‘Livelihood a Question Mark’: Dancer-Couple Out of Work Amid COVID

Tamil cinema has been the only thing they have known all their lives – and the pandemic has threatened it all.

Published28 Jul 2020, 02:22 AM IST
Entertainment
6 min read

‘One more take! Another! And another! One more take!’

This has been the routine for 40-year-olds Satish Babu and Viji for over two decades. Choreographers by passion, and profession, Viji began dance at the age of 13, and Satish after he flunked his Class 12.

The couple’s love story began on a film set. Today, they are familiar faces in Tamil cinema, having worked on films starring the likes of Vijay, Suriya, Vishal, Ajith, Arjun, Vijay Sethupathi and Junior NTR. However, now, with the industry hit by the coronavirus pandemic, they say they have “no prospects in sight.”

“Our livelihoods, not just our lives are dependent on the COVID-19 vaccine,” Satish told The Quint.

Assistant choreographer Viji worked with  actor Kamal Haasan for the film <i>Dhasavatharam</i>.
Assistant choreographer Viji worked with actor Kamal Haasan for the film Dhasavatharam.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)
Choreographer Satish Babu with actor Vijay Sethupathi.
Choreographer Satish Babu with actor Vijay Sethupathi.
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/@saasto_43)

‘Been a Struggle to Survive’

Satish and Viji worked on several movies together as background dancers before they fell in love and got married in 2011. They are currently living in Chennai with Satish’s aged father who retired as a stunt master.

Assistant Choreographer Viji with actor Jyothika on <i>Kaatrin Mozhi’s </i> set.
Assistant Choreographer Viji with actor Jyothika on Kaatrin Mozhi’s set.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

In fact, cinema has been the only thing they have known all their lives, and the pandemic has turned their world upside down.

“It has been a struggle to survive. I have broken into my savings for my daughter’s future to live right now. Thank god we at least have our own house, and so we are safer than many who have been driven away to their hometowns. Many prefer huts back home than going hungry here due to the lockdown.”
Satish Babu
Choreographer Viji with actor Dhanush on <i>Vengai’s&nbsp;</i>set.
Choreographer Viji with actor Dhanush on Vengai’s set.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

Only if theatres open can they hope for any work to come their way, added Viji.

“There is no budget. Other background artists like light men, makeup artists and camerapersons can find jobs at weddings and other events, but dancers, stuntmen, and junior artists have nowhere to go.”
Viji

And it won’t be the same again, Satish anticipated.

“Now things will change. For a sequence that will need 100 people, they will do away with a huge set of dancers because with every artist come technicians, costume designers, and makeup artists. They will just change it into a duet,” he said.

Not just that, Satish and Viji haven’t even got paid for the work they’ve done recently. Their paychecks have been delayed by more than three months.

The Tough Climb Up the Ladder

Choreographer Viji with actor Jyothika on the <i>Kaatrin Mozhi’s&nbsp;</i>set.
Choreographer Viji with actor Jyothika on the Kaatrin Mozhi’s set.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

Both Viji and Satish come from families that have worked in the entertainment industry.

Viji’s grandparents were theatre artists – her grandmother is the famous don paati from Junga. Her parents were choreographers. Satish’s father was a stunt artist, his mother a choreographer, and his brothers have been into dance and action.

Viji’s first gig was in 1995, as a last row dancer among 40-odd people for a song sequence with Bollywood stars Anil Kapoor and Sridevi. The movie was never released. 

Even before she turned 18, she was offered the job of an assistant choreographer with dance master Raju Sundaram for the film Kannedhirey Thondrinal.

Any Kollywood movie buff will remember the iconic ‘Oh senyoreeta’ song from the film Poovellam Kettupaar with actors Suriya and Jyothika. She is the one breaking a leg with the dance master.

And she has had to never look back until now.

“I was once dancing for a Prabhu Deva song. I was in the last row in a dance sequence involving 30 girls. He composed a bit, and being the enthusiastic person I am, I immediately danced to the bit perfectly well. So he asked me to come forward and told me to repeat the dance step. I was nervous but grabbed the chance. I then ended up being the only one who danced that sequence,” she told The Quint. After Prabhu Deva, she has worked with dance masters Lawrence, Shobi, Brinda, and Kalyan as well.

Choreographer Viji with actor and dancer Prabhu Deva.
Choreographer Viji with actor and dancer Prabhu Deva.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

Of course, it came with its challenges of being a woman, she added. “When we need to change clothes, we find an aloof spot, hold sarees to close the space and change inside that. It becomes a difficult task to even pee,” she said, adding that however, the male-dominated Kollywood has become much better now.

Assistant choreographer with actor Suriya on the <i>Aadhavan </i>film set.
Assistant choreographer with actor Suriya on the Aadhavan film set.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

From a Dropout to Becoming Sethupathi’s Buddy

Assistant choreographer Satish Babu in the Tamil film <i>Kanchana</i>.
Assistant choreographer Satish Babu in the Tamil film Kanchana.
(Photo: Screengrab)

When Satish flunked Class 12, he began working in a friend’s shop, but cinema had been his calling.

“I came from a cinema family but everyone needs to learn the ropes first. It was quite difficult to understand. I was trained in freestyle dancing because we need to be able to replicate a dance sequence as quickly as possible,” he said.

Very soon he became a favourite with choreographer Raju Sundaram, who took him under his wing.

“Before you see the final output, we would’ve practiced it 50-100 times. The level of difficulty is not just with how well the hero can dance, but also includes the costumes, background, even holi powder just thrown in our faces. Sometimes, they will pour artificial rain on us and then we will we have to wait drenched in the hot sun, till they do several takes and approve the shot. Kaayavechu kaayavechu pannuvaanga (We were made to dance while soaking in sun all day),” he said with a laugh.

Satish (second from left) in  the ‘<i>Enga area ulla varaadhe</i>’ song from Dhanush’s <i>Pudupettai</i>.
Satish (second from left) in the ‘Enga area ulla varaadhe’ song from Dhanush’s Pudupettai.
(Photo Courtesy: Screengrab)

In fact, he was even offered several minor acting roles in Kuruvi, Kanchana, Arindhum Ariyalum, and Pudupettai. That’s when he realised his fondness for acting.

Choreographer Satish said actor Vijay Sethupathi inspired him greatly.
Choreographer Satish said actor Vijay Sethupathi inspired him greatly.
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/@saasto_43)

Satish was all praise for actor Vijay Sethupathi, whom he fondly calls ‘sweetheart’, and Junior NTR, whom he considers his biggest inspiration.

“Vijay Sethupathi anna is such an inspiration and speaking to him gives you so much positive energy. He is such a simple man,” he said.

Choreographer Satish was totally in awe of how humble a person  Vijay Sethupathi is.
Choreographer Satish was totally in awe of how humble a person Vijay Sethupathi is.
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/@saasto_43)

YouTube, an Alternate Career?

While Satish is keeping himself busy with volunteering for the Chennai Corporation and Viji is picking up small gigs, the couple said that they are considering turning to YouTube for an alternate career like many others. Many from the Tamil film industry have switched to becoming Swiggy delivery executives and OLA cab drivers, they claimed.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I am considering taking online classes. But it will be different from shooting. Our livelihood has become a huge question mark.”
Viji
Viji at a recent ad shoot in Chennai.
Viji at a recent ad shoot in Chennai.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)
Viji said that directors are taking extreme precaution while shooting during the pandemic.
Viji said that directors are taking extreme precaution while shooting during the pandemic.
(Photo Courtesy: Viji)

“We all need to stay safe and only then can we overcome this. People’s lives have stooped to an all-time low now. Everyone is getting desperate as they are not able to earn a penny now. If this situation persists for another two months, then all our lives will be at stake. So, we all need to stay at home and make sure we get over this,” she added.

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