A labour of love
Acting started out as a hobby, and it later turned into a career for veteran Malaysian actress Sukania Venugopal.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Sukania Venugopal (nicknamed Suki), who is turning 60, has the arts running in her blood. Her mother, Nalini, was the first Indian Malaysian female singer to appear on Malaysian TV and radio. She was (and still is) a big influence in Sukania’s life as she navigates her own path as an actress. She will be taking centre stage in June in a production by The Necessary Stage called “Ghost Writer”, which delves into “characters haunted by their past despite aspirations to drive their lives in new directions”.
Though her mother passed away 12 years ago, Sukania remembers her mother’s enduring support. “Being a consummate performer herself, she encouraged me in whatever field I showed interest in regards to the arts – be it dancing, singing or acting. She together with my father (can’t leave him out of the equation) were 110-percent supportive in all my endeavours.”
She added: “I received emotional and spiritual support from them, which has given me a strong base or grounding. They were never critical about my choices but strengthened me with positive feelings of love and acceptance. They embraced life generously and their unconditional love for my sister, nephew and me is our legacy, which has helped me to deal with all the curve balls that I have had to face in life.” Sukania’s youngest sister is singer Shanthini Venugopal.
Both would often be present at most of their mother’s shows. Sukania shared one vivid memory – “We took part along with her in a TV variety show in which she was singing. This was either in 1965 or 1966. My mum encouraged us to dance along to the song that she was singing. It was a spontaneous reaction on my mum’s part for asking us, and we were willing to do it. The song was an upbeat Indian song entitled ‘Aadavaralam’.”
She continued: “My sister and I did the twist to this song. It was hilarious in hindsight as both of us forgot the choreography and ended up winging it. My mum went along with this with no misgivings and I guess this truly distinguishes an artist from just a singer, i.e. someone who is able to just go with the flow of spontaneous creativity. We were creating the movements while she sang as it was being filmed!”
More than just a hobby
Initially, Sukania added, acting was just a hobby of hers and teaching was her priority then as she taught the English language for 25 years. “My hobby in acting started when I was still in school – I was 15 in 1971 when I performed in my first public play, ‘Oliver’. However, I believe it gained momentum when I was in university. I chose theatre, as I felt more connected to it emotionally than singing or dancing.
“I enjoy being an actress. It was not something that I had consciously thought of as a career. It was more a hobby as at the time when I had started, no one that I knew of was doing it as a profession. I was a teacher and was able to have the time to do theatre as well.” She explained further: “The first school I taught in was a residential Islamic school that did not encourage theatre, as it did not embody Islamic values. I tried to introduce theatre to the older students who genuinely enjoyed it. However, the administration asked me to stop. Hence, when I requested for a transfer much later, I was posted to a regular secondary school, which operated on multicultural and multi-religious sentiments. That was when I became actively involved in school theatre productions. I was encouraged by the school administration to start a theatre club, which received favourable response from the students.”
Sukania reiterated: “So initially it didn’t start of as a ‘business’. It was merely doing theatre for the love of it … a labour of love basically!” She shared that there was no money at the beginning (it was not important to her at the time) and she only started getting paid when she began performing with Instant Café Theatre Co in 1989 and acted with people like Andrew Leci, Zahim Albakri, Jit Murad, her sister, Shanthini, Jo Kukathas, Sandra Sodhy, Saidah Rastam, Chacko Vadaketh, Indi Nadarajah, Allan Perera and many others.
“When we first started out it was just for fun. I did not expect it to take off and snowball into what it had become. I believe that there was no other group at that time that did political and social satire, and hence we gained popularity.”
Over the years, she has been a part of a large body of stage productions in Malaysia and Singapore such as “Leela Purushotaman”, “Utter”, “Singapore”, “Balek Kampong”, “Meera”, “A Street Car Named Desire”, “Sybil”, “Past Caring”, “Good People”, “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, “Twelfth Night”, “Second Link”, and “Puteri Gunung Ledang”. She has also dabbled in movies like “Talentime” and “Garuda”.
Even doing acting for many years, today she still finds challenges in the roles she plays. “I find all my roles challenging and they remain so right to the end. Basically the challenge lies in reaching out to each and every member of the audience and engaging them in making a mental and emotional connection with the character that I am portraying.”
She added: “I try to be as honest as possible in grasping the emotional make-up or essence of the character … being believable in the portrayal. The challenge is getting the audience to experience the character and obliterating the actor.” And she shared that she has no preference – she enjoys both movies as well as theatre productions.
Not slowing down
Sukania is enjoying her once-hobby and has no plans on slowing down. “It is the sheer love of performing that keeps me going. If I still have my senses and wits intact, I will definitely continue performing – why not?” She added: “I love to portray characters truthfully so that the audience are passionately engaged and are moved to resonate with the character being portrayed. I gain by knowing that I have succeeded in doing so.”
Besides focusing on her current role in “Ghost Writer”, she also keeps herself busy by helping youth groups in Malaysia who are keen on staging plays, put a play together.
** Catch Sukania on the stage of “Ghost Writer” on June 9 to 11, 2016, at 8pm and June 11 to 12, 2016, at 3pm at Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets are S$35 or S$28 (for senior citizens) at the SISTIC website at: www.sistic.com.sg. You can also call the SISTIC hotline: 6348 5555 or visit SISTIC authorised agents islandwide.
(** PHOTO CREDITS: Caleb Ming, SURROUND)