This interview was published in TOI’s Chennai Anniversary issue.
For those who have grown up in Chennai over the last five decades, the name Y Gee Mahendra would instantly bring memories of lively evenings spent at theatres. Even before he touched the age of 10, Y Gee had begun his tryst with theatre, when he did an English play for a children’s club, in the late 1950s, where he acted with the yesteryear actress Chandrakala. “I had played the role of a jailor and she played a criminal. I wasn’t happy with my performance. But suddenly, the chief guest walked up to me and said that I had delivered a wonderful performance,” he says, reminiscing about his first play. The chief guest was the eminent actress Sowcar Janaki.
Being in a home full of artistes, theatre seemed to be the most obvious thing to happen to him. In 1961, Y Gee got his first fullfledged role in the play Petral thaan Pillaiya, a production of United Amateur Artistes (UAA), founded by his father Y G Parthasarathy, where he was appreciated by none other than Sivaji Ganesan. “In my childhood, I saw all the big names from the artistic fraternity in my home. Many great artistes were launched by UAA. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, was an actress in the UAA and is like a sister to me. Seeing her work, my mother had said she would succeed in whatever vocation she would choose in life. Her words turned out to be prophetic,” he says.
Another person, with whom Y Gee shared a strong bond was his cousin, the legendary actress Vyjayanthimala. “During our holidays, we would go to stay at her home in Bombay (now Mumbai) and all the top actors and directors of the day would drop in. I used to be in awe of her. When I became regular with my plays, she became my ardent fan, critic and supporter.”
An actor himself, Y Gee considers Sivaji the God of acting. “I think he knew every aspect of the art and based on my interactions and experiences with him, I wrote a series of columns in Dinamalar called Naan Swasikkum Sivaji. No one in this field has done such a variety of characters and any costume would suit him.” When Y Gee did the role immortalised by Sivaji in Vietnam Veedu on stage, he was undoubtedly taking a huge challenge. “I was very confident of doing it. There is a difference between mimicry and acting. In the latter, you can draw inspiration from an idol but not imitate him.”
Y Gee feels that writers who have been associated with the UAA have had a good career. “There are plays we have staged for many years together. Changes are bound to happen in these plays over time and we do it without disturbing the basic elements. See the British version of Sherlock Holmes, for instance. They have contemporised the milieu without changing its fundamentals,” says Y Gee, who believes that intellectual snobbery harms theatre. ” The audience should understand what we show. Else why do it,” he asks.
THE UAA is celebrating its 63rd year as a theatre group and Y Gee is elated to talk about it. “No other theatre group has had an unbroken existence of successful shows for six decades in India, starting from 1952. The credit for this success goes to my father,” says Y Gee, who feels that sticking to theatre requires a lot of commitment. ” Even when I did 30 movies a year, I would do 25 plays a month. Once when superstar Rajinikanth attended a show of Swadeshi Iyer, he told everyone that had I concentrated more on films than theatre at the peak of my career, I would have owned half of Madras. In India, only Marathi theatre makes good money. Even Bengali theatre has fallen. The English plays in the city have a select audience,” he says.
For long, theatre, in Chennai, flourished thanks to the sabha system. ” In the West, when you tell someone a play is being staged, they ask you where can they buy the tickets. Here, they will ask you who can get the passes! In Chennai, only three or four groups are able to make money in theatre.” As of now, Y Gee is busy traveling to different countries with his plays. “I have performed in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, USA, France, Denmark, Switzerland and many other countries. In Chicago, I have trained a troupe for regular performances, so that I can just travel with some technicians. It helps us save on the high air costs. As of now, I have my kitty full!”