Sunday, June 14, 2009

Master of the Trade

Lal, who has won the Kerala State Film award for best actor, is also a noted director, producer, distributor and businessman

Photo: Lal (third from left) with the cast of 2 Harihar Nagar

By Shevlin Sebastian

When filmmaker Lal recently won the Kerala State Film award for best actor for his role as a police constable in the film, ‘Thalapavu’, he was inundated with calls by friends, colleagues, and well-wishers.

Celebratory parties were being planned, but Lal ignored them all and went to the Pullepady area in Kochi where he grew up, to be with his uncles and aunts, and acquaintances from his childhood.

“When they saw me they were moved,” he says. “They did not expect me to come during this exciting time in my life.”

Soon, there was bonhomie and banter, and passionate singing sessions. And when his uncle John gave him a prized crystal candlestick, Lal started crying.

“I returned home at 2 a.m.,” he says. “I realised it is important to stay in touch with my roots.”

When a person becomes affluent and successful, he usually goes out of touch with his relatives. He makes new friends, starts speaking differently, and develops new habits and modes of behaviour.

“One day, this polished look solidifies on the face and you lose touch with your soul,” says Lal. “For a while I suffered from this.”

It is to avoid this that Lal tries to stay in touch with his old friends. “With them we are constantly reminded of who we are, and where we come from,” he says. “Otherwise, we tend to float on the clouds of self-delusion, before reality intrudes with a lighting bolt, and you are defeated.”

Lal, on the other hand, has had many victories. Most of the movies he has produced or acted in, and his recently released first solo directorial venture, ‘2 Harihar Nagar’, have been stupendous hits.

So how does he get it right so often?

“When I listen to a story and look at the people involved in the project, I ask myself one question,” he says. “Do I want to go and see this film in the theatre? If the answer is yes, I take part in the project.”

He says that for a film to be successful it needs some essential elements. “In ever good film, the hero should be facing a villain,” he says. This could be in the form of a person --a criminal, politician or the police -- or it could be against society or a natural calamity.

There has to be several complications in the storyline, to ensure suspense and excitement, but, ultimately, the hero must win. “When the movie fulfills these expectations it will do well,” he says.

What is remarkable about the unassuming Lal are his multiple talents. He is a good actor, director, producer, distributor and a businessman. So how does he manage these myriad tasks?

“I tend to focus on one thing at a time,” he says. So, when the 50-day shooting schedule for ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ commenced, he switched off his mobile. “Even my family was not allowed to get in touch with me,” he says. I

n his absence his wife looked after the business. He also has the same single-mindedness when he is a producer, an actor or a distributor. But not all these tasks are easy to do.

“The director’s job is the hardest,” he says. “The 150 members of the unit are dependent on me to do a good job. If the film is a success then everybody gets other opportunities.”

He admits that he feels a great deal of pressure and spends days and nights agonising about the film: Have the scenes been shot well? Is there something more he could do? Has he missed out on anything?

Compared to direction, he finds acting a breeze. Unlike most actors, he does very little preparation for a role. “Once I hear the story I have a clear idea of how I will play the character,” he says.

He also has a clear idea on how to be a producer: hands-on presence. If the shoot is at 6 a.m., Lal will arrive on the set at that early hour and will only leave when the session is over.

Interestingly, for all these different jobs, Lal adopts a different mind-set. “As a producer I will never interfere in the director’s work,” he says.

He gives an example: when his friend and former directing partner Sidique was making ‘Hitler’, he never made any comments about the direction, unless he was specifically asked for an opinion.

“As an actor I obey the director at all times, even if he is a first-timer,” says Lal. In his role as the owner of Lal Media, a successful sound and visual studio, he says, “I hire good people, and delegate responsibility.”

And so the remarkable journey of Lal continues. At this moment he is basking in the success of ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ and his acting award, but future projects could include a Tamil and Hindi version of ‘2 Harihar Nagar’, as well as acting roles.

“I don’t plan anything in life,” he says. “By God’s grace, things happen at the right time.”

Darkness, light and Lal's gesture

In 2005 Lal acted in the hit Tamil film, ‘Shandakozhi’, as a local dada. During the climax, there was a fight in a corn field and somehow a thorn entered Lal’s eye. “It pierced the cornea,” says Lal.

He was rushed to the Aravind Eye Hospital at Madurai. The thorn was taken out, but, thereafter, a pain began in his eyes.

“I tried all sorts of treatments including Ayurveda,” he says. He went to all the hospitals in Kochi, but the pain persisted. “It came to such a stage where I could not step out into the sunlight,” he says. “I spent hours sitting in a darkened room.”

And he was assailed by fear and anxiety. ‘What could I do now?’ he remembers thinking. ‘I had no other skills, except to be in the film industry.’ He was in this state for more than two years.

Then, through a mutual friend, Lal met Dr. Sasi Kumar in Palakkad, who took him to Dr. J.K. Reddy in Coimbatore.

“It was a complicated surgery because if there was an error, Lal’s vision would have been affected,” says Reddy, who did the operation along with Kumar. Thankfully, it went off well and today Lal’s eye has healed completely.

And here is the twist. When Lal heard that Shashi Kumar, Reddy, and another eye specialist Dr.Anup Chirayath were planning to start an eye hospital, ‘I Vision’ at Kurkenjery, Trissur, he offered to become a partner.

“It was not a business proposition for me,” he says. “I felt that since my eye had been healed thanks to these brilliant doctors, I wanted others to have the benefit of a good eye hospital.”

Says Reddy: “It was unusual and surprising for a patient to offer help. We are very thankful.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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