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Book excerpt: How Neena Kulkarni became Ananth Mahadevan's 'first wife'

In this excerpt from his memoir Once Upon a Prime Time, the actor-filmmaker recounts some funny moments from the sets of Sai Paranjpye's Doordarshan serial Ados Pados.

Ananth Mahadevan

Veteran actor and filmmaker Ananth Narayan Mahadevan’s memoir, Once Upon a Prime Time, traces his journey through television as he takes the reader behind the scenes of some of the definitive moments in Indian TV history.

From the movie directors who made some of the early television serials to today's consumerism-driven shows, Ananth offers his perspective on the pioneers, the early TV stars and the people who brought to us the shows that many cherish till today.

The book, which was released in July 2020, was the subject of a discussion with the filmmaker at the Washington DC South Asian Film Festival, which is currently on in virtual format in the American capital, on Sunday 16 January.

In this excerpt, Ananth recounts some incidents from the sets of the popular Doordarshan serial Ados Pados (1985), directed  by the redoubtable Sai Paranjpye.

[Sai] Paranjpye, like her senior contemporary filmmakers Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, resized the middle class. For her, life virtually began and terminated there. The animated title sequence in Ados Pados, where every character appeared like a cuckoo in a clock, opening up windows, within hand-shaking distance of each other, symbolized their match-box existence in the city. And the “open house” attitude of the neighbours resulted in amusing interplay as characters flitted in and out turning a mundane existence into the peep-hole vision of the director.

As I entered the portals of the famed Natraj Studios in Andheri, I reflected on how I had always wanted to be a fly on those hallowed walls one day. The compound housed some of the biggest names in big-screen entertainment. Shakti Samanta, Atma Ram [brother of the celebrated Guru Dutt] and Pramod Chakravorthy were among the filmmakers who had their offices at Natraj. I had met each one of them with VP Sathe to discuss publicity campaigns for their films. Bombay Publicity catered to virtually every filmmaker’s advertising programmes and was probably the only agency that could boast of releases that occupied a full page in The Times of India each day of the year! And there I was in those make-up rooms, readying myself for my first big step.

Toeing the technique of television, Sai brought into play a multi-camera set-up for the first time on the commercial arena and even preferred to do a major portion of the edit on-line as she whispered to the person on the console “camera 2... camera 1... camera 3”. The three cameras on the set ensured that the scene was covered from all angles, eliminating the need for counter shots. It also facilitated attractive match-cuts at the edit table, so that one action flowed seamlessly into another cut. Virtually all American and European shows availed of this technique, cutting short filming and edit hours in the process. Fortunately, Paranjpye opted for theatre-style workshops and execution as we grappled with our characters. For a beginner like me, this instilled oodles of confidence. It also took me closer to the unforgiving ways of the camera. My first lesson was eye-control. In one scene expressing surprise and shock, my eyes widened more than they should have. I cringed. I learned to warm up to the economic demands of the camera. It was just the beginning of a long-standing affair with the lenses!

Playing hooky from the job at the agency predictably left a few senior colleagues’ tongues wagging. They didn’t take very well to Sathe saheb granting me licence to accommodate another career. But Sathe was graceful: “Finish your work and go if you have to.” Which I did. After all, not everyone got to debut with a Sai Paranjpye show. Neena Kulkarni was exactly how Paranjpye had described her: “You are going to have a very beautiful wife.” We projected the ideal foil to each other. Me, Chintamani, sweet, adorable and a twit as Paranjype had perceived him, and she, Champakali, the domineering wife who was at her wits' end when her husband brought home an overgrown pumpkin in lieu of his monthly pay or decided to buy the entire stock of spinach in the market because it was going at a throwaway price.

Ados Pados had a whole bunch of neighbours running riot. Veteran actor and poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay as the classic loner uncle, Arun Joglekar with his pack of kids, and Chandu Parkhi, a thief who callously flitted in and out, were among the characters who raised a chuckle with their idiosyncrasies. Though film stars didn’t exactly relate with television in the 1980s, the aura of being the director of critically acclaimed films was good enough in drawing Amol Palekar and Rameshwari towards Ados Pados. Movie actors had lesser hang-ups those days and, in fact, were happy to be part of a series. It was in concurrence with the American way of thinking, where several big names performed in theatre and television without any qualms.

The grand-daddy of the cast, Harindranath Chattopadhayay dropped in on the sets one day. I introduced myself and then, casually, Neena Kulkarni as “my wife”. A few weeks later, when her husband Dilip Kulkarni, himself a stage actor, visited the sets, Neena introduced him to Chattopadhyay as “my husband”. The foxed look on the veteran’s face was a moment frozen in time. It took some explaining to make him realize that I was the screen husband and Dilip, the real one. Years later, and much to her chagrin, I still jocularly refer to her as “my first wife” and wait for the listener’s almost never failing words of sympathy, “Oh, I am sorry” before resolving the mix-up in a gush of laughter.

Excerpted with the author's permission from Once Upon a Prime Time by Ananth Mahadevan, published by Embassy Book Distributors. Click here to buy your copy.

Correction, 08:20pm: An earlier version of this article said the book Once Upon a Prime Time was released in July 2021. It was released in July 2020.

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