It was so exciting to talk to Sundar today. When I called him, he was in bus passing through the village Dusi, where we together documented the Tiraupati Amman festival last year. He too got so excited and shouted back, “I was thinking of the devil and there u r on phone talking to me. Is it magic?” What more to say, “I do miss you brother.” I remember the terrace of that lodge we stayed in Kanchipuram when you first talked to me all about ur life and hugged me tight with tears. That was the first time you called me brother. The afternoon when I left NFSC, I knew that you just vanished for lunch only because you could not see me leaving. It was on purpose that I didn’t go finding you to say a Good-bye. Sundar is the best ‘people management’ person I had ever met. He can be emotional at various levels, but at the same time he can perfectly balance the levels of it to the practicality and situation. He is so talented at reading the mind of the people who he works with. A perfect quality for community based projects.
The village Dusi was our first field trip together, when we hardly knew each other. Interestingly, on the second day of the field trip I called the office and said I have a serious problem working with him. Ironically, on the third day I called again to say that I would like to continue to work with Sundar. What I understood from the first day was that before doing research work with Sundar, I must do my basic research on Sundar. Thus I took him to the open terrace of the lodge at night and talked to him holding his hands. The rock melted. In an hour, I understood who is Iyer, who is Sundar and who is Manivannan, thus that man who is admired by people with all these names.Since then we were together since I left NFSC. We worked day and night, travelling like nomads in search of the essence of community we worked with. His ‘little’ presence was important than his ‘complete’ presence. While shooting the festival he used to vanish from the spot for many hours, but the moment I was tired and in need of a quick nap, he were there behind me smiling, to take over the camera.
Though a lot of hick-ups happened between us - A LOT OF TIMES - I always considered him as the leader of the project every time we travelled to work with a community. Hence in all documentaries I did with him, I have him credited as co-director without measuring to what extend his contribution was, as strongly believed that none of those films would have shaped so well without his skills with people and community.
Sundar’s experience of working with the people helped me a lot to mingle with the community. He knew how to get the right result from the mind of a person. I used to leave him as the interviewer stepping aside as a cameraman coz it was great watching him doing that with perfection. In case he missed something, I just had to give a little hint for him to grab the question. Moreover he equally understood the commitment we had for the community and artists as we went on studying them. More than an ethnographer, being a humanitarian is equally important while working with a community. He had seen the struggles of Therukoothu artists throughout his life. Those months when they have absolutely no performances, they live on the little wages from other jobs. As I have seen, it is the passion that drives most of the artists to their art more than monitory benefits. But it was difficult to understand who were actually in need and who were not. For Sundar I did frame a few funding proposals to help the artists. Still there were many occasions that I felt Sundar behaving like a rock to some people’s emotions and tears. When I asked about that he said, “Not all those actors are poor and needy. You need to recognize the actors of life too. Let us support the needy not the greedy.”
There is good example of his intelligence in this space. After documenting the festival at Dusi we promised that we would give a copy of the whole 44 tapes we shot at the village. According to the promise, we went back after a few months. Interestingly the villagers themselves had forgotten about our promise to them. When I was about to handover the DVDs to a well-known person in the village, Sundar called me back and announced to the entire crowd that there would be a ceremony at village temple where NFSC would be sharing the whole 44 tapes to the village-head in the presence of all villagers along with the screening of best moments of the event. He also announced that if anybody wants to see the videos in future, they could contact the village-head and collect it for free. I was shocked about the plan of such a big event, but then the last line Sundar said made me realise his logic.
On our way back Sundar said, “Why would we let one person have the control of all DVDs. What if he put it for sale and makes money for himself alone? Moreover after a ceremony, every villager would be confident that we were not trying to exploit them.” Dusi is now a home for me because of Sundar. There are a lot of people who recognize me there. I do remember that little girl who walked with me to main road, asking me to take her as a sister to Chennai.
In Chennai, Sundar was always “Sundar” to me and I was “Arun Sir” for him. But the very moment we entered the vicinity of Kanchipuram I called him “Iyereeeee…” He then gave a quick grin and then switched on to a fake serious look and said, “Deiii…”