To south Indian film fans Ashraf Gurukkal is a well-known name. A production executive who went on to make a name for himself as a fight choreographer and now even an actor, Ashraf is a skilled kalari payattu practitioner who has trained actors such as Manju Warrier and former cricketer Sourav Ganguly, among others, in Kerala’s martial art form for movies and commercials.
Having choreographed intricate and often dangerous fight scenes for over 40 films – he has also won an award for stunt choreography – and some 20 television serials, the native of Kodungaloor in Kerala is the go-to man for directors who want to include a kalari payattu fight scene in their films.
But it was some eight years ago, while coordinating a stunt for a television serial that was being shot in in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, that the fight expert himself received a near fatal jolt of sorts.
"I was having a sandwich during a break in the shoot when I felt my tongue become sore," he says, in a telephone interview from his home in Kerala.
Initially he thought he had mistakenly bitten his tongue but seconds later he found his mouth filled with blood. "My tongue was bleeding uncontrollably," he says. Alarmed, he contacted his doctor who suggested he undergo a detailed check-up immediately.
Ashraf admits that a few days before the incident, he did notice a couple of white spots on his tongue while brushing his teeth. "But I did not take it seriously."
The doctor examined him in detail and even as Ashraf was watching his face, he guessed something was not right. "I knew the doctor had found something I had to be worried about."
The doctor suggested doing a biopsy of the tongue tissue; three days later the result came back: Ashraf had cancer of the tongue.
"I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach real hard," says the man who has choreographed fight sequences for more than 300 episodes of the popular Malayalam TV serial Kayamkulam Kochunni. "My first thoughts were of my family that includes four daughters and a son; I wondered what would happen to them in case I died."
However, he quickly pulled himself together. "Dr Jijo Paul, who was treating me, calmed me down. He was optimistic that my condition could be treated. The important thing he said was not to delay but start treatment right away."
Ashraf underwent surgery that included removing part of his tongue, necessitating more than three months of hospital stay not to mention extensive rest at home and a course of medications before doctors gave him a clean chit.
"Looking back, if there is one piece of advice I can offer it is to not ignore any messages that your body is sending you," says the film personality, who is happy to get behind – and in front of – the arc lights once again.
"After the initial panic attack, I was optimistic that everything would be back to normal," he says, adding that the positivity and the enormous support he received from his family and friends in the industry went a long way in healing him and getting him back on his feet.
"Cancer feeds on fear," says the martial arts expert. "So I decided to be brave and face it; that’s the only way to beat it. Importantly, I decided not to seek the help of quack doctors or those who offer instant cures for such life-threatening conditions; I completely trusted the doctors who were treating me."
Ashraf also credits his rigorous martial arts training for helping him get back on his feet quickly. "My martial arts practice and regular exercises helped me get well about 85 per cent. The rest had to do with my mental strength – thinking positive," says the artiste who has just finished working on three Malayalam movies – Mahe, Michael’s Coffee House and Chiri.
He cannot underscore enough the importance of regular exercise to keep most health conditions at bay. "Keeping not just the body but also the mind active is crucial for a healthy system," he says. "Exercise regularly, avoid negative thoughts and comments, surround yourself with happy positive people, be cheerful and eat healthy. These small but important tips can help you greatly."
Kalari payattu teaches you more than just mental and physical strength; it is a way of life, says the exponent. "It teaches you to respect elders, teachers, nature… It offers lessons on how to maintain composure and to be control of your emotions at all times, to not get rattled or stressed out. It teaches you to be brave, to respect your body, to protect it and to treat it well. That is the best way to prevent diseases."