature it maybe for just a few minutes in the final-cut of their serials. The rest of the serial would be filled, as usual, with long (pages and pages) of dialogues with close-up shots of the face and hence in my view, the minimum requirement of an expressive face and an effortless dialogue delivery should more than suffice. A mega serial is not a movie, even if the makers think so (and budget for). In fact, I once got away with offering this same argument at an audition for a movie, an international production of the life of Buddha titled “Siddhartha” to made on a big budget with Hollywood technicians. when I auditioned for that movie, the promotional pamphlets advertised that it was to be directed by a man who had previously directed a Hindi movie called lagan, someone called aditi gowatriker, oh wait, that’s the model lady right? No, I didn’t audition with her for any role (cross my heart and believe me), this guy had a similar name, this guy was called, oh, I got it now, he was ashutosh goawatriker (same last name? Any relation aditi?) Anyhow when I tried to audition for the lead role of Gautama Buddha, the assistant directors in charge of filtering the hopefuls tried to brush me off saying that they were looking for fit and six pack bodied actors to play Buddha. I tried to convince them that the Buddha they were looking for did not historically resemble hulking big-built guys (who made up the entire crowd called for auditions), professional models with a face like a log of wood and as expressive as salman khan. The real Siddhartha was a prince, I reminded the AD’s, used to the good life and wouldn’t have spent years in the gym to go around shirtless and I invited them to take a look at my calm, serene countenance and I especially directed their attention to my ears, which were perfect for the Buddha role. Anyway it’s too fascinating (but too long) a story to tell now, the story of how my ears almost got me the role of Siddhartha in a international production and so I will do a full blogpost on it sometime soon in the future. And we will now get back to my efforts to prepare for a TV serial.
When In doubt I turn to my friends, so during one of our usual evening chai/chat sessions at the hospital canteen, I enquired in my friends circle about learning horse riding. My friend Bobs, who considers himself an expert on everything and has an opinion on all topics, almost split his tea down his coat with shock at my casual enquiry and leaning forward to whisper conspiratorially he said “I cant believe you are asking now at this age, but if you are indeed so naïve then the best place to learn horse riding would be to go to Bangkok, they have the best horses procured internationally and you can learn all the fancy riding techniques from experts, but if you feel that its too big a budget for you, then the next best alternative is the Indian destination of pune. It’s low under the radar of the police vice squads and has a recently developed anything goes culture, you have all sorts of girls available there, even authentic college girls looking for some part time work, you know” and he winked at me obscenely. Then it was my turn to spill my tea on my coat, as I assured him that when I meant horse riding I really meant horse riding, the real horses, you know the ones with four legs, not two, and if I say pony riding it’s about the real animal pony and not riding something with pony tails and after such detailed explanations finally got him around to see things from my (decent) point of view. So then my friends gang agreed to ask around town and find out for me a proper horse-riding school, where I could learn to stand beside a horse stylishly (as if I had been riding one since birth), with a casual hand on its neck and speak my dialogues confidently at the camera, which was all that was required honestly. Of course, Bobs other suggestions of going to the race course and learning riding on the race horses or going to marina beach and learning to ride the rs.50/ride joy riding ponies were all shot down by the gang as impractical and foolish and typical bobs. But I am sure, for sheer options to a question, any question at all, you can’t beat my friend bobs for his ingenuity in answering. It was a pity the external examiners didn’t share the same opinion during his final exam viva.
Anyhow, once the search for learning horse riding had been outsourced to my friends circle, the next step, we decided, involved a visit to Ritchie Street to pick up a DVD of the old movie Conan the Barbarian, where Arnold Schwarzenegger teaches sword fighting techniques. I told my friends confidently that i just need to play the dvd a dozen times over the weekend and learn from watching Arnold closely on how to show-off with a sword and behold a new sword master is born. Or at least I could act (and strut around) like a blademaster in front of the camera for enough time for the director to say cut. With that little requirement too out of the way, the only thing left to learn was Silambatam, the stick fighting technique. My first proposal was to get yet another DVD and learn the art of Silambam fighting from that champion of all Silambatam fighters – K.Bhagyaraj as seen in the old Tamil Film Thooral Ninu Pochu. My friend disagreed with me and told me MGR was the best he had seen in Mattukara Velan. Meanwhile a third friend told me that at least this one I should go and learn from a real person instead of from movies and based on his recommendation, I went down to a local gym were half a dozen teenage boys were twirling thin sticks and making as if they really were onto something. The first thing which struck me was that the pupils were all practicing their own styles of stick twirling. If you have seen any kungfu/jackiechan martial arts movies, you would know that the first thing that any kungfu master teaches is for everyone to make the same move at the same time while shouting “oh, ah, uuh”. This shows that the master is from the Shaolin Temple and knows his stuff. But here, it was all chaos and no coordination with everyone practicing a new technique on their own. In the few minutes I stood there watching I could see that some of those students’ heads escaped getting cracked from their fellow student’s sticks purely due to the luck of the incompetent.
And with that in mind, I carefully made my way over to where the Silambam master was lounging against a wall and talking on his mobile phone. When I could finally broach the subject of my visit he told me his fee per class and once I agreed to it, he handed me a ridiculously thin stick and taking up a similar one in his hand told me to follow his movements closely. It looked pretty childish to me standing there, twirling a thin stick over the head, swatting mosquitoes and I didn’t feel comfortable with the knowledge that if it came to a real fight, I could probably catch, bend and break one of those silambam sticks with my bare hands and then do the same to the stick wielder too. The silambam master had meanwhile stopped fanning the breeze on one side and turning to the other side, my side, urged me “faster, faster”. So I went faster and faster and caught up in the moment, stick twirling in my wrists in a blur, I almost brained the watching master, when he screamed in pure fright (for self-preservation) “now turn other side”. As my nonviolent self asserted itself in time and I twisted away to the other side I felt a sudden sharp pain in my ankles and realized I had twisted my ankle alone to turn instead of turning with the whole body. I don’t know who was more relieved when I hobbled off limping- me or the coach. Anyhow laid up at home with a sprained ankle means my preparations are at a temporary cessation, but I will soon be getting back onto my feet and then its more sword fighting and horse riding for me. I think I will leave the Silambam safely alone for now. It’s not safe to hand me a stick and to hope no one gets brained with it. And with that my preparations as an actor have come to a temporary halt. Keep coming back for more updates on how an actor prepares.