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Sheer will to succeed

It has been a smooth transition from talk show anchor on the small screen to comedian on the big screen for Yuhi Sethu, who recently starred in "Panchathanthiram".

HIS FRIENDS call him the Woody Allen of Mylapore. Quite honestly, Yuhi Sethu's reputation as the anchor of the television talk show, "Nayyandi Durbar", has been overshadowed by his performance in "Panchathanthiram". Suddenly, he finds himself in some of the most prestigious film productions. How did this happen? Excerpts:

How did Yuhi come to be prefixed to your name?

My name is Sethuraman, but during my college days, I was influenced by the character Yuhi in the Sanskrit play, "Vasavadatta". Like Birbal and Tenali Raman, Yuhi was a court jester. So I decided to prefix Yuhi to my name and over the years, I came to be known as Yuhi Sethu.

Was "Panchathanthiram" your first film appearance?

No. I won a gold medal in the field of direction from The Adyar Film Institute. In 1989, I directed and acted in the film, "Kavithai Pada Neram Illai" with Amala as the heroine. It was a remake of a Hindi film, "Ankush", but the film did not do well at the box-office. Then I did a film, "Madhangal 7" with Ramya Krishnan, which was also a wash-out. I decided to quit films for a while and became a distributor and importer of European films.

Distributing European films?

(Laughs) I distributed Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen" in Tamil Nadu. I stopped importing films when the censors did not pass the film, "Erotic Tales"!

You must have lost a lot of money...

Luckily for me, my father was a film financier, so we were able to absorb some of the losses. During that time, I did a teleplay, "Jana", for Madras Doordarshan. It became a big hit and was telecast 27 times on the channel!

What kept you going during this period?

My will power to succeed. For a short while, I took a break and travelled round the globe. During that time, I did an Italian film, "Pidgin". That was when satellite television was making inroads into our daily life. I thought that I should do something for television and so I came to Chennai and got involved in production.

So you made it big as a talk show host in "Nayyandi Dubar"?

I can proudly say that "Nayyandi Durbar" was one of the biggest success stories in the history of Tamil satellite television. It was the flagship show of the then Vijay TV, where I completed about 550 episodes. When Vijay was taken over by Star TV, I moved over to Jaya TV and did another 50 episodes.

Your critics comment that "Nayyandi Durbar" was a pale imitation of Shekhar Suman's "Movers and Shakers". Any comments.

The format of a talk show has been the same ever since Johnny Carson invented it. Later, Jay Leno popularised it with his stand-up comedy as the lead story followed by a chat with a guest. So you can never say that I copied Shekhar Suman. I lent my own style to the talk show and after I shifted to Jaya TV, I stopped criticising politicians because it would mean that I would be taking sides.

Did "Nayyandi Durbar" pave the way for your return to films?

To be honest, I tasted success for the first time in front of the camera and when people like K. Balachander said that I was the most casual actor he had ever seen, it was very encouraging. I got offers in between in films such as "Tenali" and "Pammal K.Sambandham" from Kamal Hassan. Finally after "Nayyandi Durbar" went off the air temporarily, I accepted the offer to act in "Panchathanthiram".

Tell us about your experience working in "Panchathanthiram"?

Director K.S.Ravikumar and Kamal Hassan gave me complete freedom to speak my own lines. The story was already there and only the gag that I had to do was worked out. It was truly amazing to see Kamal improvising and his capacity to set things rolling has to be seen to be believed.

But some directors are already saying that your jokes can only be appreciated by an upper class Chennai audience...

I know my weaknesses well. I am only trying to cater for a sophisticated market. My aim is to reach across the global market where there is a Tamil diaspora.

How difficult is it to make people laugh?

In talk shows, the humour is live while it is being canned. In a movie, it is exactly the opposite, as you have to labour a lot to make people laugh.

Have you been getting a lot of offers after "Panchathanthiram"?

To be frank, I don't intend ending up playing comedy roles. My role model is Woody Allen. I want to do one-man-shows like him. In "Ramana", I play an intelligent constable, a role that is crucial to the story. With the kind of reach that actor Vijaykanth has, I hope to make an impression with the B and C audiences. Then I am directing a `desi' English film, "Kentucky Idly" in which I will play the lead.

SREEDHAR PILLAI

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