Lakshmanan sat on his wooden armchair near the window of his bedroom, peering absent-mindedly into the street. There was nothing momentous about the day, the world was going about its business, just like it had been doing all these years, after having relegated Lakshmanan, the great Tamil movie star of the 80s to oblivion.
Lakshmanan now lived in a decent-looking bungalow in Pudukottai, his native place, from where he had made humble beginnings as a young theatre artist whose heart was filled with dreams of going to Madras and making it big in the Tamil film industry. “Why do you want to get into the koothu business?” his strict father, a retired Tamil teacher, had repeatedly admonished him but to no avail. Nothing could uproot the young man’s desire to become a film actor. The quest had permeated every cell in Lakshmanan’s body.
Lakshmanan’s desire and ambition was not baseless. He excelled in the art and was a natural. He could move his audience to tears, he could awaken powerful emotions in his viewers, and he could make people see the purpose of the character he was playing. Every single time that he acted in a play, he would live and breathe the character, transform and become one with it, that it became impossible to distinguish Lakshmanan from the character he was impersonating. Viewers, entranced, would flock to watch a play that featured Lakshmanan. His popularity in and around Pudukottai grew steadily in the 70s, much to the irritation of his father who detested the idea of his only son stepping into what he believed was an illusory world that was nothing but a curse to those who became a part of it.
But who was he to stop destiny from taking Lakshmanan to where he was meant to go? As word spread about Lakshmanan’s acting prowess, an upcoming director from Madras who was working on his first film visited Pudukottai to watch Lakshmanan in action. Spellbound by what he saw, the man knocked on Lakshmanan’s door the very next day, only to be turned down hastily by Lakshmanan’s father.
Lakshmanan begged and pleaded with his father.
“Appa, please,” he said in a deep voice that people had come to love, “please let me go. Opportunities don’t come by so often.”
“Are you out of your mind?” his father shouted back, “I don’t want you to drown in that dirty world.”
“Appa, trust me,” he cried, “Just let me make this start and you’ll see where it will take me, where it will take all of us. I will do you proud in every possible way. I will make you live the life of a king,” he begged.
His mother too, in a very rare display of courage, tried to speak to her husband, for her son.
“Why are you chasing away an opportunity knocking at our door? Look at Laksha’s face, can’t you see the earnestness that’s written all over it?” she said, breaking down.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Lakshmanan’s father stood his ground.
Lakshmanan resigned to his fate, believing that a very big chance had slipped away, just like that, out of his hands. This is what’s written on my head, he told himself, carrying on with his job at the Pudukottai municipal office while also acting in local plays, once in a while.
Two months later, his father took ill. Lakshmanan was distraught looking at the way his stern father was crumbling, succumbing to an illness that nobody could have control over. He sat by his Appa whenever he could, trying to reassure the sinking old man that everything would be alright. Soon.
One evening, as he sat next to his father, the old man said, “You know, Lakshmana… sometimes, certain realisations come very late in life. Only when one’s end approaches, do we tend to look back at our lives and see our acts and the decisions that we took in a new light,” he paused for breath, “I was perhaps being too harsh in not letting you chase your dreams. Lakshmana, I want you go to Madras and do what you love to do. Will you?” he asked.
“Appa, this isn’t the time for talking all this,” Lakshmanan said, pressing his father’s hand. “Your health is more important.”
His father let out a feeble laugh and said, “Do what I say.”
And a week later, he died.
Eight months since the director visited Lakshmanan’s house, the aspiring actor set foot on the land of his dreams, Madras. Destiny took its course and luck stood by Lakshmanan’s side as the director, who had by then delivered his first hit, welcomed him warmly. The man ignored the tussle from eight months back, only because he was spellbound by Lakshmanan’s acting prowess.
The rest, as they say, is history. Lakshmanan became Lakshman, the star, who delivered hit after hit. Offers poured, his stardom soared, and the awards rushed to embrace the man who, the land of Tamil cinema believed, was the epitome of acting talent. The media was in awe of Lakshman, the star, and chased him for interviews. Fans thronged him at shooting spots and other public places to catch a glimpse of their matinee idol. They fervently sought his prized autographs. Lakshmanan literally felt on top of the world when he thought about how he had made his mark in an industry that boasted of legendary actors. Life couldn’t get better than this, he mused. Through all those years of his stardom, Lakshmanan wished his father had been alive to see what he had been able to achieve. His mother lived on to see her son reach the pinnacle of success and revel in the joy of seeing him marry a woman that she chose for him. Later, she too dissolved into the folds of time, carrying with her the only regret she ever had in her heart – her son didn’t have any children.
As the years rolled by, somewhere, life changed course. Nobody, not even Lakshmanan, could pinpoint exactly how and why it happened but preferences changed. The offers to act as a hero soon turned to offers where he had to essay other “less important yet productive” roles. Lakshmanan found it hard to accept this turn in his acting career, yet, with some introspection, accepted it as part of an actor’s life and chose to move on. And then, those offers too reduced to a trickle and then one fine day, the industry decided to leave him behind and move forward. Just like that. Without any regrets.
After having stayed on in Madras for a few years, trying to see if something came by his way, Lakshmanan finally decided to return to his roots and went back to Pudukottai with his wife, making up his mind to live a modest life. The feeling of insignificance hovered about him like a dull, grey cloud, that Lakshmanan battled every day to chase away. He had drunk too much of glory to accept this insignificance that haunted him. He would often stand in front of the innumerable statuettes that he had received as awards at various award functions and would particularly gaze with pride at the National Award he had won in 1985. He would often look at newspaper clippings of various interviews that he had given during his prime years as an actor.
On certain days, he would just sit by the window, like he was doing now, lost in thought.
As Lakshmanan sat, looking dreamily at the street, he heard his wife’s voice.
“Listen,” she said, “Your mobile phone has been ringing. Didn’t you hear it?”
Lakshmanan turned around, slightly startled.
“Looks like Gopu is trying to reach you urgently. There are four missed calls from him already. Maybe it’s something important,” she said.
Gopu, Lakshmanan’s manager from his acting years and a good friend, had been one of the very few people that he was still in touch with. He picked up his phone and called back Gopu.
“What’s it, Gopu?” he asked, “something wrong?”
Gopu laughed slightly on the other side.
“Lakshman anna,” he said, “I have some good news for you.”
Lakshmanan’s heart raced. He literally felt like the parched earth that rejoiced the first drops of rain after years of drought. Yet, he composed himself and asked in a normal tone, “What’s it, Gopu?”
“Anna, the organisers of the CineGold Awards called me this morning. They wanted to know whether I could get in touch with you,” Gopu said, taking a deep breath.
“Me?” asked Lakshmanan, unable to contain his curiosity. “What for?”
“Well, ask anni to keep some sweet ready, anna. Here’s the great news. They have decided to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to you this year!” he screeched in joy.
Lakshmanan fell silent for a moment and wondered what would have prompted the organisers to recall this long-forgotten actor suddenly.
“Hello? Hello? Anna, are you there?” Gopu spoke nervously on the phone.
“Yes, yes, Gopu,” replied Lakshmanan, “Thank you for letting me know.”
The phone conversation lasted a few more minutes and after much coaxing, Lakshmanan asked Gopu go to ahead and give his number to the organisers.
Lakshmanan’s wife noticed the faint smile on her husband’s lips as he put the phone down. Even though he shared the news with an air of nonchalance, she knew how much this award meant to him and rushed to the kitchen to make his favourite badam halwa.
Suddenly, Lakshmanan’s life gained a purpose. He grew more cheerful, more participative, all the while pretending to downplay his happiness about the whole episode. His wife silently watched the spectacle unravel as he spent hours drafting and rehearsing his acceptance speech and choosing his best kurta and dhoti for the occasion.
Few weeks later, he received a call from a popular magazine and then from a channel for interviews. Even though his mind warned him constantly not to get carried away, his heart wouldn’t listen. Lakshmanan decided to bask in this little phase of glory before insignificance returned to take charge of his life again and before the world would forget him yet again.
On the night of the awards ceremony, as Lakshmanan received his Lifetime Achievement Award amid thunderous applause and a standing ovation, he had tears in his eyes and goose-bumps all over. He absorbed every moment of the glorious episode into his soul and let it compensate all those years of insignificance that he had painfully lived through. As he left the stage, he wondered if the next time the world would remember him again would be on the eve of his death. Whatever it was, Lakshmanan knew one thing – this time he was definitely better prepared to deal with the impending insignificance.