The 1986 TV show Malgudi Days, based on RK Narayan’s works and directed by Shankar Nag, became a phenomenon in no time. Set in British India, in a fictional town called Malgudi, the show focused on three different stories — Hero, Swami and his friends (SAHF), and Naga.
The heartwarming stories, sketched by RK Laxman, and performed by talented actors with mind-blowing music by TS Vaidyanathan, made Malgudi Days exemplary.
The show starred many senior actors, including Anant Nag. Child actor Manjunath, who had only done Kannada films before the show, became a popular name with his portrayal of Swami. People especially loved his impish smile. The show was also later turned into a movie, for which he won many international awards.
“I had worked with Nag in three movies, so there was a certain comfort level. When I was called for the casting, I had no idea about the role or the show. I was in the fifth standard, and hadn’t read many books back then. I didn’t know RK Narayan or Malgudi Days,” says Manjunath, who found it difficult to shoot the show in Hindi and English.
The show was aired in three parts of 13 episodes each. The first one was called Hero, in which Manjunath played the role of Swami in just one episode. In the story, Swami is seen waiting in his dad’s office. He catches a thief, and becomes a hero. “In hindsight, I feel it was a test drive. The show was accepted by the audience, and we even won awards,” says Manjunath.
The next part of the series, SAHF, was entirely about the 10-year-old Swaminathan aka Swami. It showcased the growing-up years of a boy, who hates going to school, and spends time around Malgudi with his friends. “In SAHF, the kids featured in only eight episodes. Swami became very popular, as did his friends Mani, Samuel aka Matar and Rajam. Even today, when anyone thinks of Malgudi Days, they think of SAHF. In fact, many senior actors on the show were angry about the fact that they didn’t get enough credit for it,” Manjunath says. Later, Manjunath played the snake charmer’s (played by Shankar Nag) son Naga, for two episodes in the third part, which was the complete opposite of Swami.
The show appealed to the people because “perhaps, everyone could identify with Swami” feels Manjunath. “The simplicity of the stories appealed to the audience. Swami had problems like how to avoid getting beaten up at school or be scolded, how to avoid mischief, lack of funds to buy snacks in school, etc. There were no major complications in Swami’s life. Every kid and even a grown-up could connect with the story,” he says.
The show was shot in a small town Agumbe, Karnataka, consisting of 40 houses. Manjunath says, “As there were no hotels, we stayed with the locals and rented out one room each in around 20 houses. In three years, we shot for six months in total.” Some bits of the show were shot in and around Bangalore too.
“Even today, I am in touch with many people from Agumbe. It’s a beautiful place, but unfortunately, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I had requested the officials to rename Agumbe as Malgudi, and turn it into a tourist site,” says Manjunath.
With the success of Swami, Manjunath’s popularity skyrocketed. But he thanks his parents and friends, who never let the fame go to his head. “Back then, there was no social media so I used to realise the show’s popularity only when I used to meet people. The respect I got as an actor had a lingering effect on me. I would not trade that for anything,” says Manjunath.