The name Ping Pong Surya from the movie Sye rings a bell, for all Telugu Movie buffs out there. We at HatkeStory have always been interested in knowing the challenges one faces to become an established character artist in the Film Industry. We met Surya on a weekend and a casual chat with him revealed many things that are otherwise widely ignored by the public. We sincerely hope this Story would be an eye-opener to bring to your notice, the struggle of thousands of character artists out there.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in an area called Shanti Nagar in Rajahmundry. I come from a typical middle class family trying to balance aspirations and expenses. My dad used to work at Andhra paper mills.
Were you interested in an acting right from your childhood?
Yes. I was never into academics. I used to be punished frequently in school for not taking studies seriously. I got my interest in acting from TV. Back then, not everyone used to own television sets. We used to watch programs like “Chitralahari” along with neighbors together at one place. I was smitten by stories of film sets and actors in Hyderabad.
Did your parents allow you to pursue acting?
No. My parents were always very protective of me. I was allowed to attend tuition classes just opposite my house and my mom used to check for my slippers every hour to ensure I was there. I ran away from home when I was in 7th grade. I left my slippers there to trick my parents into thinking that I was still there. All I wanted to do was to somehow go to Hyderabad and reach Annapurna studios. I knew there was a train (Gautami Express) that went to Hyderabad. I ran 10 kilometers from my home to reach the railway station to board the train. To reach the railway station, I had to cross my dad’s workplace and I was scared that someone might notice my misadventure.
That experience must have been very scary!
Those were one of the tensest moments of my life. I for the first time, step foot in Secunderabad railway station. I only had 2 rupees in my pocket that my father had given me the day before. I walked all the way to tank bund, bought a guava with the money I had, to satisfy my hunger. I slept on a bench in Lumbini Park until I was woken up by a security guard. I then reached Annapurna Studios by asking random people for directions. It got dark by then. I was scared and started crying while sitting in front of the Studio gate.
The watchman there, Mr. Srinivas took pity on me, and was kind enough to lend me some food and shelter. I was taken to Suresh Sir the next day, who was Film Director Krishnavamsi’s associate Director. Mr. Suresh wanted to re-unite me with my family. So he asked me to stay at the Studio guest house until he sent word to my father. A letter reached my family only 3 days later. I spent my time watching film shootings at the studio. My uncle who was in Hyderabad reached me first on getting to know about my whereabouts.
What happened next?
To prevent me from indulging in further mischief, my uncle took me to Naga Babu Sir, who reprimanded me and asked me to complete my studies before trying my luck in cinema. 3 days later when I saw my dad, I was trembling, fearing punishment for my misdeeds. However, my family was happy to see me and there was no punishment whatsoever. I realized that my family had spent a considerable amount of their life savings on organizing search parties. There were posters with my photos and description in bus stands and railway stations. I was just a kid then. I didn’t really think about the kind of mental agony I would have put my family members through!
Was it difficult to adjust after returning back?
More than you can imagine. It was very embarrassing to face people back home. I was ridiculed at school every day for running away. I had to shift schools but still could not make up my mind to study. I completed 10th class with great difficulty and asked my uncle to help me find work in Hyderabad.
How did your uncle help you?
I joined as an assistant to my uncle who was a cameraman for Naga Babu’s cinema Kauravudu. I also worked for my uncle on the sets of Itlu Sravani Subramanyam, Amma Nana Tamil Ammayi, Idiot and 143. My uncle shifted into direction later. I stayed for around 7 years with my uncle and then shifted to a room in Indira Nagar with a friend to pursue my own interests.
How difficult was it to get work?
It was quite difficult. I used to go around, carrying my portfolio. I used to walk 10 km a day to visit various locations to audition for roles. My parents would frequently ask me to come back home as things were not working out. I remember the days I spent eating just rice mixed with salt, oil and chili powder. There were days when my poor roommate used to sell his blood to make ends meet! Low budget movie Directors used to ask money in return to cast us in their movies. It was tough to survive!
Tell us how you got your first break?
I got my first acting chance in a film titled Tapana. My major break was in the movie “Sye” directed by S.S. Rajamouli Sir. I still remember that moment, when I was auditioning for the role I was asked a question. What Sports do you play? I answered “I play Chess”, to which they all burst out laughing.
I later was part of movies like Nuvve Nuvve, Jai Chiranjeeva and Aa Naluguru to name a few. However, the name “Ping-Pong Surya” from the movie Sye stuck forever. I have been part of around 45 movies and thank god for all the characters I got to play till date.
What problems do artists face nowadays?
The film industry has cut-throat competition and these are difficult times for an artist. At least 40 people compete for 1 role in a movie today. No one lends you money or support when you need it the most. We have to attend an interview/audition for every movie. There is constant uncertainty if we will get the part or not. There is no settled life in our industry. Even today there a huge number of junior artists in Krishna Nagar, Film Nagar and Indira Nagar who struggle to meet even basic living needs.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working in 3 movies. I have personally invested a lot on my own project titled “Kaliyuga” based on #MeeToo movement which will release soon in Tamil and Telugu.
What’s hurdles do small budget movies face?
It is very difficult to get theatres to release your movie with big budget movies around. Promotions are a costly affair. Did you know that a simple promotion for a movie amounts to a minimum of 15 lakh rupees? Low budget movies are a burden to all the actors involved. “Will people even come to watch such a movie?” is a question that keeps everyone on their toes. They cannot afford paid reviews and promotions either.
What is the biggest threat to the film fraternity?
Gossip filled with fake news. Earlier, rumors used to be exaggerated say by 100%. Now its 1000%. Click bait everywhere! Do not believe what you see online. The news is not credible. Media has become a slave to money generating business models and a puppet to TRPs.
What has your journey taught you?
I have learnt the hard way that sadness and tears are always hurtful. People are busy with their own lives and you have to look after yourself to survive. A majority will only be there to share happiness but not your struggle.
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