Venkatesh Harinathan on stage is flamboyantly clever, humorous down to his toes and can imitate Mr Bean to perfection. Venkatesh Harinathan off the stage is the exact opposite – quiet and shy, with an intensity that makes it hard to reconcile his monkeying around on stage to his off-stage persona. Known to theatre buffs as the famed Step Step Mani, the artiste from Stray Factory currently has his hands full with two films – Subbu’s Sutta Kadhai and Selvaraghavan’s Irandam Ulagam. As he sits down for a chat with City Express, he has this stunned expression on his face, as though he is still not sure that he’s graduated to 70mm. “The whole thing started when an assistant of director Selvaraghavan saw the Step Step Mani video and thought I’d be suitable for a role in Irandam Ulagam,” says Venkatesh. “Sutta Kadhai happened after that,” he says.
Venkatesh plays the role of Arya’s friend in Irandam Ulagam, while it’s a full length role in the June release, Sutta Kadhai. “I play a police driver in a fictional town where a murder takes place. It’s black humour,” says Venkatesh.
The man, who started his acting career in 2006 because he used to ramble on and on, has donned a number of personas on stage. There was Narrator Mama telling us the tales of Robinson Crusoe and his adventures in Little Theatre’s pantomime, the most memorable Mr Bean in a collaboration with ASAP – Venkatesh chips in with, “It was a tribute show with Amit Singh where I did that sketch of Mr Bean. Unfortunately, the epithet stuck. And I absolutely loathe being called that.” He chuckles quietly. “In one way, it opens doors for you, but it’s not your own identity,” he says, turning serious.
And who can forget the epic Step Step Mani, the man in the checked lungi who mimed the lyrics of Why This Kolaveri with a very straight face. “Step Step Mani is a brash, obnoxious South Indian. We wanted to do something different in the genre of interpretative dance. Kolaveri came out at the same time and the rest is history,” he says. Step Step Mani was also a part of the Lungi Lifting tour of Stray Factory’s Enna Da Rascalas and was invited to perform in Singapore.
After long years on the stage, being in front of the camera did seem quite strange, he confides. “There’s a natural thrill with theatre – you get instant appreciation and everything is hands-on. You go scene by scene in film, so things can get tedious after a while,” he says. Though he was quite at ease while shooting for Sutta Kadhai, Venkatesh says that he was very nervous while shooting for Selva’s film. “That was my first time in front of the camera and I was so nervous it showed.” He recalls an episode where he was supposed to be riding a bike with Arya in one of the scenes. “Little did they know I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle, let alone a Thunderbird. After I bungled it a couple of times, Arya came forward and said he’d take care of it. Phew,” he says, the relief at not having to ride a bike showing on his face even now.
In spite of all the fun he had filming, theatre will always be the first love for the Mass Communications graduate. But are more films in the offing? “Hypothetically, the ideal situation would be for me to pick and choose roles that I like. But that will be a long shot, so right now I guess I will just try to balance film and theatre side by side,” he says. Well, that’s one for the stage. Here’s to more monkeying around.