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December 4, 2001

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Dancer in the dark

Rajitha

'Frown-faced' is not an adjective you would associate with ace choreographer Raju Sundaram.

Raju Sundaram The closest he comes to that is when you ask him for an interview. On cue, the features crumple into a frown, the trademark politeness is put in momentary cold storage, and a curt "No" is the answer.

As if realising that curtness is not really him, he then softens the blow a bit with, "Actually, I don't like being interviewed."

I wander off, as the shooting progresses. Towards the end of the day, Raju Sundaram spots me. "Haven't you left yet?"

He pulls up a chair and of his own volition, talks. "I am not comfortable talking about myself," he confesses. "I have no ambitions, no wants and no reason to push myself. So what do I say?"

How about your passion for dancing, I offer. His response takes me completely by surprise. "You know what? I am bored. I do love dancing, yes, but I am often fed up doing these dances. It is just a job now and I've been doing it for years."

Like his brother Prabhu Deva, Raju Sundaram cut his teeth assisting his father, dance master Sundaram, since his teenage days. He was seen on-screen for the first time, shaking a nifty leg in the Rukmini rukmini number in Roja. There was also a now-you-see-him-now-you-don't appearance in a song sequence in Kadhir's Idhayam where Prabhu Deva, then a gangling teen, made his debut.

The two brothers then appeared together in the Chikku Bukku Railey song from Shankar's debut film, Gentleman -- with Prabhu Deva as the lead dancer while Raju Sundaram appears in only one stanza.

Prabhu Deva went on to star as hero in Shankar's next film, Kaadhalan and over time, established himself as a regular 'hero' on the Tamil marquee.

Not so his elder brother, though. Raju Sundaram appeared as Aishwarya Rai's brother in the Shankar comedy Jeans, besides playing a cricketer in I Love You Da (I Love You Ra in the Telugu version) co-starring real life love Simran. But he never really parlayed those appearances into a regular starring slot.

Prashant and Aishwarya in Jeans "Roles came my way and I did them. But I am not a serious actor. I don't want to become a top hero," shrugs the dancer-choreographer. "When it happens, it's fun and all that, but my acting career is nothing to gush about."

Playing cricket on-screen, though, definitely qualifies as a high. "I am a cricket player like most men. Sometime or other, all of us have played cricket. I like the game. I used to play it well, so I enjoyed playing it on screen," says Raju.

"The film itself is a love story. I'm looking forward to the bit where I play cricket on-screen. We will even have a real cricketer playing a role," he adds.

Looking as if he is surprised at himself for speaking so much, he subsides into silence.

Why, I wonder, does he sound so bored... almost whine-y?

"Oh, nothing of the sort, I am not a whiner," he retorts. "It is not like I have big disappointments, and complaints. Actually, I have a simple philosophy -- no big wants, no big plans, no big goals. So I am content. I suppose that makes me boring. But I am very serious when I do my dance sequences, I insist on getting the exact steps I want from the stars."

On that, he doesn't let up. No matter how big the star is, it is Raju Sundaram the choreographer who calls the tune. And that includes Amitabh Bachchan, who danced to Sundaram's steps recently in Aks.

"Yeah, I've worked with Amitabh before. I choreographed his pop album, Aby Baby. Also, his comeback film Mrityudaata, where he had a song with Daler Mehendi. He is cool, and I am very direct. We have a good equation."

What he likes best about his job is the chance to travel to all those exotic locations. "I enjoyed America, Switzerland and Australia. I love the experience of travelling, seeing all those lovely places and yes, shopping!"

Raju Sundaram Ironically, though, the one thing he hates most is that essential pre-requisite to travel -- flying. "Flying terrifies me," he grins. "Once the plane is airborne, I am okay. But I hate the takeoff and landing parts. I usually shut my eyes tight and stay tense till the plane is off the ground."

Occasionally, he surprises himself and everyone else by what he does. "I remember, for Shankar's Nayak (starring Anil Kapoor and Rani Mukherjee) we were shooting in Leh. I made a complete fool of myself in front of the entire unit.

"Leh is one of the highest places in the world. There is very little oxygen. I wasn't mentally prepared for that. Initially, I was gasping, then I broke down and wept. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to breathe. I panicked. Everyone rushed around and calmed me. Finally, things were okay."

He is like that, you realise that the kind of serious questions that stars answer seriously leave him cold. But he will talk -- often in self-deprecating fashion -- about his own foibles and any subject under the sun other than his work.

Still, I push a bit. No ambition whatsoever? Not one? "Well," he goes, "Maybe I'd like to direct a film. Actually, I am not fiercely ambitious, but I like the idea of putting together a movie."

A musical? Since that would seem to be the obvious route for an ace choreographer.

"No, not necessarily," he shoots back. "See, that is what I mean. I am not ambitious. I would like to direct, but I am not wracking my brains about the subject matter, or going around looking for scripts. I like watching movies, so someday I want to direct one. But I am not at all sure what kind of movie -- suspense, action or comedy."

It is difficult to capture Raju Sundaram in words -- there are two sides to him. The first responds to an interviewer's queries with casual disinterest, tantamount almost to boredom. And the second, when the tape recorder is off, comes across as a delightful, light-hearted young man, full of banter.

I tell him about this seemingly split personality. "Basically," he says "I am the contented sort, I don't have much to say about myself. To me, happiness is what counts. And happiness is not an abstract, elusive state. It is simple, really -- at every point in my day, I have to like what I am doing. If I do, then I am happy. If I don't, I am unhappy.

"It is all very simple."

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