Nagharaj Raj on stage in PONNIYIN SELVAN

Having starred in popular Vasantham dramas such as Unmattham Aaguthadi , and Annamalai, Nagharaj Raj  has been a familiar face on your TV screens for many years. His expertise behind the camera has also given us groundbreaking info-ed series such as NC16, Uthaviku Varalaama and Munnetrathin Monnodigal. He is also the CEO and founder of Venus Academy of Arts, which conducts drama workshops for over 60 schools across the country. You can also catch him on Oli 96.8 FM where he has been a freelance DJ for the past 7 years. Adding to his ever expanding portfolio, Nagharaj will now be on stage as part of the cast of Ponniyin Selvan which is set to make its debut on 28th April. He talks to us about his illustrious media career, his passion for teaching and his role in Ponniyin Selvan.

How did you first enter the media industry and what were some key turning points ?

I had always wanted to go into the media industry since young but couldn’t get any opportunities. So after school, I worked in the education line, hotel industry, marketing - quite a few places . But I was never quite satisfied with what I was doing. This interest was always at the back of my mind. So one day, I just happened to chance upon this website for the Asian Academy of Film and Television in Delhi. I clicked around and they sent me a prospectus. I liked what I saw so I decided to enroll. This was the biggest turning point of my life and it was truly an amazing experience. Big Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan came onto our campus to give interviews and lectures and it was great to learn from them. After spending 2 ½ years there, I graduated with a Masters Diploma in Visual Communication and went to work for Malabar Studios. After a year of working there, I got an offer to work at K Balachander’s Kavithalayaa Productions in Chennai. I spent around 5 years in India but was forced to come back to Singapore due to a family situation.

When I came back, I was quite clueless on what to do. I started working for TheMedia under Mr Mohamed Ali who gave me my first leading role in Unmattham Aaguthadi. I was a nobody back then so this was the drama that put me on the map. Other than acting, I also started to go into production work, directing and writing. I was initially just a writer for NC16. But after Mr Ali saw what I had written for the first episode, he decided to let me direct it as well. This was a real eye opener for me. Before that, I never knew I could write and direct a series. I went on to write and direct around 9 episodes in the season. Through that series, I also introduced many new faces, most of whom are doing very well in the industry today. The series, as you know, was very well received by viewers and won an award at Pradhana Vizha.

Following my stint at TheMedia, I joined Tantra Inc as Creative Director . Tantra was a full blown training ground for me, where I was doing everything from directing and acting to editing and writing. I was even part of the cast of Pickles,  which was a full length local Tamil feature film that never got released due to some unfortunate circumstances. Under Tantra, I also wrote and did voice overs for Nilakanda, which was at that time, the world’ first Tamil 3D animated series, and heavily involved in directing and scripting work for Planet Galatta Season 2 . In fact, I even sang a song ‘Puthu Routu’ for its album.

I decided to make it on my own after Tantra and my first freelance work was in Uthaviku Varalaama which was a completely fresh concept at that time. We enlisted celebrities to go and help actual underprivileged families in Singapore at their homes without giving them any background information whatsoever . The celebrities were also given the autonomy to choose how they want to help these people. It was an extremely well received series and garnered an award as well.  I’ve been involved in various project since then.

What made you want to audition for Ponniyin Selvan ?
I had always been in awe of the grandeur of Kalki’s great novel. My mother used to read it to me when I was young and since then, I’ve been enthralled by it. Even MGR had tried to adapt for screen but was unsuccessful. So when I heard that there was a casting call for the play here, I wanted to be part of it. The fact that it’s just a supporting role doesn’t really matter to me. It’s about being part of the experience. Another reason is that as part of my academy, I conduct drama workshops for schools. So it’s been awhile since I was part of a workshop myself and thought it would be an enriching experience to learn the techniques of some of these expert theatre craftsmen . To be honest, I’ve only been part of one local play many years ago. Plays usually require a lot of time commitment , which I can’t really afford with my packed schedule. But with Ponniyin Selvan, the time commitment required was relatively manageable so I thought to myself, why not?

How would you compare the experience on stage compared to acting on TV ?

When acting on TV ,  you tend to be slightly complacent. That shouldn’t be the case but it often does happen. Because you know that if you mess up , you can always do another take. Of course, the pressure is there to perform if your co-artiste is someone who is very experienced and only needs one take or if your director is strict . But at the back of your mind, you still know that it’s alright if you make a mistake. With plays however , once it’s done, it’s done. You have to get it right with just one try. That makes it more stressful but also gives you that adrenaline rush that is often absent when acting.

Why did you decide to start the Venus Academy of Arts?

I have always loved teaching. I think if I hadn’t gone into the entertainment industry, I would have become a teacher. And with the Venus Academy , I’m teaching kids what I love - drama. So it blends the two loves of my life. When you teach kids, you don't just teach them about the subject matter , but you also impart to them a lot of life skills. I get many disobedient or rebellious kids whom I’m quite harsh to. I might scold them and make them stand outside the classroom. But once lesson ends, they’ll come and say bye to me.  It’s a great feeling to see tangible differences in these kids by the end of the program .It’s especially nice when you're at the bus stop one day and you see a child who keeps smiling at you and while you’re wondering who this child is, it’ll actually be one of your students. You might have forgotten his face but he remembers you for life. We actually started in 2014 with just 4 schools but have now expanded to cater to around 60 schools across the country. I can safely tell you that the number of students we have taught crosses 1000.

The Venus Academy also has its own initiatives like in 2015 when we decided to do our part for society and launched an SG50 project called Munnetrathin Monnodigal which was a documentary series featuring interviews with around 19 Tamil pioneers in Singapore. We distributed DVDs of the series to all our schools to educate our younger generation on the foundation laid by those before them to build the Singapore of today.

What are your future plans or projects?

Currently, I am doing a nice supporting role on Ithu Namma Veedu which just premiered. I’m also directing an educational game show for students called Tamil Thootharagal which should hit your screens soon. I have many upcoming plans for my academy as well. In terms of acting, I’d love to do more performing roles in the future and my goal is to eventually star in a feature film . I’m working towards it and am sure it will happen one day. I’d also like to direct and write more shows that are raw in their content and relatable to people. Shows that will are different and groundbreaking but will still have on impact on people. Theatre-wise, it really depends on the commitment required because although I love the stage, it’s not practical for my lifestyle at this point. But if a play that is manageable for my schedule comes along  , I’d definitely go for it. 

Ponniyin Selvan (created by Magic Lantern) is brought to you by Artecompass Pte Ltd and S S International live . and supported by the Tamil Language Council and Agrocorp International. Tickets are sold through Sistic at $96, $76, $56, $46 and $36.  Get them HERE.

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