Happy Feet and Many Hats

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Prabhudheva’s journey from southern dance sensation to hit actor to one of Bollywood’s most wanted directors
“In Hyderabad, they take me as a choreographer. Everybody, including fans, call me Master. In Chennai, I am known as an actor and in Bollywood, as a director,” announces Prabhudheva, offering us a brief geographic tour of his two-decade-long career. There isn’t the faintest whiff of arrogance in the pronouncement. His sentences often begin and end with ‘No’—“No sir, how can I talk like that, no?” Add to that his habit of calling everybody ‘sir’ and you get a man more respectful than you might think.

He complains of homesickness, of wanting to go back to Chennai. When he went home for Diwali, his mother gave him a traditional oil bath. “She does all the household work herself. Sweeping, cooking, doing dishes. We have seen her like this for many years now,” says the director, the ‘we’ being his two brothers, both of whom also work in the movies.

Prabhudheva, 40, probably won’t admit it, but he looks ill at ease in Bollywood. We meet a couple of weeks before his new release, the Shahid Kapoor starrer R... Rajkumar. Despite scoring big as a director with the superhits Wanted and Rowdy Rathore, and the unexpected, if moderate success of a film he starred in, ABCD: Any Body Can Dance, Prabhudheva remains “unassuming” and “absolutely devoted to his work”, according to producer Boney Kapoor.

When a Hindi film director smells success, he buys a sea-facing 4BHK and a fancy car to affirm his status. For accommodation, Prabhudheva has rented Boney Kapoor’s vacant flat, and for transport, he relies on a car rental company that sends him an “Innova, different, different colour every day” as he puts it. (In Chennai, he drives a Chevrolet Captiva).

He refrains from commenting on his peers. You expect him at the very least to take on critics who were harsh on Wanted and Rowdy Rathore, starring Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar, but he won’t. “Critics are learned people. How can I say anything against them?” he says. One critic, he recounts, gave Rowdy Rathore one star. “When we met, I reminded him, ‘Sir, with all due respect to your review, the film ran.’ He replied, ‘People love your films. Don’t worry about reviews.’ A little later, I said, ‘Sir, my next film is releasing soon. Be ready with your one star.’ We had a good laugh.”

Uncomfortable with interviews, partly because he is not a glib talker, more than twice in our 45-minute conversation does he suppress a full-blown yawn, stare at the ceiling and check his phone impatiently. And yet, somehow he grins and bears it. No gripes, no scoffs.

What is Prabhudeva made of?

Dosa,” he says, in jest.

Make that rubber. Rubber Man. That’s what he is called, a reference to his supple dance moves. Viewers’ earliest memory of him is his grooving to Urvashi Urvashi from 1994’s Kadhalan with a pair of vermillion socks popping out. But what stayed in young minds were his ‘bum-scratching’ moves. This, he says, was inspired by all the “Michael Jackson stuff” he was getting exposed to. And surely, he has been in the memory of Tamil viewers a little longer than that of Hindi film-goers. Trained in Bharatanatyam, under the watchful care of two gurus who had contrasting temperaments–one “angry like hell” and the other “very soft”–Prabhudheva as a little boy was a terrible student but a terrific dancer. By 15, he was demonstrating unusual precocity. His father Mugur Sundar, a well-known Tamil chorographer, took him on as an understudy. So a young Prabhudheva started accompanying his father to the sets, helping with his work. On one such occasion, in 1986, he found himself on the sets of Mouna Ragam with director Mani Ratnam and cameraman PC Sreeram. When a dancer dropped out last minute, Master Sundar called on his young son to show them a few moves. Both surprised and impressed by his talent, Mani Ratnam gave him Rs 500 as a reward. “I was scared. It was a lot of money. So I gave it to Father.”

But the first flush of talent was felt in 1987 when his father sent him as his stand-in to a Kamal Haasan film set as he had commitments elsewhere. The film was Vetri Vizha. Prabhudheva vividly recalls director Prathap K Pothan’s promise, “If your choreography is good, we will give you credit. If it’s bad, we will put your dad’s’ name.” He never saw that film to check if he got a credit mention, but that’s probably because he hasn’t had time to look back since.

In the early years, Kamal Haasan was particularly encouraging: “He used to tell Father, ‘Send this boy to London. He will do well as a dancer’.” Rajinikanth took a shine to him too. In 1989, a 16-year-old Prabhudheva wore baggy pants that hadn’t yet caught Madras street fashion to the sets of the superstar’s Mappillai. “Rajini sir wanted to know where I got the pants from. ‘Get one for me, please,’ he said. Nervously, I replied: ‘Sir, from a local store called Rex, sir. Fifty rupees only.’ But he was just fooling around.” Prabhudheva wore similar pants in 1993’s Gentleman, making them a pop-culture trend among Tamil youth.

Prabhudheva views himself as a better dancer than director. When he is down with fever, all he has to do is shake a leg: “A little sweating and I feel better.”

His films contain at least one song specially mounted to showcase the skills he is best known for. He enjoys putting in an appearance. And when he does, others run for cover. In a Wanted number, Govinda and Salman Khan couldn’t match steps with him. Still, he counts Govinda among his favourite dancers. “He does it from his heart, from his core. Even from a kilometre, you can tell it is Govinda dancing,” he says. And while Shahid Kapoor is “super-superb”, Hrithik Roshan is the “best in India”.

Listening to Prabhudheva speak about dance reminds one of Vincent van Gogh’s famous quip, “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Prabhudheva’s approach is unconsciously similar. “I have a sleepless night if I am choreographing a song the next day. I dream something. And then I wake up in the middle of the night and start dancing. Next morning, I repeat the same moves on the sets.” No planning, practice or research is involved. He says: “Whatever comes to my mind, I do.” The Lakshya number Main Aisa Kyun Hoon was choreographed in exactly 15 minutes. But then, it had Hrithik Roshan. It won Prabhudheva his second National award for best choreography. It’s strange that for a man whose work involves songs, Prabhudheva neither listens to music nor has a CD/DVD collection. “I don’t have a stereo system in my house,” he says. In an age of iPods, this is a telling absence.

The ‘I Dream My Dance’ philosophy, however, doesn’t—and cannot—extend to filmmaking where nothing can be left to creative whims. Prabhudheva can barely speak Hindi but on a film set, he is in command. He claims to catch a “wrong expression from a mile”. He knows which line works or how to get rid of extraneous words. “If a line reads, ‘Achcha main kal ghar aata hoon’ (Okay, I’ll come home tomorrow)’, I confront the writer: ‘Why achcha? Take it out. Why main (me)? Take it out. The final line would read something like: ‘Kal ghar aata hoon.’”

As with dance, in filmmaking, too, Prabhudheva constantly makes spur-of-the-moment inventions. He talks of a scene from his 2007 Tamil hit Pokkiri, remade as Wanted in 2009, where a cop is attempting to trick the film’s star Vijay but instead, finds himself outwitted. This scene wasn’t in the script, which was derived from a Telugu blockbuster.

Prabhudheva made the sensible suggestion of including the scene. “Audience loved it,” he says, adding that the scene was retained in Wanted and that “people clapped and whistled” as loudly for Salman Khan as they did for Vijay.

Prabhudheva arrived in Mumbai armed with a ready reckoner of Tamil tropes. His cinema is a blend of Rajinisms and 1970s Bollywood formulae. Stylised action, slick editing, snazzy camerawork and memorable wisecracks are the staples of his masala fare. Unlike Abhinav Kashyap or Farah Khan, his films are neither pastiche-laden tributes nor satirical. He denies this, but Salman Khan’s re-packaging as Bollywood’s Rajinikanth began with Wanted, a year before Dabangg actually established the Rajini turn in Bollywood.

Boney Kapoor, producer of Wanted, says, “Action-oriented films from south India have their own flavour. Prabhu, having worked there, knows a lot about audience taste. On the technical front, he is aware of editing, which helps make his films snappy.”

Prabhudheva calls it a brand of filmmaking that highlights the “distinctive style” of the hero. Like Farah Khan and Rohit Shetty, he dutifully follows the maxim of entertainment being “king”. Outlining that vision, he says, “Except five cities, all of India is a village. My target audience is that man in a small town or village who works very hard for his money and if he spends a part of that money on buying my film’s ticket, the least we can do is assure him a good time.”

We turn to influences and he reveals an admiration of K Balachander, the Tamil legend whose cinema thrums with unconventional themes. Earlier, he found Balachander’s films hard to watch. “I didn’t understand that kind of cinema,” he admits. “But in the last seven-eight years, I have started liking him a lot. He was ahead of his time.” But for all his affinity with Balachander, their work has little in common.

Prabhudheva is no auteur and his films have no personal vision whatsoever. But then, he has no pretensions to being a cinema geek. By his logic, a real movie experience is tantamount to being on a holiday—away from work and the world.

Me: “Do you make films for money or passion?”

Him: “Both are correct.”

Me: “Is a movie’s main purpose entertainment?”

Him: “When a child goes to school, he studies. Correct? How can you expect him to study when he is on holiday? Films are like holidays, no? You want to have fun. (Pauses) Sometimes, a child studies on holiday. Sometimes, a child doesn’t even study in school. That also is fine. I am not very educated but I can say that if you want... [to be intellectually challenged], you can read a book or go to a university for higher studies. Why are you looking for intelligence in films?”

He relishes the ‘holiday’ analogy. As a child, Prabhudheva longed for vacations and eventually dropped out. He says, “All through school, my report card used to read: quarterly—fail; mid-term—fail; annual—pass (barely). In the eleventh grade, I failed entirely. Nobody fails in eleventh but I was so bad I failed that too.”

Kapoor says that Prabhudheva makes up with lived experience what he lost out in the classroom. “You don’t learn dance or filmmaking in a school. These things you don’t learn from books. You learn it on a film set,” he says.

Viewers vouch for that.