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Jokes apart...

Theatre needs oxygen, not vitamins, says comedian S. Ve. Sheker in an interview

— Pic. by T. Singaravelou

Warm gesture: S. Ve. Shekher distributing nets to fishermen in Bommiarpalayam

"YOU LOOK the same as you did 20 years ago," was the comment a man made on seeing film and theatre personality S. Ve. Shekher as he walked through the streets of Bommiarpalayam, a village near Pondicherry. After 30 years in theatre, he still plays the role of a youngster dallying with girls, but the audience just lap it up.

The actor hasn't changed much over the years. For, he believes in not changing his public face. "I have only one head and face," he said in a lighter vein, going on to add, "I don't really have a separate image for the public. I am the same Shekher both on and off stage. I don't drink or smoke and I don't do so on stage either. People have a certain perception of every personality and when you deviate from it, they don't like it," said Shekher, answering questions on theatre, social work and politics.

He was in Bommiarpalayam to distribute fishing nets, along with the Nandalala Seva Samithi Trust, and started chatting with the people of the area, who seemed to be coming in droves to meet him. Many sought autographs, some students even got him to sign in their textbooks.

Since comedy is his forte (`100 minutes, 200 laughs' is his motto), he entertained the audience with a speech laced with humour.

"Whether you are on stage or acting in a film or making a speech, you are essentially communicating with an audience. If you are able to make the person sitting in front of you understand what you are saying, then you have been able to successfully communicate with him. And mixing with people is not new to me. I have always been in the public eye and doing silent service."

Did service come after his entry into politics? He said, "Service is nothing new to my family. My father Venkatraman was active in the Lions movement and his eyes were donated after his death. So far I have donated blood 49 times and I hope to continue this service. I help poor children with their education and am at present involved in an organisation called `Serve for the dead' which arranges to dispose of unclaimed bodies from Government hospitals."

Service through politics

The actor-director-playwright, who stood for elections in 1990 in South Chennai as an independent candidate, said he had entered politics only to serve the people better. "I realised a party is necessary to enter politics and hence I became a member of the AIADMK. If one becomes an MLA, one can spend Rs. 1 crore for the people and as an MP Rs. 2 crores, but as an individual I cannot spend so much on welfare activities," he said, explaining why he entered `active politics'.

"When `Cho' Ramaswamy bid adieu to the stage, our troupe stepped in to fill the vacuum left by him. Though we can never come up to his level, we have been able to sustain audience interest, which is why my plays still run to packed houses. I never offer solutions in my plays but I include political situations and thoughts in them," he said.

Dearth of women artistes

Shekher said he would continue with his theatre shows, despite his interest in politics. He plans to conduct a workshop for women artistes since there is a dearth of women in theatre. "I will be conducting it along with Narada Gana Sabha and Radio Mirchi. The actors need not necessarily be students of theatre, but should be interested in committing themselves to it. Acting is an honourable profession. It will help infuse fresh talent into theatre." Those interested may email him at sves@vsnl.com

"Theatre does not need vitamins but oxygen these days," he said. "It is a dying art that needs to be revived. The Pondicherry Government has levied a steep entertainment tax on plays. Many theatre companies do not come to the Union Territory because of this. Of my 4,600 shows, more than 2,000 are fund-raisers, but I have not been able to collect money for charitable causes here because there is nothing left after paying the artistes and the Government."

"My kind of theatre is no doubt commercial, but I believe I should be able to entertain my audience rather than preach to them. We can convey powerful messages to the public through comedy."

As the interview progressed, the crowd of onlookers grew and we had to say, "Thadangalukku varundhugirom" ("Sorry for the interruption" — That's his favourite phrase from the Doordarshan era when programmes went off the air for inexplicable reasons). Soon after it was "Indha nigazhchiyai ithudan mudichukaren" (I wind up my programme with this). And Shekher left for home (Chennai).

DEEPA H. RAMAKRISHNAN

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