In Homer’s Odyssey, it took a decade for Odysseus to journey through various adventures before finding home. Similarly, Chacko Vadaketh too, spent 10 years in a legal career before returning to where he belongs; on the big screen and the stage.
He boasts 20 years of experience as a voice-over artist, emcee and producer on top of starring in countless TV series, film and theatre productions. He also holds a degree in Law and Archeology & Anthropology from the University of Cambridge.
Chacko’s achievements span locally and internationally, including his character Sabo Singh in popular Singaporean sitcom Mr Kiasu, nominated for Best Comedy at the Asian Television Awards 2001, and appearances in multiple TV series, most recently CineMAX’s Strike Back and BBC’s Our Girl.
He also narrated the National Geographic Asia series Road to Nationhood, hosted the Royal Gala Dinner for the Prince of Wales’ visit in 2017, and starred in numerous productions at the KL Performing Arts Centre (klpac) and with the Instant Café Theatre Company.
Currently, he is one of the hosts and founders of Boleh! The Podcast, where he conducts interviews with Malaysian personalities like comedian Douglas Lim and fashion designer Zang Toi, hoping to be a beacon of light during these dark times.
Over coffee in the heart of KL, he tells me more about his colourful life, career and thoughts on Malaysia’s current performing scene in the deep, rich baritone that he’s known for.
“My parents sent my sisters and me to live with family in Kerala when I was five,” he shares, recounting two years spent living on his grandparent’s farm in the Indian countryside.
There, he had his first encounter with the stage. His grand-aunt, a retired headmistress, encouraged the siblings to host plays and piano recitals on the family’s veranda while educating them about literature and music.
Upon returning to Kuala Lumpur aged seven, his parents enrolled him in speech and drama classes run by eccentric Englishman Donald Davies, whose passion for drama opened Chacko’s eyes to the wonders of performing.
With his weekends from seven to 15 spent flitting in and out of drama and music classes, it’s no surprise that he cites this period as when he fell in love with acting.
Despite this, while studying at the Victoria Institution he decided to pursue a career in law.
“Acting wasn’t in the cards at the time,” he says. “I loved it, but it didn’t seem like the practical choice.”
With most of his childhood spent on stage, whether for the Syrian Christian Church choir or yearly school plays, it was unsurprising that acting followed him to the University of Cambridge.
Releasing Chacko’s inner thespian in full force, a university performance as the titular character in a production of Othello cemented his desire for a career in the arts, bringing the niggling possibility in the back of his mind- that he could make a career out of performing- to center stage.
“I had my own curtain call in front of a packed theatre. Family and friends had come to visit from London, and they showered me in carnations.
“That was when I realised performing was something I wanted to do forever. When I was in character, nothing else mattered. I was Othello, and nothing could take that away from me.”
Despite his instincts, Chacko continued with law upon returning to Malaysia in 1987. But the flames of his love for acting burned brighter than ever.
“I managed both at first. After a hectic day at work, I’d head over to whichever theatre I was rehearsing or performing at and nap on the dressing room floor before getting on stage.”
But as time went by and his career progressed, it got harder to balance his obligations in court and on stage.
A turning point came when he recognised one of his clients in the audience at one of his shows.
“I thought to myself, ‘what must he think of me prancing about on stage when I was handling a multi-million dollar case involving his company?’”
After a decade as a lawyer, at the turn of the millennium, Chacko left the legal world behind for a future in the spotlight.
“Singapore started taking the arts very seriously in the late 90s, more so than Malaysia. That in part, gave me the courage to leave law, the fact that my efforts could be recognised somewhere even if it meant having to commute.”
His efforts paid off. The decision to kickstart his career there led to his breakthrough role in Mr. Kiasu, an opportunity he maintains he would not have had here.
“There was a lack of respect at the time for performers of any kind back then, neither was there any substantial funding for the arts. There has been development since then, but it’s largely piecemeal.”
He describes the government’s handling of the arts as ‘visionless’; lacking the structure it desperately needs as a framework to enable long-lasting and meaningful changes.
Chacko also takes issue with the restrictive atmosphere shrouding the performing landscape today, a stark difference from the Malaysia he first began performing in 30 years ago.
“Malaysia is losing its soul and heritage with restrictions on the arts. Traditional Mak Yong and wayang kulit performances were banned in Kelantan for 20 years and are only allowed now subject to Syariah compliance.
“It’s not enough to wheel out our traditional arts for tourism purposes – they must be showcased in all their glory and performed as they have been for centuries.”
Chacko calls for the government to celebrate diversity in the arts; educate the younger generation on traditional Malaysian art and culture and encourage self-expression rather than stifle the voices of those struggling to be heard.
“Without this, the arts can’t flourish. Malaysia has so much talent. The arts scene could explode if the government could provide the support we need.”
For budding performers out there, Chacko’s advice would be to just go for it.
“The world is really your oyster. The beauty of a career in arts is that there is no set path. Try everything, immerse yourself in the craft you want to practice. Volunteer and get involved in all aspects of whatever you’re interested in! You’ll never know what will appeal to you.”
Technological advancements and the development of social media have opened up a whole new avenue for performers, adds Chacko, before suggesting that aspiring actors take advantage and give creating original content a go-to practice and develop acting skills.
As for auditioning for roles, he stresses that preparation is key.
“Find out as much as you can about the role you’re auditioning for. Is there any context you need to know? Consider the time period, location… if you have access to the creators or directors, ask them questions.
“But above all, remember to look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
Chacko said he wishes he had trusted his instincts earlier and gone to drama school to have solid grounding in the craft he decided to practice, and advises others to do so if they can.
Lastly, he adds that young performers need thick skin.
“Dealing with rejection is hard. You will experience it a lot, especially when you’re new to the game. Don’t let it get to you – remember that it’s not actually about you, it’s about whether you’re right for the role.
“Finally, always believe in yourself and your abilities.
“If you don’t, how can you expect others to?”
All images for this feature were supplied by Chacko Vadaketh. This post was edited by Ista Kyra and proofread by Sukhbir Cheema.