Let me begin by saying that I love and respect my parents. It’s either a cultural thing or a family thing that this love is taken for granted, and there never is quite the need to express it.
Today, my Dad turns 80 and this is as good an occasion as any to express the love and respect that I have for him. So, I flew all the way from New York to Chennai to surprise him on this big milestone birthday of his. When I got here, I gave him a huge, emotional hug, delivered the craftily designed popup card from his six-year old grandson, but I wanted to do more.
So, I want to share this story of a simple man who went from rags to riches to rags and then back to riches again, and nine of the many lessons that I have learned from this storied life of his.
Ramachandra Srinivasa Prabhu
Better known to the world as R.S.Prabhu, my Dad was the 9th of 10 kids born and raised in a simple family that depended on agriculture income – from rice fields and coconut trees – for their livelihood. Family planning was not yet heard of yet ;). Gender equality was quite a few years away and child marriages were the norm of the times. Girls in the family were married off before they were 10 and boys got to study until the 10th grade after which they could help manage and maintain the rice fields and coconut grove.
1. Empathy will be rewarding
Being in a joint family meant that dad was one of 24 kids – along with his first and second cousins – living in the same household. As the family’s agricultural income stagnated from the World War II economy, it became increasingly difficult for my grandfather to provide the basic essentials for everyone, forcing him to sell off some of the family land to make up for the drop in income.
You can’t expect a teenager – like dad was at the time – to understand the difficulty that his father was going through. However, displaying a maturity that far belied his 14 years, he decided that the best way to help his father was to relieve him of the burden of feeding and clothing at least one child.
So, right after he completed his 10th grade, he left home with nothing more than the equivalent of 10 cents in his pocket. He took up all kinds of odd jobs – bus boy, delivery boy, clearing agent, hotel manager, so on and so forth.
Being an understanding son and helping out his financially constrained father, dad picked up skills that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life. Who knows what dad would have been if his empathy towards his father had not compelled him to leave home?
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own” ~ Henry Ford
2. Go against the grain
At the age of 13, just before he left the family, dad went a few miles out of the way to a movie theater to see the film “Battle of Leningrad”. Having gotten wind of the fact that one of the kids in the household had gone against the house rules, waiting with cane in hand, was my grandfather to punish the offender.
As you might have guessed, anything to do with the “dirty” industry of movies – yes, even watching one – was taboo and punishable. Needless to say, if you were part of the family, you’d better pursue a career that was befitting the Prabhu name. The movies… fuhgeddaboudit!
More often than not, such incidents could leave lasting marks, forcing kids in the direction that their parents want them to go, while dissuading them from finding their calling or passion. As you will find out however, this only fuelled his desire to join the movie industry.
Forget about what the world, or your family wants you to do. If that’s not your path, go against the grain and pursue what your heart desires, even if it means having to face resistance and ridicule.
“When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free” ~ Charles Evans Hughes
3. Dream big, and pursue it!
Despite incurring the wrath of his father, from the time that he saw his first movie, dad has always had the fascination for cinema. It didn’t matter where the movie was made – Hollywood, Bollywood or local – he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to go watch it.
Soon, realization dawned on him that this was his passion – he wanted to be in the movie industry. Armed with nothing more than good looks and a burning desire to act in movies, he would knock on the doors of movie theaters looking for roles to play.
What he ended up was with the job of a production manager handling the day to day activities of the shoot. He did however get his opportunity to act in a few scenes of the movie. Unfortunately, while the movie’s poor showing at the box office meant the end of his acting career, his exposure to the movie making business gained him valuable experience that would make him riches in years to come.
It’s easy to fall in line, accept the status quo, and do what’s expected of you. It is that much difficult to go off the beaten path, and do something different. As I was growing up, I remember my teachers telling me not to build castles in the air, meaning don’t even think of achieving something that’s not possible. Clearly they had no idea of the power of the mind that makes the impossible possible or vice versa. I tell my kids to go ahead, dream big and set lofty goals.
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you are right” ~ Henry Ford
4. Never judge a book by its cover
Soon word got back to the family that dad was clearly entrenched in the movie industry, and my grandfather disowned his son. The prevailing belief was that the movie industry made bad people out of good ones. So, I guess you couldn’t fault a father for thinking that his son had gone over to the dark side.
As dad worked through the production schedules, he picked up the reputation of being a hard working, honest, sincere people’s person. Mr. T.K. Pareekutty, his boss at the time, realizing the true value that dad brought to the table, took him under his wing, treated him like his own son, and gave him the reins of the movie productions and the freedom to run it the way he deemed fit.
So impressed was he with dad that we was willing to drive all the way to my grandfather’s, sit down and explain that the movie industry was not as bad as it was made out to be, and that he should be proud to have a son like my dad. Needless to say, my grandfather was not only proud of his son, he welcomed him back to the family with open arms.
Too often, our unfounded beliefs cloud our minds and our judgments, that we do not see reality for what it is. Successful people usually are open minded to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. The world would be flat and the earth would be at the center of the solar system, if it weren’t for open minded people.
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them. -Epictetus.
5. Fortune favors the brave
For fifteen years since taking over the reins as the executive producer, dad ran one of the most successful production units producing a total of 10 movies, four of them winners of the National Award, including the first award winner ever from the Malayalam language.
The death of his Godfather in 1969 came as a huge blow. The new owners had no interest to pursue the movie business and opted to draw the shutters. Owed months of salary and accrued benefits from 15 years of service, dad was left stranded.
He was faced with two choices – either find a new job at another production unit, or start his own. At the not so young age of 40, having to take care of a wife and two kids, the first option would’ve been safer, saner and easier. The latter option, while fraught with risks meant being his own boss and blazing his own trail, especially having gained the experience over the years. While the risks were big, the rewards that came with assuming these risks were huge as well, and dad saw great success for the next 15 years.
Sometimes, factors like age and family responsibilities scare us into talking the oft travelled, and more comfortable road rather then make the turn down the adventurous, but scenic one.
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” ~ Peter Drucker
“Willpower is the key to success. Successful people strive no matter what they feel by applying their will to overcome apathy, doubt or fear.” ~ Dan Millman
6. Failure teaches us more than success
The first movie that dad produced on his own – Aabhijathyam – garnered favorable reviews from the media, collected four awards including the prestigious Filmfare award, on its way to becoming a runaway hit at the box-office.
With success came fame, high life, cars and bungalows, and I remember thinking that this was a great life. Dad went on to make more movies, and although they made “decent” draws at the box office, they didn’t quite measure up to the success of the first one.
That was until the year 1982, where he made the movie – Adhikaram – about a woman who rules her household – her husband, her first sons and his wife – with an iron fist. When the second son returns from afar, he brings along with him his bride. In a complete role reversal, the second daughter-in-law wrests control away from the woman and poetic justice is served.
Loosely based on the story of a family relative, this film went on to awards and raked in the money. I remember watching the movie in a theater, one among the crowd, and could see that the audience thoroughly enjoyed the movie and broke out in applause as the credits rolled. I had never been more proud of myself, for being the son of a successful movie maker.
I had no idea that life as I knew it was about to change drastically, and for the worse. See, unlike Hollywood, where the studio bears most of the risk, here, you might as well be playing Russian roulette. You get a bad hand, and it could wipe out all your earnings.
As the next few movies turned out to be duds, dad not only lost everything that he had earned, but stood in deep debt, unable to pay them back. My dad, and our family had learned one of the hardest lessons – life is not always a bed of roses.
“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up” ~ Alfred to Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins.
7. Family is the true wealth
I knew things were bad, but I had no idea how bad until I came back from school one day to find my usually unflappable dad completely broken down saying that he had lost everything. That day has left a lasting impression on me, my brain and my life that I remember it vividly, like it happened yesterday.
It’s irony that life has its parallels – here I was as a 14 year old witnessing a father’s plight – very much like dad had witnessed his father’s, when he was fourteen. In this case however, leaving the family would serve no purpose. In fact, it would’ve had the exact opposite effect.
My brother at 21 years – a chip of the old block – stepped in to console the family and to assure us that things will be okay. For years to come, he would pull the weight of the family’s burden – helping my father pay off some of his debts, provide for food and help get me through college. It is no understatement that as a family, we owe my brother big time.
“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family” ~ Anthony Brandt
8. Don’t let emotions cloud your thinking
Although my brother helped dad settle some of his debts, the financial condition remained grim. Loan sharks circled, sensing blood in the water. Dad found it difficult to return money borrowed at high interest rates from unscrupulous lenders.
I remember the day that one of the loan sharks showed up with a gun. However, he walked away as dad calmly explained that he stood to lose more by using the gun.
His lawyer, his accountant and advisors suggested bankruptcy as the only way out. Yet another taboo word in the culture, bankruptcy might as well have been the death knell, that would have far reaching consequences on the family, kids and worse, the Prabhu name!
Dad however, would have none of this “advise”. Instead, he decided that he would sell most of his material possessions – the huge house, the car, mom’s jewelry – and help pay off the debtors. He struck deals with the loan sharks to settle for a percentage of the loans he had borrowed, and they were happy to get something.
Although he sold almost all of his material things, he made sure that he held on to his intellectual property – his films. In one of the smartest moves made against the advise he got, this would (and still continue to) bring him royalties from TV, media and global distribution rights.
“The emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain” ~ Daniel Goleman
9. Learn from your life
Gone were most of our possessions as dad tried to set things right. We moved to a rental house, made use of public transport to get around, tightened our belts and survived.
While this wasn’t new to my parents, it was a rude awakening for me, having lived the high life. Awaken I did however, as I realized this was the way most of the world lived. I was simply lucky to have been born with a silver spoon, so to speak.
This experience would help me and my family remain grounded as we live our lives in the suburbs of New York. Today, I tell my kids to savor and respect whatever we have, because there are others that are not so lucky.
Although he pursued a few entrepreneurial endeavors after the last debt was paid off, none of them really took off. His reputation in the movie industry however, attracted a wealthy investor who wanted to make movies. 50 years since his first foray into films, dad remains one of the most respected individuals in the Southern Indian film industry.
Every life, just like my dad’s has its successes, challenges and failures. In every situation in our lives there are lessons. It’s how we use these lessons, as we go on with our lives, that really define us.
“Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood” ~ Thomas Carlyle
Happy Birthday Dad!
On his birthday, I wish my dad continued good health and spirit. Of all the tributes that he has received so far, I bet the greatest one would be his six-year old grandson saying “I want to be like you, Aabu (Grandpa)!”
If you were to meet my dad in the streets, you’d see a simple, life scarred, frail looking man. Trust me, at the age of 80, there is nothing frail about the inner strength of this man, better known as my Dad!
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