(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
In a career spanning over three decades, four-time winner of the Kerala state award for best actress Bindu Suresh had to encounter several real life situations that were more dramatic than the roles she had played. She had to go to the stage straight after her father's cremation. On another occasion, she had to be on stage while someone had to take care of her two-month-old baby at the backstage. Bindu did all that sacrifice and never hesitated to take risk, because she has totally been committed to her profession. And, the stage kept her giving back everything she deserved; a number of recognitions and a happy life. Until March 2020.
Bindu Suresh lives at Vettikkavala, 8 km from Kottarakkara in Kollam district, with her husband and co-actor Suresh Kumar. The actor-couple represent thousands of stage artistes in Kerala whose life has become a theatre of uncertainties since the first COVID-19 lockdown last year. Large gatherings and stage performances have been restricted in the state since then.
Visiting the veteran artistes at their house, this reporter tried to initiate a conversation with a casual question – “So are you basically from here?” The reply, however, was not very casual. “Yes. But this won't be our house for long. We have to sell it off soon,” Suresh said, rather painfully even trying to be cheerful. Suresh is known by his stage name Suresh Thoolika, which is his way of keeping his respect for his first troupe.
“We have been living peacefully until the lockdown. We have not been able to save anything, but we earned all that we have now, including this house, with the income from theatre. But in the past 19 months, we couldn't earn anything even as debts kept mounting. Now, we have no other option but to sell the house,” Bindu said.
Bindu and Suresh were with the Kollam Assisi, a well-known troupe, when COVID struck the world. In fact, they had ended the contract with the troupe and signed a fresh agreement with Aksharajwala in Amabalapuzha, a troupe run by the friends and well-wishers of the late actor Thilakan.
“Even though we are officially part of Aksharajwala now. We haven't even attended a rehearsal with the team as the lockdown happened before we moved to the new troupe. Though they have announced a new drama, the rehearsals are yet to start,” Suresh said.
Suresh and Bindu performed on a stage last on March 9, 2020. “That was the peak of the festival season and we had a few programmes scheduled for the month. One day, I got a call from a church in Kottayam, asking to cancel the play scheduled for its festival because the collector had banned large gatherings in the district. Then more such calls followed from various parts of the state,” Suresh said. Suresh also functions as a troupe manager. His experience of 34 years in different troupes has taught him how to handle a troupe with ease.
“We were not anxious at that time. We believed that everything will be back to normal in one or maximum two months. We didn't know that it was only the beginning,” Suresh said. Bindu said they have lost around 350 stages since the lockdown, going by a rough calculation. It means 350 working/earning days for a stage artiste.
A stage artiste is paid for a performance. It is not a 365-day job. In Kerala's context, a professional drama troupe works mainly between June to March, the period they call a season. The rehearsals for a new play start usually in June and it lasts till August. In August-September, they get some stages on account of the Onam celebrations across the state. After that, they get to participate in a series of annual drama festivals organised by various organisations. Then by December, the festivals in temples and churches begin. Drama troupes get maximum bookings during the festival time.
“We have been able to live comfortably with the number of stages we had. During the off-season, if there was some emergency we used to borrow money from some lenders. We could roll money without fear because we were confident that we could repay them without fail as we were sure to get work. The situation has changed. Now we have to borrow money on interest to repay the pending loans,” Suresh said.
Both of them are known to play their roles on the stage with perfection. However, their attempt to don a new role in life amid the lockdown turned out to be disastrous. “As the uncertainty over the lockdown continued, the local people here proposed the idea to start a vegetable selling business. I took up the responsibility and started selling vegetables, delivering them at people's doorstep on demand. After some time, we opened a shop nearby selling both vegetables and fish. It ran smoothly for a month. However, when the doorstep fish vendors resumed their work, we had to shut the shop. A significant amount was added to our debt on that account too. The fact is that we didn't know how to run a business,” Suresh said.
Their worry doubled as their only son also lost his job in Bengaluru amid the lockdown. Recently, he joined an institution in Kollam.
The couple thank their relatives and friends for providing them with the necessary monetary help during these tough times. Their current troupe Aksharajwala also gave them monetary aid during both the lockdowns.
“There are many theatre artistes whose condition is far worse than ours,” Bindu said. Bindu inherited the culture of theatre from her father Muraleedharan Pillai. Pillai, who was an officer with the Fire and Rescue Services, owned a drama troupe named Kalarangam, Punalur. Bindu debuted as a performer when she had to substitute an actor in her father's troupe. Later, she joined the renowned KPAC, braving the opposition from her immediate relatives. From there she had no looking back. She won the state award for best drama actress in 1991, 1995, 2009 and 2014.
Her father had advised Bindu not to skip a committed performance no matter what happens. Destiny forced her to follow the advice even the day her father died. However, she escaped from the terrible experience of having to perform on stage that fateful night as a heavy downpour had inundated the paddy field where the stage was set up.
Bindu and Suresh are hopeful that the stages would come alive soon. However, they fear that the number of performances would be much lesser than the pre-COVID days. “The worst part is that COVID struck our sector when it was witnessing a steady revival after a dull period. We used to have an average of 200 performances a year before the lockdown,” Suresh said.