Chief minister ever after...

A scene from the play 'Mukhyamantri'

Amateur Kannada theatre, which got a tremendous boost in the early 1970s with the entry of B V Karanth, P Lankesh, Girish Karnad, Prasanna, B V Rajaram and others, has seen many ups and downs over the last four decades. But, during this transitional phase, if one play, centred around one character, has retained evergreen popularity, it is ‘Mukhyamantri’, with H N Chandrasekhar in the main role. Chandrasekhar, the actor, popularly known as Chandru, has such mesmerising effect on the audiences that this two-hour, serious political drama is inching towards a record. The 700th show in its 38th year, earning him a permanent moniker as ‘Mukhyamantri Chandru.’

It was a play that almost did not happen. Kannada playwright and actor T S Lohitashwa had translated a Hindi play of the same name by Ranjit Kapoor. He was keen on doing the lead role in the Kannada version being directed by B V Rajaram for Kalagangotri. Days before the show, Lohitashwa was diagnosed with typhoid and the responsibility fell on Chandru to carry the mantle, as the shows had been announced.

Chandru recalls that he was overwhelmed by the 80-odd-pages script full of verbose monologues and pleaded with Rajaram that he should be spared. Rajaram wouldn’t listen as the title of the play had caught people’s attention, and there had been a brisk sale of tickets. But, another hurdle cropped up when director Prema Karanth sent legal notice to Kalagangotri saying she had bought the stage rights from Ranjit Kapoor and would not allow an unauthorised version to be performed.

“We were about to give up, but overhearing our conversation that happened in Karanth’s house, B V Karanth intervened and persuaded Prema to let the show go on,” Chandru recalled. Karanth not only saw the first show, but applauded his performance, too.

Ever since, Mukhyamantri has had an unprecedented run, being performed to packed houses across Karnataka, as also in the major cities of India, and even before Kannada audiences in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. People are drawn as much to the political intrigue of a chief minister outsmarting opponents in his own party with some deft moves and skullduggery as to the effortless ease with which Chandru essays his role, delivering rapid-fire dialogues with the right punch. The then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde, who watched the 50th show of the play, was so impressed with Chandru that he drew Chandru into politics, giving another dimension to his career.

Born in a humble family from Nelamangala, Chandru says his life has been “full of accidents” which he never dreamt of. “I did my college education living on vaaranna (free food and accommodation at acquaintances’ homes on a weekly basis), got a clerk’s job at Bangalore University thanks to then vice chancellor H Narasimhaiah, and took to theatre after director Prasanna offered me a role,” he says.

Film producer N Veeraswamy, who saw Chandru on stage, decided to cast him in the role of a political villain in the Kannada film Chakravyuha, which was being directed by Rajendra Babu. Being involved in shooting, Chandru was apprehensive about taking leave from office and missing out on a salary of Rs 415 per month. But, Veeraswamy took such liking for Chandru’s acting prowess that he not only paid him 10 times that amount for acting in his film, but introduced him to half a dozen other directors.

Chandru was a little upset that he was mostly getting villainous roles where he had to indulge in fights, but with his background in theatre, he gradually switched to being a dialogue-oriented villain, who specialised in slapstick comedy and humour. He has acted in over 500 films, including four films with the legendary Rajkumar and the humorous Ganesha series with Anant Nag, but his passion remains theatre “as there is nothing more satisfying than stage acting and feeling the pulse of the audience.”

Chandru has also indulged in mime — for a while, becoming popular as ‘mime Chandru’— picking up his skills from mime gurus such as Adam Abraham and Jacqueline Hennessy and has given hundreds of shows. He has also made a name by acting in a number of Kannada serials, the prominent ones being Agnisakshi and Subbulakshmi Samsara.

Recalling his accidental entry into politics, Chandru says it was Ramakrishna Hegde who picked him at the prompting of B L Shankar and Nagarajmurthy, to contest from Gauribidanur in the 1983 Assembly election, which he won comfortably. Chandru has moved from being a clerk to theatre, and from theatre to films to serials to politics, and finally to Kannada activism, but always found time for a few shows every year to perform in Mukhyamantri, innovating and drawing on his new experiences.

Many chief ministers have come and gone ever since he began playing the role, and whenever they happen to share the stage with Chandru, even they refer to him as a ‘permanent’ chief minister, which they could never be.

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Chief minister ever after...

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