Becoming an Artiste…

She was excited. She had played several roles that had excited her. But this was very special. Since hearing about this opportunity to play as Kannagi, the chaste heroine of the Tamil classic Silappadikaram, she had dreamt of every nuance of the characterization. After a hectic day of shooting, she was still energetic and not in the least sleepy. The strands of music from the New Year eve party were audible through her open balcony at her hotel. But she was welcoming the new year in her own way. She was very satisfied with her day’s work and as was her custom, was ready to read her script for the following day’s shoot before retiring to bed. She had rehearsed her lines for the dramatic court scene – the climax of the story, for well over a month. That would be filmed several weeks later. The scene planned for the following day was one she had not bothered too much about till then. It was the scene of Kovalan, Kannagi’s estranged husband, returning to her after a gap of twelve years. She read the preliminary instructions printed on the left side of the script.

Night effect. Kannagi is sitting quietly in a corner of her once palatial house lost in empty silence. It has been twelve long years and the tears have long dried up. Her friend and confidant, Devanti, dutifully merges into the background, unobtrusively waiting for a sign from Kannagi to share her presence. The sound of knocking on the front door fails to ruse Kannagi. Devanti quietly opens the front door and is taken aback! No sound escapes her lips! She is too surprised to be happy or otherwise. Gathering her wits she runs to Kannagi. At last finding her voice she screams in delight ‘Kannagi! Kannagi! Look who is here!’  Half-heartedly Kannagi rises up from her trance like position. At a distance, in silhouette a man walks down the corridor towards Kannagi. Before Devanti can say anything more, Kannagi has turned to find the dark figure walk into the light. She sways… steadies… refrains from blinking… her eyes reveal the emotions of twelve years of separation… yet it also sings the joy of this moment of reunion. Kovalan has returned!

She shut the script. The dialogues were few but the feel was so potent. Her first doubt – how could Kannagi be happy to see someone who had spoiled her entire life? Her rationale mind did not agree that Kovalan had to get scot-free for his amorous diversions by simply being accepted back by his wife. Scream, rave, rant… perhaps even a physical blow on his cheek… anything to vent the twelve long years of pent up emotions. Yet here she stood silently, eyes filling up, almost reverentially whispering the words – “You have come… I was afraid this life would leave my body before I saw you ever again. Now the penance of my eyes has fructified.”

She peeped out of her balcony. The party below was in full swing – awaiting the arrival of midnight to greet the New Year. But she was far away… in a different era… a time when women accepted infidelity from their husbands. She cursed herself. Why did she not think of this scene before accepting this role? There was no way she could perform this effectively for she herself was not convinced of the efficacy of Kannagi’s chastity. What was the point of being so damn pure and forgiving such a male chauvinist like Kovalan? For the first time since she began her acting career several years previously, she was worried. Fiasco! That is what the scene would turn out to be. She could make believe a woman of weakness choicelessly accepting back her unfaithful husband. But Kannagi was not such a woman. Her acceptance was born not out of weakness but from her inner strength. And if this strength was not communicated right here, the rest of the story would lose its impact. Only if she could take her audience with her in understanding Kannagi, would they accept her anger and fury when she burns down the city of Madurai on Kovalan’s execution. But how could she convince anyone when she herself was not capable of understanding and accepting that what Kannagi did was right?

She stood in front of the mirror. She tried to perform Kovalan’s arrival. It was a sham. She decided she would enact it her style. She threw a tantrum, asked him in choice words how he could desert her, held his collar and slapped his face, broke down and cried as she never had at anytime… then looked into the mirror. Her face looked back. This wasn’t Kannagi. The face was puffed up, ugly, in a rage… looking at it she did not feel moved. She felt pity for the girl so traumatized. But it remained a detached pity – something wrong that had happened to someone else eliciting a polite response. Not the gut wrenching emotion of it happening to oneself. That was what she wanted – the true essence of being an artiste when they can make the audience become a participant rather than a mere observer. Kannagi was lost to her and so to the audience.

She looked back at the script disdainfully resting on the bed. She decided that her experiment in front of the mirror had been in vain. At every moment of that performance only she had been present, not Kannagi. She switched off all the lights and lay wide-awake in bed – deferentially chanting Kannagi. If Kannagi had not accepted Kovalan back into her life, the rest of Silappadikaram is invalid for none of it would have materialized. Don’t judge Kannagi! Don’t put yourself in her place and conclude how differently you might have responded. Become Kannagi. She forgave her infidel husband. Why did she? What must be the depth of her character that she not only forgave him but willingly offered to aid him achieve his happiness. You can never understand or agree to what she did. Don’t put yourself in her shoes. Rather become her. You are no longer an actress… you are not performing… you are Kannagi… Kannagi…

‘Lights” called the first assistant. The midnight scene was appropriately lit in shade and subdued light. ‘Camera’ came the second call to which the voice responded ‘rolling’. The director, as if not to disturb the serenity of the scene barely whispered ‘action’. Kovalan’s eyes were wide. Fear, guilt, regret and humiliation fought against each other to outshine the rest. Tears had no role to play for even they seem to have deserted him in this hour of reckoning. In a broken whisper – neither able to look into her eyes nor really look away – he begins to apologize. And as most humans do, he glides over the insignificant first searching for the strength to address the most important. “I am such a fool to have left… to have disregarded my business… to have broken away from my family… causing so much heartache to my parents… letting this palatial house rot so much…wasted so much money…” All this while, facing Kovalan with her face hidden from the camera, Kannagi slowly turns. There is a calm, a dignity and poise that she carries like a torch. Her entire body is frozen in self-control. Only her animated eyes shine with unshed tears she fights to control. Kovalan’s voice continues to describe his errant past… “Such a fool to go behind physical satisfaction…to have fallen prey to my youth’s demand…” The eyes are not able to take anymore. They silently close in protest refusing to let the trauma to her ears affect them anymore. “I have dwindled all my fortunes… become a pauper without riches…” The eyes fly open. They are steady – no longer flitting, no longer searching, no longer disturbed by all that has passed. The only sign of emotion that she quickly controls is the tremor in her voice as she begins to respond. “Why are you worried about not having enough wealth dear? I have a pair of anklets that can fetch a King’s ransom. You may take them and resume your pursuit of pleasures.” Only then does the ego named Kovalan turn to look at this pure woman who by sheer strength of character let the virtue of her soul shine forever.

‘Cut’ was a choked whisper followed by a beautiful pause of complete silence. And then the applause broke – loud in the night air bringing in everybody from outside. The actress had disappeared – the artiste was born. An ardent admirer of Kannagi saw the scene and commended “Kannagi refers to one who can emote with her eyes. After seeing this I wonder if the original Kannagi had eyes as expressive as this.” A thrill of delight ran down her spine until she realized that perhaps the compliment was rather unreal for ‘she’ hadn’t been present that day on the sets. Truly her mantra the night before ‘I am Kannagi’ had brought Kannagi there alive.

One may wonder what relevance does this reel life experience have for us in the real world? The relevance is in becoming an artiste from a mere actor. Most of the time, we believe that we are the best in whatever we do. We judge another’s work easily to say ‘I would have written it better’; ‘my design for your advertisement would surely be better’; ‘my presence in that event would have produced much better results’; ‘I would surely have never held a show like this. Mine would be better’ ‘I am a better father… better mother… better provider… better organizer… better actor…’ An endless list props into our mind always judging and declaring the other’s efforts as not good enough. An actor projects his personality. Every character he portrays reveals the image he wishes to project. An artiste never thrusts his personal preferences on any character. A writer who remains an actor writes the same story several times. Only a writer who is an artiste rises on every occasion truly letting his characters speak for themselves. The former merely writes while the latter always creates. As long as we remain actors we will thrust our personality on everybody. ‘I think you should use pink in the place of orange’. A true artiste appreciates others’ efforts without any need to attest or detest their actions.

Perhaps your story might have had a better impact, yet surely he has a right to express his own life. Maybe your expertise could have given the perfect design, but surely every individual has a right to project his choice. Could be the dosa is better in the aunt’s house, but surely she longs to make her not-so-perfect one in her own kitchen. Her husband might have been rudely thrown out, yet she accepted that Kannagi chose to receive him back with arms open wide. If you remain an actor you will keep rejecting others’ efforts. Become the artiste and you will realize that you are now the director of your life!

A passion for perfection cannot become a license to find fault with another’s behaviour. “Perfection” becomes “Judgmental” when focused on others. It can truly be called a virtue only when it is aimed at ones own self. Now it is artistic, beautiful. An artiste becomes a perfectionist an actor remains a self-proclaimed judge.

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Published in Eves Touch in June 2007


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