LIFE AND TIMES OF SWAMI: The mischievous, curly-haired 10-year-old Swami from Malgudi Days is today a high-flying corporate executive. Where is he at present and how does he look? Lekha Menon gets nostalgic with former child actor/artist Manjunath Nayaker Aka Master Manjunath.
His impish smile and naughty eyes along with the haunting title music, won the hearts of millions of TV addicts. For the ‘80s generation, the name Malgudi Days and Swami brings back memories of a time when TV was a single-channel affair, conducted by families huddled around a set for their daily date with the 9 pm serial. And the denizens of RK Narayan’s quaint village (filmed by the late Shankar Nag) was on top of their must-watch list.
“I don’t miss the movies,” says the 34-year-old Manjunath whom Mumbai Mirror caught up with on a ‘flying visit’ to the city. “I like films, cricket and travelling, but I thoroughly enjoy my job.”
For the record, Manjunath, who started at three, has been part of 68 movies in Kannada and Hindi. Of course, it was his role in Swami and Friends (also made into a full-length movie) that fetched him the maximum recognition — six international, one national and a state award. Swami... brings back fond memories for him. “We shot in a village called Agumbe for three months. I am still in touch with some of my co-actors,” he smiles.
It also landed him Hindi film roles most notably Agneepath (he played the young Big B). “Imagine me amidst these greats — Amitabh Bachchan, Rohini Hattangadi, Mukul Anand, Yash Chopra…it was a fabulous experience.”
So why did he give it all up? “Because I had been there and done that. At 12, I was attending film-festivals; I acted till I was 19. But then I questioned what I wanted from life.”
Ironically, it was during one such award ceremony at an international film festival in Italy that the moment of epiphany struck. “There I was, all alone with my award for Swami...no friends or family to share it with. Organisers, then, didn’t pay to take your family along! I knew I had to quit.”
Finance was another factor that weighed on his mind. “Those days there were no endorsements or heavy paycheques, it was more of an ‘honour’ to work in good films. Hailing from a lower middle-class family, I had to get educated and find a job.”
Thus, like a true-blue South Indian boy, Manjunath removed the greasepaint to get into academics, doing his MA in sociology, diploma in cinematography and even his CA Foundation course.
The IT boom, led by Bangalore, attracted him next and then came a period of job-hopping working as project manager for portals like onlinebangalore.com, a stint with a special effects company and so on. “I never stuck to a job for more than two years, till this one came along. It’s been 10 years here now,” he chuckles.
His job profile is interesting — from looking at legalities to handling the environmental cell to trouble-shooting for his company, he does “everything apart from cleaning toilets”!
But Manjunath doesn’t mind. He has a life apart from the hectic corporate schedules. “We have this group of childhood friends, Ninnengen Ovans (What’s your problem?). Every week we meet and have a wild time, going all over Karnataka on road trips, watching movies etc.”
Does Agumbe, alias Malgudi figure on the list? “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s about an hour’s drive from Manipal. It is still pristine and untouched, a tad underdeveloped but still as beautiful.”
Manjunath’s dream is to make the village famous on the tourist map. “I am trying to push the government to declare it a heritage or tourist site, it would be the ultimate tribute to R K Narayan and up the village’s profile too.”
Interestingly, despite the fame that the character fetched him, Manjunath says he still hasn’t read the book. “I have this image of Swami in my brain which I don’t want to change,” he says. He needn’t worry though, for in one of his rare interactions with the author, he got his most cherished compliment. “RK Narayan told me I was exactly what he imagined Swami to be. That was the ultimate acknowledgement.”
These memories, says Manjunath, are enough to last a lifetime, probably the reason why he was never tempted to face the camera again. “Malgudi Days worked because there was so much beauty in its simplicity. Every kid could relate to it. Unfortunately, technology has killed that creativity and innocence among children these days. About the TV scene today, the less said the better.”
However, the cinema bug isn’t entirely dead yet. He harbours a secret desire to get behind it, “probably for a hard core commercial thriller.” But currently, he has, what he calls, “one solid plan” — to enjoy life as much as possible, have all the fun before I get too old. Travel, be with friends, enjoy my job, contribute to society — basically do things that make life worth living.”