He struggled throughout his life to realise his dreams. He fought with his bosses and never held a steady job. Borrowed & lost money on many projects. After 50, things changed dramatically. He got more money & fame than ever before. Presenting the many faces of the successful villain of Madras Cafe, Airlift & Shakuntala in this episode of ‘Spotlight with Sandhya’. Prakash Belawadi ,award winning actor and director talks to Sandhya Mendonca about reel and real life, on a reluctant actor and becoming a popular villain, on disappointment and remorse, and sticking to principles and fighting for causes.
Episode 14 of Spotlight with Sandhya features a candid talk with Belawadi. You can view the Video or listen to the Podcast. or read the transcript of the interview below. You might also want to read Being an Actor.
Prakash Belawadi is an award winning filmmaker himself, a director, an actor and a journalist. The larger world got to know him when he entered the Hindi film industry some years ago, but he’s been a vocal voice in the world of media and entertainment in Bangalore for ages, and is a winner of the Karnataka Nataka Academy Award, amongst others.
Sandhya Mendonca: Before I move on to talk about your successes in your various careers. I would like to talk about failures you have experienced because I feel especially in these times it is very easy to gloss over the stumbling blocks that you would have experienced and then just make much about the person’s celebrity status and you know the fame, the money and the prestige that everybody enjoys. Prakash, you started your own newspaper and that failed. You also contested elections for the municipal council and lost. So what made you pick yourself up and continue? You have gone on to do several other things. But how did you do that because every failure is daunting and I think it would very useful and interesting to know how you cope with the challenges you have encountered.
Prakash Belawadi: One of the biggest consolations I offer myself is that whenever you want to do something that you are interested in doing it becomes very difficult and if you have to do something that someone else wants to do, it becomes easier to live from the salary and the sense of security. You know the group that I have set up for film and drama for instance, we started in 2004 to start a film school and that’s where we did the newspaper also. The film school it never really took off, I mean I ran it for many years but it was a big struggle. Many good successful directors came out of that but I could never make that school. Eventually I was invited to join a much larger organisation and start a school there. I worked there for ten years but it was so difficult to work with all those people and maybe they found it difficult to work with me to fair. Part of the reason, I have never held jobs for one year of two years. Two years has been the longest that I have spent in one job that too because of the Indian Express. When I joined it was a great paper and we were colleagues in one of those publications.
So the thing is I have never been able to hold down a job because I keep losing jobs because I keep getting into trouble with the management or into trouble with my boss. That is why it has always been a struggle. It could also be a big struggle because I don’t have everything that it takes to be successful maybe. But now, I am counted as a success only because I am making money when I am acting. That’s the only thing.
So I realize what people mean by success which is just money. But you know I always had some amount of recognition. I had fooled myself that fame is also success. But apparently not, not even my mother bought it. You have to make money to be successful. I have been an independent person. You know I could not continue in politics not because of great failure. That municipal elections, I did quite well for municipal polls. I got some 800 or 900 votes. The winning thing was only around some 4000 votes you know. I didn’t really feel bad because I spent just 51,000 rupees to do that. I went and visited every place and didn’t look as difficult as it seemed from the outside and I got offers from leading political parties to be their candidate next time but I did not do it because I realised the great trap of politics for a person like me and that trap is this. In politics you are expected to be loyal to the party or loyal to your leader but I can be loyal to a principle and that is very difficult thing for people like me because of the way we have done politics through our artistic work. So I am happy doing that.
Sandhya: You excel in negative roles and I always marvel how deep you get in the skin or under the skin. You get deep into the role and portray the nuances of the character. I think sometimes you go beyond what the writer has written and what the director wants to get out of you. What is that helps you to do this?
Prakash: my nephew, my sister’s eldest son who is a great artist, musician and painter and sculptor you know, he always says that I must introspect on why I get to do as he said why do you think you get to do this. You have been very kind to me as an actor whenever rarely I acted in the past. I became a professional actor only after I crossed fifty years of age. Earlier I used to do a role only if some actor didn’t turn up because I learn lines quite quickly and to the distress of all directors I paraphrase because I just learned the lines. But anyways I have never acted before. I have always been a director and I’ve been a trainer, theatre. I have never been an actor but when I acted in Girish Karnad’s film Kanooru Heggadithi, that’s the one. He was the one who gave me a break because I had fought with Mr.Akbar. I was working with the Asian age at that time (in Delhi) and I came down to Bangalore and I quit from here. He wrote a note saying, Prakash it was a good thing you quit before you were asked to leave. I came here and I didn’t have a job and of course in my mother’s house they didn’t look up on me kindly. They thought I had become even more useless than before because I didn’t have a job.
I was told that Arjun Sajnani was looking for someone to play a role in Girish Karnad’s Fire and the Rain. Then I went there and did a reading and Arjun was completely distressed with my English pronunciation. He said why you speak English like that. I responded that I am a Kannadiga and this is how I speak English. I felt humiliated and said I’ll quit but it was five days to the show and I think he was helpless and he let act anyway. And suddenly because now was going to act I found some way to fix my of speaking and I got a lot of praise for playing that role. Everybody kind of liked me. Girish Karnad saw the play and he came out and said you were great and played the role absolutely right. That’s why he cast me in that film. Many people thought I was quite good in that role. You particularly, I remember a review where you praised me a lot. It just made me feel so happy but I was still not pursuing acting. I acted in a small role in another film. He called me again to do a web series. It was Tejasvi’s Chidambara Rahasya. Girish has always been thinking that I am a good actor.
This career shift because of this TV series I used to do called Garva. He was a big fan of that show. He would come talk to me to interview me about movies. It just come to angst. You know how young people are not satisfied. They don’t know what to do with their lives and all that. Then you know I gave him really like dangerous advice and he took it. He quit his job and moved to Bombay. I told him two things in the ought’s that you should work for a guru. You cannot work like passing exams. It doesn’t work like that. You know a certificate of merit in the ought’s doesn’t matter. If you are a carpenter, people will show say show me your work. You can just show up. You know you’re an actor, you can do an audition. You know no amount of certification will help you. I told him second thing that I said that you should not be like IT people. Young people keep quitting jobs because you’re getting better salaries. You should build a career like that. You should learn something like that even if you get a better offer. You work for a person you admire. You take your time to pick the person. You try for couple of weeks and then you decide.
But once you go there, work for him for five years I said. You know I worked with Shoojit Sircar at Rising Sun films for five years, after two years began to send me Facebook messages of TV ads that he had been associated with. He began to offer me roles in TV commercials. I said I don’t want to do TV commercials. I don’t know what product I am endorsing, I am not going to do it I said.
Then you know he said okay there’s this role in a movie and I’ll send you the scenes and I’ll send you the character description. You do the shooting yourself because you can shoot. I read it and I instantly realized this was completely from anything I have seen in Hindi movies and then I shot those scenes, couple of those for audition at Suchitra and that’s how I acted in Madras Café. They asked how much you should be paid. I said its okay, I’ve been an amateur actor, you don’t have pay me anything. Nevertheless they gave me some little money.
Then I did one more and then one more time. I came to Airlift, the director Raja Krishna Menon said “are you crazy? You should have a manager or an agent in Bombay” I said I don’t want an agent in Bombay. I don’t want anyone to find roles for me. I want people to call me only if I have a script I like then I’ll ask a manager to talk money and all that but I don’t want any agent. The same boy who got me the role Arjun Chakravarti who was Shoojit Sircar’s fourth assistant in Madras Café. He and Nasleen Aziz run a firm called Fictonary in Mumbai. They actually manage me and them completely Mumbai types. They just argue fiercely and get me very good deals and suddenly my life changed. 200 days a year I have to be shooting now.
Sandhya: That’s wonderful. You have also acted in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu films. In these films you’ve acted with legendary actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Mithun Chakravarti, Kamal Hasan and then of course next generation like Akshay Kumar, John Abraham, Farhan Akthar, Ayushmann Khurana and not to forget our very own Shiv Raj Kumar. How is it to share the set and share the screen at times with these actors?
Prakash: Actors can be very surprising you know and some great people can be surprising for instance Mr. Bachchan has a fantastic sense of humour. It can be intimidating because he is so good as an actor when he is in a role. Even when he is not shooting he stays in character and you know it becomes very funny sometimes because what he says stays in his character and is very funny. But he is great conversationalist I mean everyone can see that even otherwise. He can share stories. When I did TE3n, he shared stories of young days in Kolkata. How he used to be part of literature theatre movement. You know Farooq Shaikh for instance when I was acting in Youngistan, he died a couple of days after bit of shoot we had together. You know he is an extremely well-spoken person, extremely idealistic person Farooq Shaikh. I don’t think I have met a nicer human being. He was such a great guy or you can meet people like John Abraham. The first time I met him, so generous with the praise. So well making such an effort to keep you involved or say Irfan Khan who actually gave his lines to me in Talvaar. Because you mentioned Shivarajkumar I’ll tell you. You know Shivarajkumar, he’s really like an astonishing person on set. You know he works, he becomes so involved in the film that when he is acting, after he finishes the scene some other thing is happening but if he is on set he go organize the juniors, he’ll make them stand somewhere. He will be telling them how to do it what they are doing as though he is the assistant director. You’ll feel like that. I think it comes with the family.They are terrific generous people, very easy and welcoming. Extremely respectful to everybody.
Sandhya: Okay, so I remember your debut film which you wrote and directed Stumble. Having been a filmmaker yourself, have you felt anything while you’re acting e?
Prakash: No, I think it is close to 60.
Sandhya: That’s quite a leap for a reluctant actor I say. Anyway, any of the films you have acted in have ever felt the itch to direct. You know did you feel Oh I really wish I had this film to direct and second question would ever direct a film again?
Prakash: I intend to direct a film every year from now on. So if COVID hadn’t happen, I would have been in Seattle shooting a film now that I have written, co-written I must say. It’s a story written by Shriram Iyer but I have adapted into a film. So I would have done that. That sounds easy. But the first question I’ll have to answer with a bit of mujugura, some embarrassment. See I acted in a play in Australia in 2019 called Counting and Cracking. I had one of the key roles in that and I won the Helpmann awards, it’s like the Tony awards in Australia for acting and I won the Australia’s best actor male. You should look it up. It’s a great play and we intend to do a world tour and bring it to India at some point of time. In that play, the director and the author were together. The author was co-directing the play in a way. So I would just drive them crazy with making suggestions on changing the lines in the script. Changing moves telling the director why didn’t you block it like this. You know talking about a big Australian director. He is the creative head of Belvoir St theatre in Sydney. A very big company. That play won 8 awards. Emmon Flack and Shaktidharan. I would tell them to change things. I told Rajkumar Hirani how to change a line. He took it so seriously. He called the writer, made him sit in front of me to discuss it all. I mean that is Mumbai. They’re very serious people. Okay so, anyway the thing is I do this all the time. Some directors and co-actors take it well, some don’t take it well. I did a web series, I won’t mention the name of the actor. I told him something and he said “You know sir I will do whatever the fuck I like”. He said that to me … then I thought fine I’ll pipe down. Won’t do this anymore.
Sandhya: In the many plays that you have directed, I see that the underlying theme of ethical and moral dilemma that the plays address. The ones you chose to direct, say for example Copenhagen right. So what attracts you to these subjects?
Prakash: You know my interest is conflict. My idea of conflict is this. It is true that when you are given the choice between right and wrong, the right is very clear. If I say for instance you should not steal money. I think 99.99 percent of the people on earth will agree with you except the person who steals. Conflicts are important when time is there, if you have time forever to resolve every problem maybe or you can fool yourself to think you will resolve but then you are running out of time. How do you resolve a problem, you take risks you would never take before. That is why storytelling, stories crafted in narratives in time like a play or a movie are so attractive to me.
Sandhya: Let’s talk about your activism. You mentioned the Suchitra film society that you are very much a part of and you also of one founders of Bangalore international short film festival correct. You’re also an activist in terms of the civic issues. You were a part of the steel flyover beda campaign, the campaign agains the steel flyover in Bangalore. You’re also a part of BPAC, Bangalore Political Action Committee. What drives you to be involved in all these issues?
Prakash: This is what patriotism is. It starts from home. You like home, you like your community, you like your neighbours, you like your friends. Hopefully you like these people. These are concentric circles, they grow bigger and bigger till it envelopes your city, your state and your nation. But you know this is what I mean, if you’re that you can’t solve a problem of your place wherever you identify yourself as. I don’t believe in this autonomous self, when I say me it just me in the cosmos. I don’t agree with that. When I say me, I say me in a community
Sandhya: Now that brings me to the question of how do you stay rooted when you’re growing in the popularity with all the people running to take selfies with you but you still remain the same person, you know. I mean we’ve known each other for far too many years and whenever I ask you for something you’re there and you are the same with so many other friends. How do you do that? How do you not allow all this fame to get to your head? I am sure it is difficult to stay rooted. How do you manage to do it?
Prakash: Because I have remorse. It is easy to say that you’ve become successful that you have many achievements, many awards but it comes at some cost and it’s not the cost just to you. It’s like people around you, the people who love you as with many actors in that film. I’ve given a lot of pain to my family, to my wife for sure. You know if Chandrika didn’t have a steady job then I don’t think I could have taken those risks that I took in my life. Just get up and leave whenever I thought I didn’t agree with the management for instance and sometimes you know you would have made a lot of wrong decisions. I would have hurt a lot of people because I am a short tempered person as you know and I’ll make decisions impulsively sometimes that can hurt people a lot that can damage them some ways. So I have remorse and every time somebody asks me to do something I try doing it if I can simply because I remember how it was for me to ask and how it felt when somebody did help. So that’s why I think you know the thing is to be this and not to get carried away with praise and not to feel depressed by criticism. Stithapragya (balance of mind) I think it’s important to have it.
Sandhya: I know you started shooting again right. I know you were at a shoot even yesterday. How was it to get back to work shooting again in this COVID era?
Prakash: You know this is the second time I have gone out to shoot. I have gone out to dub a few more times other than that. It is very risky and it’s a bit frightening because you know I have my daughters visiting me and my wife is there. I am socially continued actively meeting people so it makes me bit jittery and nervous you know so. In fact I’ve been sitting at home with a mast so that nobody comes near or talks to me. I am sitting in this corner to do this recording so I don’t interact with anybody.
Sandhya: You know Prakash for me it is a sense of satisfaction for to see. You’ve been a struggling artist in many ways. I always imagine as Don Quixote, you’re always tilting at windmills and somewhere now you’re so connected with everything and I also feel this has been a little late in some ways but I am so happy it’s happen to you. It couldn’t have happened to a better person or a more fun person. I am so glad you’re still in many ways the naughty person that you were and rightly so were put in a corner by your family. you agree that you haven’t lost your sense of mischief yet.
Prakash- I agree. We should meet so to discuss that…
Interview transcribed by Sandeep Ghoshal