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October 18, 1997


Rise of the Rai

Gauri Lankesh

Prakash Rai (left) with Mohan Lal. Click for bigger pic!
He takes a deep drag from yet another cigarette. "God loves fools, that is why he created actors," he says casually, tapping off the ash. Then he breaks into a wide smile. "I love being a fool," he says.

His remark doesn't seem altogether out of place. Like the jesters of yore, he's got a rather unremarkable face which can, in a fleeting glance, reveal an incredible range of emotions. It's the face of a seasoned performer.

Today Prakash Rai (or Prakash Raj as he is known in Tamil cinema) can afford to smile. After struggling for almost a decade, doing measly little roles in about 20-odd films, Rai has finally tasted success. An average working day sees him shuttling between sets of 22 films in three languages -- Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.

He had to fob off fans in Andhra Pradesh, ask them not to form clubs in Tamil Nadu and seen people risk their lives braking hard on their two-wheelers when they spot him in Bangalore.

"I always knew I could make it, because I was eager to make it," says the 31-year-old actor, beaming with confidence. "Okay, 70 per cent of my forthcoming films are run-of-the-mill," he shrugs his shoulders. And then animatedly reels off the titles of some movies he is excited about. As he lists the roles he'll be playing, it becomes clear that he's not bothered about a star image.

"In one Tamil film, I am romantically paired with an actress," he reveals. "But in a Telugu film, I am doing the role of her father."

Rai revels in being unconventional. For example, when it is suicidal for upcoming actor to do television, he chose to star in a 52-episode Tamil serial. Even now, when he can pick and choose meaty roles in films, he does not mind doing a two-minute appearance in films like Sapnay (he is one of Kajol's suitors).

"Hey, acting is fun for me, remember," he smiles, "and as long as the audience appreciate me, irrespective of the length of the role or whatever, I like it."

And he is none the worse for it. His audience, used to seeing Rai as the anti-hero, did not find it jarring to have him playing M Karunanidhi in Mani Ratnam's Iruvar (though the film did not do too well, Rai's performance was lauded). His dual role in the Kannada blockbuster Nagamandala in which he plays the boorish husband and the tender lover -- has been much appreciated.

"Prakash has incredible potential which is just waiting to explode," says Sunil Kumar Desai, a successful film director. "Besides being emotionally intense, he is a thinking actor, which helps him flesh out his character. I definitely want him as the hero in my next film," says Desai.

Rai, who has known what it is to go around begging for roles and has even faced the humiliation of dubbing for a couple of the same roles he had been turned down, shrugs off compliments. The fact that Mani Ratnam has dubbed him "the next Kamal Hasan" doesn't seem to make much difference. "As far as I am concerned, I am dead as an actor the day someone imitates me," he says.

T S Nagabarana, who has adapted Girish Karnad's folk tale-drama Nagamandala for the screen, is one of the many directors who had earlier turned down Rai. But that was before Rai attracted the attention of noted director K Balachander, who gave him his first big break. It was after he played a significant cameo role -- that of a police inspector in Mani Ratnam's Bombay -- that Nagabarana realised what he was worth.

"I met Prakash again," recalls the director, "and I could sense the fire in his belly. Prakash Rai, the actor, had finally arrived.

"I have found that most actors act for the moment or react instinctively," says Nagabarana, "Whereas Prakash not only analyses the character but works out a style before he even begins shooting for the film. And he doesn't think just about his role, but about the tone of the entire film."

What makes Rai's work so outstanding is his knowledge of the language of cinema, including its technique. "He has the very, very rare talent for precision and is a delight for both cameraman and director," says Nagabarana, "I don't know where he developed it. But he has got it."

Rai himself downplays it all. "Born actors," he snorts, "That is a lot of bunkum. You learn and evolve only when you have to fight to survive." Born to a middle-class family, Rai's first brush with reality happened when he joined an English medium college and turned up in what he thought was fancy attire: bell-bottomed trousers and an obscenely bright shirt. The day ended with him running back home, determined to pick up English the fast way. "James Hadley Chase came to the rescue," he laughs.

The progress from Chase to the finer points of English literature happened fast. A close friend from those days recalls. "Prakash, being a quick learner, got to be a pain in the butt because he would hold forth on everything." Hold forth he did, in college debates, which he used to win. Soon, the success of his performances inspired him to drop out of college and join theatre. Later, when it came to the question of eking out a living, he turned to films.

Today, when the much-sought-after applause has come his way, Rai wants to move on, rather than wallow in his success.

"I want to stop acting when I begin to find it boring," he says emphatically. "I would like to direct films. After all, everyone has this urge to say things the way they want to, to leave something worthwhile behind."

As for acting, it's like "making love. You should know what is expected of you, you should know your lines, and have the timing right," says Rai. "I have learnt the language of cinema and (now) I make love to the camera."

True love came late, but come it did. And considering his versatility, it would be no surprise if Rai makes it an affair of a lifetime.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

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