Master of all

Master of all

Srinivasa Prabhu's prodigious depth as a theatre person is hidden behind his image of a popular Kannada television actor. To thousands of TV viewers in Karnataka, his was the face they have been seeing since 1998, in trendsetting serials like Janani, Aasare, Sanje Mallige, and later on in Muktha, Naaku Thanthi and scores of others. In the early years, channels like ETV and Udaya did not have any issues with actors appearing simultaneously in many serials, and he occupied TV viewing space throughout the day and evening along with other regular actors of the day. He was also famous as the voice of superstar Ravichandran, dubbing for his early hit films including Prema Loka, Anjada Gandu and Ranadheera.   And over the past few years, he has made a mark in Kannada films as an actor as well.

Rocky beginnings

But few would know that he did not set out to be an actor. He was deeply interested in Kannada literature and did his MA from Central College in Bengaluru, securing the first rank. But that did not get him anywhere. "I got two gold medals and three years of unemployment," he laughs ruefully. But the years he spent at Central College were to lay a strong foundation, with literary luminaries like Chandrashekhara Kambara, G S Shivarudrappa, Laksminarayana Bhatt, Chidananda Murthy, M V Seetharamiah amongst the many who were his teachers. "We were so lucky to have all these giants as our teachers. You had to just sit in the classroom and listen to them. It was mesmerising," he exclaims, his green eyes lighting up.

Prabhu watched a number of plays during his period of unemployment, of which many were directed by Prasanna and B V Karanth. Prasanna, who saw him spending a lot of time at the Central College library, urged him to do a course at the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi. It was a coincidence that NSD was offering a few scholarships to students from around the country and Prabhu bagged one of them. He set out to pursue his deep interest in direction and lighting. Acting was nowhere on his radar, although all students had to take part in plays as a part of the course.

One of the plays was Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People. Batchmate Alok Nath and others were cast for major roles, with non-Hindi speaking students from the rest of the country getting smaller roles, as the play's director M K Raina wanted the dialogues to be delivered in fluent Hindi. The other non-Hindi students focusing on learning acting pushed Prabhu into asking for bigger roles for those from outside Delhi. "I was just the spokesman. Raina mistook this as my personal issue, and cast me as Dr Stockmann, perhaps as a challenge," he remarks. Stockmann's famous public lecture in the play runs into several pages. Prabhu pulled it off, delivering the long lines in fluent Hindi, and that role perhaps planted the seed of acting that was to bloom later.

Direction continued to be his focus, and he staged plays whenever he came down to Bengaluru from Delhi for breaks. After graduating from NSD in 1981, Prabhu came back to Bengaluru and began an exciting phase in Kannada theatre. His family was a great source of support, never once pressurising him to find more lucrative  employment, and instead encouraging him to pursue his calling. Low budgets meant minimal sets and props, giving a new angle to the plays, and stretching his creativity. Many actors pursued day jobs and pitched in with finance. Ravindra Kalakshetra was the buzzing beehive of theatre in the early 1980s.

After directing many original Kannada plays and translating English classics, he began adapting stories into plays. "Except for a few like The Enemy of the People, not many were socially relevant to us. I found dramatic elements in many stories, but the writer has used it as prose. I thought I could use them in a play. I began with B S Sadashiva's Sikku, which he wrote during the 1975 Emergency. On the surface, it was a thriller, but there were so many undercurrents!" he exclaimed with excitement.

An all-rounder

The plays were received very well and he adapted several to resounding success. His theatre contemporaries began calling him 'Rupantara Prabhu' in jest. He would go on to direct scores of such plays interspersed with comedies and satires. One such satire was Udhbhava, adapted from Vaikunta Raju's story, which went on to make waves. The play was made later into a film that was a hit, starring Anant Nag, Ashwath, Balakrishna and others. Another one of his late 1980s plays was Gulle Nari, a full-length musical comedy that was adapted from Benjamin Jonson's Volpone. Prabhu wrote the lyrics for 13 songs in the play. One song, 'Barey Barey Rangamanchakke' has become a popular classic that continues to be sung at social functions and live shows. Prabhu had established himself as a playwright and director.

Ashok Badaradinni's invitation in 1981 to play Hamlet in Ramachandra Deva's superlative Kannada translation was to have a deep impact on Prabhu's creative journey. He found the offer intimidating since he had never considered himself as an actor. "It was a brilliant translation by Ramachandra Deva. Once I read it, I knew I had to do it. Just as the play Tughlak had become synonymous with C R Simha - I was called 'Hamlet Prabhu' for a long time. It moulded me as an actor, and for me, it was the performance of a lifetime."

His portrayal of Hamlet brought him accolades and firmly established him as an actor. His years as a producer at Bengaluru's Doordarshan Kendra saw him directing many pioneering telefilms and TV serials, often shot with low budgets and generous homeowners who would not charge him a paisa for using their homes as locations. "They would even cook meals for the crew. It was a wonderful phase," he reminisces.

Prabhu is also an accomplished Hindustani singer, trained under Shyamala Bhave, and practises daily. He interrupted our long chat during lunch and offered avalakki that he had made - he is an accomplished cook and has published many cookery books. While he is busy acting in films, he continues his tryst with theatre. He is now performing Samsa, a 90-minute one-man play written and directed by him, based on Swamy Venkatadri Iyer's life.

He hasn't finished quite yet - he has a film idea that is simmering away quietly. This multi-faceted man has many more parts to play, and many more curtain calls to take.

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