I wasn’t an outspoken student and in school the best actors were always the ones who spoke the loudest, spoke the most, or had the best vocabulary. They would always have the big roles.
Shashank Purushotham, Actor, Bangalore
Interviewed by Poorva Dinesh
Why did you decide to give us an interview on education?
I grew up in a very traditional part of Bangalore. The rules of society were laid down very clearly. Everyone in the family became either an engineer or a doctor. I went to one of the best schools, or supposedly the best school. It was a very competitive school. A lot of comparisons were made not just by students and teachers but also by parents. And for a long time, every time my marks would come out, I would dread it. I was treated as someone who wasn’t making progress, or wasn’t at the top, or wasn’t a good student. The definition of being a good student was always getting 90% and above. I was always in the bottom five or bottom ten in the class despite getting 80%! And I thought getting 80% was bad…
How did this level of competitiveness affect you?
I was always low on confidence, an introvert, because I was always a failure. I wasn’t up there with everybody else. As I started growing up, there was always a keen interest to try new things. In Class 7 I started taking interest in cultural events. Once there was a class play, and I had a role of an “extra” in it. I wasn’t an outspoken student, and in school the best actors were always the ones who spoke the loudest, spoke the most, or had the best vocabulary. They would always have the big roles. I played a small part in the play, and I gave my everything to it, though no one noticed me. I went around in class asking everybody, “did you see me do that?” and they would go like, “uh huh, yeah…”, but that made me so happy. I thought to myself, “Shit, I did something today!” And I felt like that after a very long time.
Did things start looking up after that?
Not really, because like I said, the outspoken and outgoing children were given all the opportunities. At the same point, there was so much confusion in my head that I started losing even more interest in my studies. At one point, I started bunking school. I would tell at home, I was going to school but not go to school, and then one day, I just ran away from home…just like that. I came back of course – I won’t go into the details – and my parents thought it was probably the school, and put me in another school. And even then I took my own time. It was very difficult to go to school and study. I HATED studying. For me studying was only mugging. Eventually I passed out and decided to take up dentistry because it sounded easier than Engineering and Medicine.
But you took that decision for yourself?
I didn’t have a choice…I couldn’t have done Fashion Designing or Interior Designing…
Were these courses a big NO NO?
I was already conditioned. There was no question of even asking. At that point, the way the country was growing, it was all about going to the US and becoming rich there. Dentistry sounded good. I thought dentists make a lot of money so let’s do it. And my parents were fine with it, because it would still mean I was a doctor.
How was your college life?
For me dentistry was trying to explore different things. In college I got rid of my insecurities. Even though they were still there, I kinda felt more comfortable expressing myself. And there were a new bunch of people here, and I didn’t know anybody, so there was no judgement in that sense.
When I was in school there was a lot of guilt because I thought children in school looked at me in a certain way since I had run away from home and lost a year. But this was more internal. I don’t think anybody really thought about me like that.
I started doing a lot of paper presentations in college, and at one point I thought why not try doing theater, but the focus was always on dentistry. But I can tell you the education system was still about who was going to make more money, who was going to get the masters seat – didn’t matter whether it was through merit or paying money – and my path was to go to America. I thought the more paper presentations I gave, the more credit I would get, and I could use that to get some scholarship. And my family supported this. If I was to go to the US, they were ready to support me with the money and seat. But they were clear that I couldn’t have any other goal. I hadn’t even mentioned I wanted to do theater or try it.
You mentioned earlier to me that your college life was really a turning point for you. How?
In college, I picked subjects and topics for presentations with the idea that they would get implemented. One of my professors and the principal at that time were supportive of my choice. Tele-medicine was big at that time. ISRO had come up with a satellite and educational institutions could use it for free. I had come up with an idea of tele-dentistry for oral cancer, which is very prominent in rural areas…because there people not just smoke; they also chew tobacco which is the biggest cause of oral cancer. The principal encouraged me to go ahead. I remember going to Delhi to present this at a major conference where dentistry students all over the country would come and make presentations, and if you won you would get a scholarship to go to the US and all that…I am mentioning this incident because the so-called education was not really education in the truest sense.
And I remember making a model of a satellite trying to show how from a village you could transmit this and that. Most of the people who saw my presentation were wowed. I didn’t care about winning or anything but I wanted a positive response. And finally I went in with my model in a room with three judges and the first thing they said to me was “What is this nonsense. Do you know some minister? How will you get this going? This will not work…” They never looked at the idea behind it. The scholarship prize finally went to someone who had taken something from the textbook and printed it. It was done well, but it was something that we were already studying.
At what point did you start doing theater?
After my principal’s retirement…I have to mention his name…Sheikh Hayder Ali…a wonderful chap, things started going down-hill. The idea of setting up tele-dentistry frizzled out. People used to tell me to study and get my marks. Half the professors who would come to the college would come there to sign, take their payment and go. Nobody gave a shit. There were a few who really cared about giving you a good education and who were there to teach you something and make you learn. And at some point a friend introduced me to theater. I thought, “ok let me try,” and I realized I sucked at it (laughs). It was really different. At that time, my interest slowly started moving away from dentistry. At one point, my professors told me I was missing a lot of classes and I wouldn’t pass the exam. By this time I had started taking theater very seriously.
It was time for the final exams and one day the professors called me and said they wouldn’t let me appear for the final exam because my attendance was too low. I pointed out there were others too like me and they were appearing for the exam. The professors said those were bad students, and I was a good student and they didn’t want me to get away like this. They wanted me to come back and nail the exams. I cried and pleaded them to let me appear for the exam. But they wouldn’t let me.
By now, mentally I was completely into theater. So I decided to jump into it. Six months later I appeared for my exams, passed and started my internship. I was very disoriented during my internship. One day I was just sitting in the hospital, and a professor came and screamed, “You think you can just sit around because you are an intern? If you are not interested then just go.” And I walked out…
What did you tell your parents?
I told my parents I was taking a break.
That’s such a lovely phrase…Always comes handy! (Poorva laughs)
I told them I wanted to rethink about how to go to the US and everything, but that was all bullshit. I really didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to dive into theater and I started doing theater, and frankly speaking that’s when my real education began. And today I make a living out of theater and theater-related work. I haven’t gone back to college. The “break” continues and I still haven’t collected my certificate from college.
The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic. But we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
I think for me love is something very personal as well as very external. Love comes in all forms. But at the end, I think love is being a good human being.