Sunday, August 03, 2008

Lal Salaam!

A fancy dress competition which went wrong and the sight of a suicide victim were some of the memorable childhood experiences of actor cum film director Lal

By Shevlin Sebastian

When film director Lal was in Class eight, a fancy dress competition was announced during an exhibition held at the Ambedkar stadium. However, there was one condition: two people had to participate at the same time. “My friend, Antony and I wondered what we could wear,” says Lal. “At that time, we had read about Siamese Twins in the newspaper.”

So, they borrowed a large shirt and trousers of a very plump uncle of Antony’s. Somehow, with the help of friends, both of them managed to get into the trousers and the shirt and took part. Expectedly, they received a resounding applause from the audience.

As they walked backstage, their legs got entangled, and, because of a gap between the planks, they fell from a height of eight feet to the ground. Since it was dark, nobody had seen them fall.

“We felt a tremendous pain when we landed,” says Lal. “We lay there stuck together, unable to free ourselves. We would try for a while, then get tired, then try again.”

Meanwhile, the other events continued, on the stage, and, finally, the prize-winners for the fancy dress competition were announced. Lal and Antony had come second. “We heard a first, second, and even a third call for us to collect the prize,” he says.

An hour passed and, finally, after making another attempt, they were able to tear the shirt away and free themselves. “When we climbed back onto the stage, there was nobody around,” says Lal. “We could not find our shirts and trousers.”

A desperate Lal looked around and saw a white curtain hanging behind the stage. He tore it into two, and both of them used it as a mundu and went home. Later, their friends told Lal they had collected the prize and taken the clothes home. Ironically, a bottle of Dettol was part of the prize.

“We applied it on our cuts and bruises,” says a laughing Lal, who sits on a low sofa in his tastefully decorated bungalow at Padamugal where he stays with his wife, Nancy, son, Jean, 20, daughter, Monica, 16, and mother Philomena. Sipping a cup of tea, Lal launches into another memory.

One night, his friend Sennen and he went to see a night show at Lakshman theatre near South Railway station. Since they lived at Pullepady, they walked along the railway track. “After the show got over, the journey back at midnight was frightening,” he says. “It was pitch-black all around.”

Anyway, they returned home safely. However, the next morning, they heard that a man had committed suicide on the tracks. Sennen and Lal rushed to the spot. “There was a large crowd present,” says Lal. One onlooker said that, sometimes, people who are murdered were brought to the tracks, to make it look like a suicide.

“The crowd then concluded that this particular man had been murdered, because they could see footprints on the blood,” says Lal.

At this juncture, the railway gateman said that the man had been killed by the 11.30 p.m. train. “Suddenly, I felt cold, because we had passed that area a few minutes later,” he says. Instinctively, Lal glanced down and, with a sense of shock, he saw that Sennen’s feet was caked with dried blood.

“It was clear now that Sennen had accidentally stepped on the blood, when we were returning at night,” says Lal. “We were terrified that we would be branded as the murderers. I pulled him away and we ran off at top speed. Because we were youngsters, we had not washed our feet before going to bed. Even now, when I think about our close escape, I get goose pimples.”

Lal is the son of the late A.M. Paul, a professional musician, who was an ardent follower of the Communist Party. “When I was born, my father named me Lal, after the Lal Salaam salute of the party,” says the acclaimed director.

However, instead of developing a love for the Communist Party, Lal became enamoured of films when he was ten years old. “I just wanted to be associated with films for the rest of my life,” he says. He tried desperately to get a job as an usher at Shenoy’s theatre, so that he could watch films three times a day, but failed.

Meanwhile, his father encouraged him to go into the creative line. “My father was a young man at heart,” says Lal. “My friends were his friends.”

When Lal would invite comedians, Harishree Ashokan and Salim Kumar for dinner, they would barely spend ten minutes with him, before they rushed into his father’s room.

“To a large extent, I have the same youthful attitude,” says Lal, 49. “My children’s friends are my friends and I enjoy spending time with them.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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