Robo Shankar has donned many hats in his life: champion bodybuilder, fitness trainer, mimicry artist. In fact, the list is endless: “I’ve always gone on roads less travelled. I went through college, but I wasn’t really there to get a degree. Ultimately, all those lonely roads I took have brought me here. It’s not a bad place to be, I think.”
Settling down after an exhausting round of theatre visits (his film, Maari, has just released), Robo Shankar is a happy man. “Solli vecha madhiri, in all the theatres I’ve visited, the audience cracks up at the same scenes. It’s a huge blessing to be at this stage in life and enjoy the love of the audience. I got to see Dhanush sir and his family enjoy my film. Afterwards, I had lunch with them at the Taj. Really, what more can I ask for?”
Things weren’t always this good for the comedian. He endured several hardships before finding his feet in the industry. You wouldn’t know it from the mischievous glint in his eye: “It’s a sob story. At the end of the day, if I tell you about all the problems I had and all the people who fooled me, then it’s going to be just another sob story. Let me retain some mystery and keep it all to myself.” And there’s that familiar, booming laugh.
“Life was hard though,” he adds reflectively. “All the good things that happened to me, happened after long periods of nothingness. Hard work, sincerity and all that was there. But that’s something every other guy had too. My life is not about luck or fate. It’s about smiling through the pain. That’s what worked.”
Robo Shankar has been able to mimic people “forever”. During his school days in Madurai, he would entertain many a friend with his talents. In college, this ability ensured that he was the centre of attention at all the cultural festivals. The walls of his alma mater are lined with plaques bearing his name, he tells me proudly. “Nobody will be able to beat me in that,” he says with a proud grin.
There are times when he gets lost in the persona he takes on. “Mimicry is not your average talent. It takes a lot of skill and practice. A good mimic will be able to react to situations in precisely the same way that his persona would. It’s hard to make distinctions between the true self and the others sometimes. It’s so very easy to lose ourselves. You see people becoming the celebrities that they mimic. That’s because after some time they unknowingly condition themselves to live like them. That’s the risk we all take to make people laugh.”
Sometimes he speaks like the celebrity for days on end, driving his family and friends crazy. “At best, all I have are residual mannerisms. True story. After mimicking Vijayakanth for a TV show, I said Ey Pulla to people for the longest time,” he says with a rueful smile.
It was not always the big screen that Shankar was aiming for. For a short period, Shankar wanted, and in fact, had the biggest muscles out there. A brief tryst with bodybuilding left him an ardent disciple at the altar of fitness for several years. “I was very dedicated to it. I won many championships and competitions too. But the drain on my energy and resources got to me. At the time, I wasn’t in too secure a position to be able to continue it. So I quit.”
Fortunately for him, after that period, his career in mimicry skyrocketed. He characteristically quips, “My stomach also began to grow. It’s never gone away after that.” A regular on reality shows, his brand of humour won television audiences over. The only frontier left unconquered was the big screen. “I was in TV Shows for what felt like the longest time. People I’d worked with got movie offers, big and small. But somehow it evaded me. I think it was because mimicry artists are viewed differently, when compared with your average comedian. The general opinion was that we won’t be able to do anything except mimic popular stars. Since I was quite famous for my Vijayakanth impersonations, nobody was able to see through that to the talent that I had. They thought I wouldn’t fit in here, without even bothering to check if I could or could not.”
Thus, despite becoming a recognized face, there was a long wait for him. “I did several stage shows, dance shows in the meantime. Anything and everything to fill in the gap. It was only when (director) Gokul sir offered me the role in Rowthiram that things picked up.”
There too, luck didn’t seem to favour him. His footage did not make it past the editing table, something that irks Shankar to no end. “To think I was so excited about my first movie role and all. Anyway, I told myself that it was all for the best and made plans to go back to my standup. I felt numb actually, because it didn’t look like things would ever be great for me. Something or the other always went wrong.”
However, Director Gokul it was who came through for him. Shankar was brought on board his next film—the cult favourite IdhaABa. As “Sound” Shankar, he made an immediate impact—full of bravado and sharp wit. “That’s when people saw the real me, saw my capabilities. Vijayakanth maadhiriye panna maatten nu oru confidence vandhuchu ellarukkum.”
If there’s one thing that Robo Shankar insists on having, it’s a free rein.”Balaji Mohan sir gave me the freedom to do whatever it is I wanted. He’d tell me the outline of the scene and walk off. It was left to me to figure out exactly what it is I wanted to do. It’s always impromptu with me. I feel that it works better that way. Mugging up dialogues someone else has written is just not my scene.” he grunts. “Besides, I’m pretty sure I can be funny on my own. I don’t need someone to make me sound funny. My sense of humour is my biggest and most treasured possession. No sense in not making use of it.”
Through Maari, Balaji Mohan gave Shankar an even bigger platform. The comedian appears throughout the film. A remarkable feat, when you consider who he’s sharing screen space with. “Dhanush sir is a huge star. I’m nowhere close to being a star. For him to be okay with me tagging along with him in scenes, and for him to let me walk away with some of the funniest lines in the film. Well, that takes a lot of guts. I was actually nervous about meeting him. For an artist like me, connecting with the hero is very important. Dhanush is a huge star, and so I was unsure of how he’d react to me. But he put all my fears to rest,” he sighs. “Also, I was kind of hoping my previous bad luck would give this project a miss. This was my time to stand up and be recognized. Thank God, it all went according to plan.”
What’s next for Robo Shankar? Vijay’s Puli, in which Shankar has a “short, yet significant” role. “Chimbudeven sir likes his comedy-punch dialogues short and sweet. Oru punch-oda mudikkanum. My entire role is like that. So you know that it’s going to be different.”
Now that Shankar has mastered the art of dancing, he plans to put it to good use in his upcoming films. “I lost two kilos dancing in Maari.” He adds with that mischievous glint, “My future workout plan is to be made to dance in all my upcoming films. Nothing else is working for me. The stomach needs to go away somehow.”
Also gone is his trademark moustache. Shankar turns coy when I ask him if the makeover is for a new role. “I can’t really say right now. There’s a lot at stake here,” he says. “But what I can say is this. I’ve always been a Kamal Veriyan. I think that’s something people don’t really know about me.”
It’s not like his caller tune hadn’t already clued us in to this fact.
And just like his thalaivar, all Robo Shankar wants to do is to entertain people. “Make them laugh so hard, they forget their troubles forever. Actually, even if they forget it for a few minutes, my job is done.” Then comes the tragicomic warning, “Let’s not tempt that bad luck again by talking big, okay?”