If you’re in Kochi and hailing and auto, don’t be surprised if you happen to find one that is lined with photos of late Malayalam actor Kalabhavan Mani. The auto goes by the name ‘Chalakkudikkaran Changathi' or ‘friend from Chalakudy’, the town where Mani hailed from. And it belongs to Saiju, an ardent fan of the actor who has modelled his vehicle and aspects of his life around Kalabhavan Mani.
In his late thirties, Saiju is a resident of Cherthala in Alappuzha district and has been working in Kochi city for the past eight years. A class 10 passout, Saiju hails from a humble family and lives with his father, mother and wife. What captivated him about Kalabhavan Mani not just his illustrious film career, but his life and journey too.
“Like Mani chettan, I also come from a poor background. Mani chettan began his life as an auto driver and it is that journey which has always given me inspiration to fight against the odds I face,” Saiju tells TNM.
Mani was the sixth son of a daily wage labourer Raman. Before getting acclaim as a film star, Mani’s performance career started by being a mimicry artist at Cochin Kalabhavan. Before that, Mani struggled to make ends meet by working as a head load worker and driving an auto.
“Even after becoming a super star in south India, Mani chettan did not forget his humble beginnings,” Saiju says. “He still kept all of his old friends and acquaintances close. He never showed any aversion in hanging out with his old auto driver friends; in fact, he loved it! This is something that always attracted me.”
How Saiju’s auto became all about Kalabhavan Mani
Though he admired Kalabhavan Mani since he was a teen, it was the actor’s death in 2016 which intensified Saiju’s affection for him.
“I was in the middle of my workday when I came to know Mani chettan had passed away. I was shocked - he was someone who I always looked up to; he inspired me on difficult days,” recalls Saiju, brooding over his cup of black tea. “After that I used my auto as a tool to remember Mani chettan and remind others of him.”
Apart from photos, Saiju’s auto also plays songs sung by the late actor. The vehicle is now easily recognised by a many people in Kochi as ‘Mani’s auto’ – a matter of pride for Saiju.
Photo Kalabhavan Mani and his family affixed inside the auto
“Almost everyone who boards my auto asks me why I have placed so many pictures of Mani even inside the auto. Then I tell them about Mani chettan’s life, his struggles and his qualities. Every day I have these happy moments where I get the opportunity to talk about Mani chettan. These are the highlights of my day,” Saiju beams.
When Saiju met his idol
Saiju still cherishes the moment when he met Kalabhavan Mani seven years ago. “Mani chettan came to my home town in Cherthala for temple festival in 2012. That was the first as well as last time that I saw him,” Saiju shares.
Mani was there for a stage performance and Saiju says he even got to talk to him. “Mani chetan was so kind hearted that he even gave me his number seeing my enthusiasm,” Saiju recalls. “I did not call him often. But whenever I called, he spoke very warmly.”
Taking from Mani’s generosity
Saiju’s admiration towards Kalabhavan Mani is not just limited to modelling his auto around the actor. The actor was known as the “poor man’s superstar” in Kerala; and taking from his generosity, Saiju joined an NGO called named ‘Kalabhavan Mani Sevana Samithi’ in Thuravoor, his hometown in Cherthala.
How Saiju came to join the NGO also has to do with his love for Kalabhavan Mani, Ayyappan, the founder of the NGO, tells TNM.
“There is a lane in our locality which we named ‘Kalabhavan Mani road’. On February 2018, while I was working at my house, someone in the neighbourhood told me that a man was cleaning and decorating the nameboard of the road which had Kalabhavan Mani’s name on it. That was the first time I met Saiju,” says Ayyappan, who is a driver at the Cherthala depot of Kerala Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC). “Saiju joined the collective we had formed in the name of Mani chettan. He is now an active member,” he adds.
The group does whatever they can to help people in the area. Their most recent initiative was a blood donation drive.
Saiju’s fanfare towards Mani has gotten him even more love in the collective. “Saiju would take us in his auto to Chalakkudy – Kalabhavan Mani’s native place – on Mani chettan’s birthday and death anniversary. The way he uses his auto to cherish the memory of Mani chettan is an inspiration for us,” Ayyappan shares.
Both Saiju and Ayyappan hope to follow Kalabhavan Mani’s steps in helping anyone they can and want to use their collective to further this goal. “Kalabhavan Mani Sevana Samithi is the only platform which connects the people here. All are keen to keep their identities separate, be it religion or politics. But the love people had for Kalabhavan Mani has brought us together,” Ayyappan says.