Upendra’s ‘Shhh!’, released in 1993, has stood the test of time because it’s a brilliant thriller under the guise of a supernatural movie. As much as Upendra’s writing deserves credit for omitting cheap jump scares, one can’t forget Sadhu Kokila’s haunting background, one of the film’s biggest strengths. It hooks you right from the opening credits.
“For several of V Manohar’s compositions, I was the music conductor. Upendra had observed my skills. When he planned ‘Shhh!’, Manohar had his hands full so Upendra roped me in as the music director,” recollects Sadhu.
‘Shhh!’ not only gave the masses a glimpse of Sadhu the music director but also the actor. “Upendra would crack up by just seeing my face. He felt I should be on the screen. I was hesitant but he forced me to play the kung fu master’s character. My first scene was alongside the great Kashinath. Upendra is my godfather,” he says of the actor-director, who gave him the screen name Sadhu Kokila.
The film set off a rare journey, that of a successful music director who grew immensely popular as a comedian.
Sahaya Sheelan Shadrach later known as Sadhu Kokila, was born into a family that breathed music. “It was music that brought my parents together,” he says of father Natteshan, a trained violinist and a tabla player, and mother Mangala, a singer.
Growing up in the Binnypet area of old Bangalore, his first music teacher was SJ Joseph, also guru to the legendary Ilayaraja. “Joseph sir was my father’s colleague at the City Armed Reserve Police. I learnt the basics of Western classical from him,” he says.
After completing his education at St Joseph Indian Institutions, Sadhu had to work his way up to establish himself as a musician. “My elder brother was a rhythm player in an orchestra headed by Kasturi Shankar, who also owns Aruna Musicals in Bengaluru. I joined the team as someone who would pack all the instruments. But every night, I would practice playing the keyboard because I was passionate about it,” explains the 54-year-old.
His tryst with films has a Shankar Nag angle. “He wanted Kannada musicians for his ambitious Sanketh Studio and that’s how I got a chance to work with him. My first film as a keyboard player was in Shankar Nag’s ‘Ondu Muttina Kathe’ (1987), starring Dr. Rajkumar. In his ‘Malgudi Days’ (1986), I was the rhythm player,” he says.
Apart from his gripping scores in ‘Shhh!’, ‘Majestic’ (2002), ‘Deadly Soma’ (2005), and ‘Edegarike’ (2012) his melodious tracks from ‘H2O’ (2002) and ‘Inthi Ninna Preethiya’ (2008) provide a nostalgic rush to the ’90s generation. “I owe my versatility to the greats I have worked with. Being an Indian-style keyboard player for L Vaidyanathan, I shared the stage with AR Rahman, who was the Western-style keyboard player in several concerts. My soulful songs are also a result of my experience of creating ‘Bhavageethe’ albums for Mysore Ananthaswamy and C Ashwath,” he says.
For his hilarious acts on screen, Sadhu has grown into a brand. Fans affectionately call him ‘Sadhu Maharaj’. With terrific timing, an unmissable hairstyle, unique body language, and funny voice modulation, Sadhu is a complete package, almost as popular as a film’s hero.
We are in 2020 but his ‘Musthafa’ comedy track in ‘O Mallige’ (1997) and Arogyadas scene in ‘Vaali’ (2001) are two of the many Sadhu videos watched with much joy by fans on YouTube.
“I watched Johnny Lever do mimicry in Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai and was thrilled. I started doing mimicry shows. I liked (comedy stalwart) Musuri Krishnamurthy’s voice and began imitating it. If you observe keenly, some of my scenes have his influence,” says Sadhu, who loves Charlie Chaplin, and the Goundamani-Senthil combination in Tamil.
“What Chaplin did wasn’t just comedy. He reflected on life. There won’t be another Chaplin. Goundamani was terrific with his punch-lines. He showed that you needn’t talk more to crack a joke,” he says.
The Doddanna-Tennis Krishna pair was the Kannada equivalent to Goundamani-Senthil. Sadhu did what Vadivelu did to Tamil films: breathe a fresh lease of life to comedy.
After consistent solo comedy acts, he struck a great on-screen rapport with Doddanna.
Being a musician helped his acting, says Sadhu. "Tempo and timing are crucial features of music. They are important in comedy also," he notes.
Success comes with perseverance and self-belief, says Sadhu, who made his directorial debut with ‘Raktha Kanneeru’ (2003).
“This is a field where people wait for you to fail. The competition can make you or break you. Every star has a fan-base but everyone from those groups loves me. I feel blessed. Music deserves a lot more respect in the Kannada film industry. My role as a marriage broker in 'Mr. and Mrs. Ramachari' (2014) was a huge hit. Most of the filmmakers want me in their films since then. But while writing comedy scenes, directors stick to the same formula. They write the same entry scene for me, again and again. We need to strive for originality,” he says, remembering how the Telugu comedy great Brahmanandam praised him for his uniqueness.
Sadhu thanks his wife Celine for constant support and is confident his sons Suraag and Srujan will excel in music. “Suraag is a music director and Srujan is a classical singer. I have big dreams with my studio Loop Entertainment. I am planning an ambitious musical,” says Sadhu, known as one of the fastest keyboard players in the country.