An emotionally drenched journey on stage

PR Durai speaks on his expertise as a comedian, the shades of roles he has played, learnings from his mentors, and his relationship with humour and theatre.
Durai’s first drama was 'Ore Mutham', penned by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, where a small character was created for him with loads of humorous content.
Durai’s first drama was 'Ore Mutham', penned by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, where a small character was created for him with loads of humorous content.

CHENNAI : When PR Durai is on the job on stage, laughter is seldom unheard from the audience. Deemed as the ‘CK Nagesh of Tamil Stage’, after the famed cine comedian, the coincidence is in both stalwarts hailing from Dharapuram, Erode district.

Over 10,000 appearances on stage, 50 movies in Tamil and Malayalam, countless shows on All India Radio, television serials, and a dubbing artiste for renowned names, Durai has done it all. Still active in his proven world, Durai opens up that he is wedded to his profession and stage is his first wife. “Yes, but for the unstinted support of my beloved wife Chandra, the journey would not have been feasible. Still, I am game for last-minute calls from reputed drama troupes, confident that no shoe is big enough for Durai to fill in and do total justice to the character,” he says.

Toeing the comic line

Circumstances pushed Durai onto the stage. When studies deserted him after class 1, he was pitch-forked to the famed Sridevi Nataka Sabha, masterminded by the brand names of KN Rathinam and his sibling KN Kalai. It was known as the Boys Company, “as all roles were played by the young boys, be it the author-backed characters or the fringe ones. Women had no place in the troupe and the onus was on the senior ones like me to portray the female characters with the respect women deserved. That was an era where even a small dialogue casting aspersions on the distaff was frowned upon and condemned in the form of huge wall poster banners,” he says.

Durai’s first drama was Ore Mutham, penned by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, where a small character was created for him with loads of humorous content. “Blessed with an appearance like Nagesh, Rathinam felt that comedy would suit my little figure and the audience may not be inclined to see me sport serious characters. It turned out to be true as in the Ramayana drama, my character Lakshman did not cut much ice with the huge turnout. I was crestfallen when all the serious lines which I had rehearsed for days fell on deaf ears, so to say. That was a career-changing moment as Rathinam felt I was destined to be a comedian and not to fritter away the god-sent opportunity,” he shares. The hardcore lesson of his character as Lakshman falling flat only increased his determination to focus on comedy.

Nagesh was Durai’s mentor and the actor’s comic timing and screen presence soon rubbed off on him giving him the best results. Also inspired by Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s pen and Sivaji Ganesan’s acts in Parasakthi and Manohara, Durai understood the importance of values and reach of dialogues. “In movies, there is the luxury of a retake but no such thing on stage; that made it all the more challenging. In those days, a comedian’s job is to not miss on the lines while keeping a straight face,” he adds.

Soon he got his keepsake moment in his role as Vikatakavi, playing the unstinted support to Lord Krishna in Krishnaleela. “Sensing the huge clamour for my character, the production house deemed it fit to headline the banner highlighting my role. I had the feel of being ten feet tall as such acts were normally reserved for stage greats like MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and MR Radha. The icing was the pat on the back from Rathinam, that the next phase of my career was truly on,” he shares.

Such was his fame following this play that audience waited eagerly to watch him on stage. Revealing an interesting anecdote, Durai recounts the time when he was not part of the play Pattalai Petra Paingili in the show in Mettupalayam, presided by Arignar Anna. “The public got to know that I was not part of the play and thundered for the refund. The show had to go on for commercial reasons. Rathinam hit upon an idea to create a Brahmin character striking a conversation with a newspaper vendor. All the impromptu lines were my creation and the audience applause reached a crescendo when I asked the vendor if he had the Dravida Nadu magazine, a popular one edited by Anna. The paeans of praise from Anna made my day and the turnout bowled over by the interesting chain of happenings,” he says.

The play’s success ensured a month-long run all over Tamil Nadu. “The prolonged happiness of the troupe members still lingers in me which made me derive the true meaning of Anna’s words of wisdom that he saw the Almighty in the smile of the poor. That set me thinking to ensure my house doors were ever open round the clock in satiating the hunger of the lesser privileged ones,” he says.

Besides Anna, Durai has garnered praise from other big names of the time. It was a norm in those days to have a reputed name as chief guest to draw a full house. Sivaji Ganesan was the chief guest for the play Oviyan where Durai was entrusted the job of preparing a substitute when the main artiste played truant. “Kalai, who played the character could not get the lines right, in the short preparation time he had. There was an important message the king had to convey and the audience should not know of the prompter behind. I had an epiphany to have the lights off and hide behind the King (separated by a curtain) to reel the dialogues. The audience could not spot that but I could not fool Sivaji Ganesan. He silently slipped in a congratulatory note which is equivalent to scores of Kalaimamani awards.”

Fame and accolades aside, playing his part to promote national integrity during the Chinese invasion in the early 60s was the crowning glory of his drama world, he asserts. “Famed script writer SD Sundaram had shaped a plot highlighting the need of the hour to be united as the cornerstone. Playing a soldier in the play Singanadha was an emotionally charged moment for all of 10 days where it had a repeat audience in Chennai. I am still in the dark as to where I got the strength from to do poetic justice to a character, homing in a pertinent message. The media branded me as the ‘Man for all seasons and for the right reasons’. The truth was the overflow of my adrenaline, lost for words with a lump in my throat, having done my mite for my country,” shares Durai.

Meeting a mentor

On Sundaram’s insistence, Seva Stage’s SV Sahasranamam took Durai under his wings. “I was his Man Friday, happy to entrust the responsibilities on my still fragile shoulders. Filling in for any artiste at the last minute was a child’s play for me, abreast with all the happenings of a play. I had a way with the dialogues and the deliberate pause was a well-intended one as the extra seconds helped the audience to connect with the happenings,” he notes.

For Durai, the mother of all encomiums was when Sahasranamam gave him the important character portrayed by the theatre legend in Kullasamiyarum, Pudhiya Konangiyum. When the chief guest TK Shanmugham wondered where the Kullasamiyar was spotted by SVS, the audience lent a full throated appreciation to acknowledge.

Durai penned his autobiography Angikaram in 2014 and followed it up with a masterpiece on the world of cinema, En Parvayil Prabalangal featuring 73 eminent personalities in the industry including four chief ministers of Tamil Nadu — Anna, MGR, Kalaignar Karunandhi, and J Jayalalithaa.

Making light of his 75-plus summers, Durai has been holding the centenary celebrations of his mentor SVS since  2011. “Honouring the deserving ones on stage with various awards, including lifetime achievement, is my way of showing gratitude to an individual from whom I learned the values and virtues of life. Stage was a huge part of my life but my mentor made me realise that the ultimate joy is in seeing the happiness of others. Only that way, the joy will be total and complete was the line of reasoning. Happily, I could derive meaning from that,” he wraps up.

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