If there was one man who can be described as a modern day Don Quixote, then it was this actor-director- theatre evangelist who strides across the Kannada stage, targeting the corrupt in a fashion that has earned him the moniker ‘Karnataka’s Anna Hazare’. Master Hirannaiah’s barbs at the political class, reduced the audience to tears and laughter, but they never failed to send home the message. Not in the early fifties when he started, not today, when the corrupt call the shots….
“I would take a little alcohol before going on stage and performing the play. That way if someone is offended by something I said and takes action, I can just say that I was slightly drunk,” a fun fact not many would know about 82-year-old Kannada theatre actor, Master Hirannaiah.
Known for his use of humour and satire to bring to light the most serious of issues the country faces, this veteran actor believes that theatre has the power to educate people without being preachy. It can touch the most common man, sitting in the last row, by just showing the person what the issue is, he says.
While he is most well known for his Lanchavatara plays discussing the theme of corruption, he has touched upon other social evils like casteism, dowry and sati as well. These were highlighted in his play, Nadubidi Narayana, a role he considers most challenging because it had politics and required him to be most subtle.
“My method is to have my commentary on various issues in the middle, while the beginning and end has the catchphrase which gets the attention of the audience,” he said. His strong faith in theatre, stems from the fact that there is more freedom in this art form. He feels that with the content on TV and in films, there is always the added obstacle of the censor board. As for a play, one is free to express and comment on issues.
“The audience is my censor board. They have paid for their ticket, if they have a problem or they disagree they can stand up and talk about it,” he added. Known as ‘Karnataka’s own Anna Hazare’ for his fight against corruption, he feels that the political class lacks the national spirit. Through his Lanchavatara plays, that he has performed 11,000 times till date, he aims to spread the message that those elected by the people, often lack the kind of patriotism and ideals, leaders like Visvesvaraya and Ambedkar once had.
He feels that corruption is the root cause of all other evils that hurts the common person the most. When he started performing this play in 1953, corruption was hardly ever considered a major issue and received little attention. He however knew that this would snowball into something bigger in the future and ‘swallow the whole nation’.
All was not smooth sailing for this theatre legend to begin with. After his father K Hirannaiah, a pioneer in theatre himself, passed away in 1953, he had a lot of expectations to live up to. “Because I was his son, people expected me to be as great as him. It worried me initially but I did not take that to heart. I was forced to take up the theatre line but I have no regrets. When my father was at the peak of his career, it was the pre-independence period. At this time, there was more emphasis on historical themes. In my time, we had the freedom of expression to explore other themes as well,” he said.
When asked about ‘struggling actors’ in this competitive space, he said that every other great personality struggled initially while they started off in theatre. He cited examples of Dr Rajkumar, Dr Vishnuvardhan and Anupam Kher who began their journey with plays and later progressed into films.
His advice for those who plan to break into the field of acting is that they should be frank in expressing their views. “ The youth should not try to hide the truth nor should they worry about danger. If you try to hide fire with a cloth, the whole cloth will burn. We should allow room for correction. This has always been my ambition,” he said.
His clever use of comedy to sugarcoat pressing political issues that change on an everyday basis is done with the view to inform the audience while also not offending anybody. Despite having worked as a director and producer, his heart remains close to acting.
“While the director only has some control before the play, once the actor goes on stage, he is on his own. I attribute my 68 years of success to acting, “he said.