In the autumn of 1981, the Telugu movie Shanakarabaranam was tearing up the city of Madras. Our whole extended family was going to watch it together, courtesy of a "treat" by Hema Athai. I don't remember the exact reason for the treat, but if I had to hazard a guess, I will say that it was because she had cleared the exams and become an officer in Corporation Bank. (Not that Hema Athai ever needed a real reason to throw a party.) I remember this because as far as I know, this was where the movie-and-restaurant combo “treat” concept was born, the first of many to follow.

I didn’t connect with the movie at all. Shankarabaranam has a complex plot that dwells on mature themes. Plus it is in Telugu, and I can’t claim to understand a whole lot of it. Let me say that I managed to endure the movie, only by thinking often of our imminent visit to Woodlands Restaurant. I thought of the movie should have been named Shankaraboreanam. The details of the movie elude me, but I remember vividly what happened when it ended. The movie has a tragic ending to it, but as a 13-year old I didn’t have much patience for tragedies. When the film credits began to roll, there I was, surrounded by aunts dabbing at their eyes delicately, and quite possibly an emotion-choked uncle or two. I was later told that my enthusiastic “Ippo Hotel thane?!” was acutely mistimed.

My connection with this movie doesn't end there. Let me tell you about a competition where a song from this movie features prominently.
        In 1982 we were living in the postal colony in Ashok Nagar. Our neighbor was my father's colleague, the late Mr. Kuppuswamy -- a large man with a larger heart. He was a member of a club (which I believe was named Suguna Vilasa Sabha) where he played cards. The members of the club also got tickets to see Tamil plays.
        One day, Mrs. Kuppuswamy came over to our house and informed us that the club was holding a family event with all sorts of games and competitions. There was going to be a poetry recital competition as well as a singing contest, and she said that we were free to participate if we wanted to. Me and my brothers would participate in the poetry thing, but because there were no singers in my house we invited my cousin Ramesh to come along.
        And so one Saturday afternoon, twenty years ago, myself and Mukund and Jagan and Ramesh set out for the venue in Mount Road. Mr. Kuppuswamy was not going to attend, but we were told that it would be no problem.
        In the venue, there were over fifty people in all, with maybe a dozen kids who would be competing in the poetry and song contests. There were two Table Tennis sets laid out, and there was a lot of food. When it was time to start the competitions, they informed us that they had merged the poetry recitation and the singing contest into one. This meant that I would have to compete with the singers. I wasn’t too happy about it, but in life you learn to play the cards you are dealt.
         I was one of the first contestants to go onstage. I recited one of the poems from the last few pages of my eighth standard English textbook. Quite possibly, it might have been something like Wordsworth’s "The Solitary Reaper," or possibly Shelley’s "Ozymandius" though I can’t exactly recall now. I did a creditable job, giving it my best shot. When I had finished reciting about ten lines or so, they cut me off and told me to stop. The judges were doing this to all contestants. Neither the judges nor the audience had the patience to listen to overeager children prattling on and on.
         A few contestants later, Ramesh went onstage. He folded his hands across his chest, and with no fuss, started the song Shankara Naadha Sareera from the movie Shankarabaranam. If you know the song well, you will recall that the song begins with a loud, “Shankaraaaaa” that punctures the air, and Ramesh executed the beginning wonderfully well and his singing lived up to the initial promise. The judges told him to stop after less than one minute. But even in under sixty seconds, he had put a death-lock on the first place. My stomach sank a little. I clapped the loudest.
         Ramesh was walking towards us. "Hello…" a voice called.
        "Hello…mister….Mr. Ramesh?"
         Ramesh turned back to look. One of the judges was beckoning to him, asking him to return. Ramesh walked back.
        "If you don't mind, the judges would like you to the sing the entire song, please."
        In that big hall, all banter ceased mid-sentence, all gorging stopped mid-samosa. Ramesh nodded and started off, once again no fuss. His hands were folded across his chest like before, but he seemed a little more relaxed. He sang like the proverbial lark and the whole audience just sank into the song. When he reached the fast section of the song, his right hand opened up as if he was letting the song flow out of his chest for the audience to enjoy. They gave him an ovation.
         Everyone in the room knew one fact. Ramesh had locked up the first prize, so throw away the keys. When a performance is so superior, it is easy to give up envy and turn into another admirer.
         In a field where all the contestants were pretend warriors, sparring with our butter knives, Ramesh came in quietly toting his Uzi and blew us all away.
         Of course, he got the first prize. I think I got second or may be it was third place. Even if you take away Ramesh’s wonderful performance, in the early 80’s in South India, Shelley was no match for Sowmyajulu. They handed out some prizes, but I can't remember what they were.
         A lot of the attendees expressed admiration for the prizes that our family had won. But I could detect an underlying sense of jealousy too. Being the subject of envy is a price that all winners have to pay. Even as we walked out of the venue to the L.I.C PTC bus stop to catch bus numbers 12E or 11D to take us to Ashok Pillar, in the air I could sense their admiration and envy, trailing us like incense and smoke.

Ram Prasad
September 2002

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