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April 4, 1997


Rebel without a pause

Suparn Verma

Govind MenonIt's not every other day that an actor gets to replace Shah Rukh Khan in a film - but then Govind Menon is not every other actor.

Menon, for those not in the know, is the man who will play the role of a eunuch in Kalpna Lajmi's upcoming venture,Darmiyaan - the role that the Khan of Bollywood was originally slated to play.

If first impressions are any yardstick, Menon is a shy, softspoken young man on the verge of his greatest challenge, as he prepares to don greasepaint and tackle the challenging role of Imi, a eunuch born to fifties marquee queen Zeenat (the latter role to be essayed by Kiron Kher).

Menon had earlier left an impact in a cameo, as a volatile prisoner in Kalapani, Priyadarshan's multi-lingual extravaganza on the freedom struggle which, in its Hindi version, is destined for the Bollywood marquee within a week. In this role, Menon plays a lippy, contentious character who finally goads the jailor into punching a hole in his tongue. "And I have also played the first scene of cannibalism in Indian cinema," Menon says proudly.

His entry into Hindi cinema has been accompanied by a storm of controversy - but Menon smiles it off. "Actually," he explains, "Paresh Rawal was supposed to play the character of the eunuch, but it didn't quite work out. Then Shah Rukh was considered. And then again, I was screen-tested, and I landed the role."

Simple. He was screen-tested, and he replaced Shah Rukh. Yes?

Menon's eyes go grim as he talks about the controversy he has been dragged into. "Shah Rukh doesn't even know about the role he was supposed to be doing," says the newcomer. "It was good publicity for him, and he kept saying that he is playing a eunuch - actually," adds Menon, clarifying for us, "the role is that of a hermaphrodite.

"And now," he adds, obviously annoyed, "you have Shah Rukh claiming no one can play Imi the way he would have. How can he say something like that, when he hasn't even tried the role?"

So who's this man, who remains unfazed by a challenging role and the ire of Bollywood's leading icon? Govind spent seven years in the United States studying film and theatre, and another two years making documentaries in Alaska

And now he is in Bollywood, and not liking it one bit. "The Bollywood film and television industry is total crap," says the man, unaware possibly that newcomers to the most prolific industry are expected to display a sense of awe and wonderment, and most certainly not contempt. "The problem with our films is that the scripts are bad," he explains. "That is one advantage Hollywood has over us - most of their films are based on novels which already involve two or three years of research.

"And with lousy scripts," says the fledgling actor, riding what seems to be a favourite hobby horse, "even our actors don't want to sweat it out. I think the basis of cinema is screenplay, and the lack of importance we attach to scripts results in a bunch of stupid films.

A film like Roja owes it success to good script and excellent screenplay, anybody acting in that film would have made no difference to the success of the film."

Are Bollywood's actors 'crappy' too, one wonders. "I would like to act with Jackie Shroff, who underplays his characters; and with Nana Patekar - both are excellent actors. I would also like to work with cult actors like Prem Chopra and Gulshan Grover. They are very stylised actors."

Govind Menon Shah Rukh? "I totally agree with Shah Rukh Khan when he says he is a ham actor," says Menon, taking a line Khan has repeated in interview after interview and scoring a neat point. "You cannot get under the skin when you are shooting for four five films in one day."

And then Menon goes off on yet another pet peeve. "Anupam Kher says that 'if' he had all the facilities of a Hollywood actor, if he had three months to prepare for a role,thenhe would be able to get under the skin of the character. Well, if I had three months I would do cartwheels in a Maruti! How can you make excuses when you haven't even tried to do it? On screen, what you see is what you get - there are no excuses.

"You have a film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge winning the awards for best screenplay because it is the best compared to other films."

With a glint in his eyes he continues, "I have this cheeseburger theory -in a hamburger world, cheeseburger is king. Even though it may only have a thin slice of cheese in it.

"Our film industry," says Menon, now in his sound-bite-per-second mode, "are like runners in the Olympics. When I was in the States, I would be called by my friends to see an Indian runner trailing behind, and all us Indians would fervently pray for a Sri Lankan to win the race. We get busted at the international level, and then we make excuses like we didn't have proper diet and facilities, but what about the athletes from Kenya? Huh? Tell you what, we are world champions at making excuses!

"Santosh Sivan shoots with a budget of Rs 9 million for Mani Ratnam's Bombay - and then there are films like Prem, with budgets running into tens of millions, that still look crappy in comparison. That's why South Indian movies are better than Hindi films - because they are not looking for excuses."

We bring the rebel with a cause back to the question of the moment - how has he been preparing for his landmark role?

"I have been taking Kathak classes for the past two and a half months . I meet eunuchs regularly at this place in Bandra, I also meet a social worker who works with them.

"I went to Lucknow and stayed with a lady for a three weeks to get a feel of the people, the language.

"To me it is not my character that matters, but the story and the language of the film."

So now we know...