The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has come as a double whammy for theatre, that had already been facing an existential crisis. With performances being cancelled, several aspiring actors say they have lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.
Actors of Chennai-based Tamil theatre troupe Koothu-P-Pattarai, which has introduced actors like Vijay Sethupathi, Pasupathi and Kumaravel to Tamil cinema, said they were beginning to lose hope of the performing art’s revival.
“I could not plan for the future and I had to leave my passion for acting,” said 25-year-old Prem, who is among the 14 artists who are part of Koothu-P-Pattarai.
Prem came to Chennai in 2016 to pursue his passion in acting and joined the Koothu-P-Pattarai troupe. After cyclone Vardah hit the coastal city, however, his plans were temporarily halted and he had to return to his village in Srivilliputhur, Virudhunagar. Still determined to pursue his passion, in 2017, he returned to Chennai and enrolled for Koothu-P-Pattarai’s three-month acting course. He went on to work as a junior artist in a few films, including Mersal and Thaanaa Serndha Koottam.
However, unable to make ends meet, Prem once again went back to his hometown. In 2019, Prem took up a driving job in Chennai but continued to hunt for small roles. The same year, he finally joined the Koothu-P-Pattarai full-time and acted in two plays- Life of an Actor and Kaalam Kalamaga, both written by late N Muthuswamy, the founder of the troupe and a Sangeet Natak Academi winner. This year in March, Prem, who was shuttling between Chennai and his hometown, found out that all shows at the theatre were cancelled due to the pandemic. This time, his move back home may be permanent, Prem fears.
Prem works on plumbing and electrical jobs in his hometown, which he said are “the only other source of livelihood” he can pursue to sustain a living.
“While I took a strong stand to continue acting, the Covid-19 pandemic hit my passion, as the play I was supposed to act in got cancelled. I had to go back to my hometown for good, this time,” he said.
Koothu-P-Pattarai’s productions are based on the late Muthuswamy’s scripts and they train students in acting, folk dance, martial arts, yoga, and music. For most of the actors in the troupe, the losses have been greater, monetary as well as losing an opportunity to finally carve a name for oneself.
“We have been receiving a stipend of Rs 4,000 from Koothu-P-Pattarai and Rs 6,000 from the government every month, but that has been stalled ever since March,” said 31-year-old R Sukumar, a native of Chennai who was set to act in Panchatantra play on March 24. Six shows of Sukumar’s shows in Chennai had to be cancelled due to the lockdown.
Sukumar, who had been acting full-time and driving part-time for taxi aggregators, has been working as a full-time taxi driver since the past four months.
“I have been in acting side roles for over four years and I had an opportunity to act in a meaty role, when the play had got cancelled. I had nothing else to earn a livelihood and took up driving as it was the only choice,” he said.
For R Sridevi, acting has been a passion since childhood days. While she took the plunge only when she turned 41, she joined Koothu-P-Pattarai only one-and-a-half years back. She had played the role of a mother in the play Appavum Pillaiyum this January. While she was eager to play the role of a crocodile in Panchatantra, the cancellation of shows caused financial problems for her, halting her acting career.
“I am married and have a son to take care of. I took the courageous step to take up acting at this age. The lockdown has put an indefinite halt to it. I thought this will subside, but after waiting for a month with no hopes of reconnecting with acting, I began to look for other opportunities,” said Sridevi, who began to work as a part-time lab technician in Chennai.
Talking to Silverscreen India on reviving the drama troupe, managing trustee of Koothu-P-Pattarai Natesh Muthuswamy said: “We have never closed but due to Covid-19, we had to stall many shows. However, we have given a call to all our actors to join in on December 1 for a play called Narkalikarar. We are not sure how many people would turn up, but we expect we can run the show from the money that we have received for acting classes that some of them subscribed to.”
Trust member Karuna Prasad, who also directs plays, said, “Many actors are struggling with temporary daily wage activities. There is no proper forum to address their grievances.”
He added that there was a need for an organised set up for modern theatre in the country.