It was on Oct.15, 1983 that Venugopal Unnikrishnan opened his gym in Trivandrum. It was a time when very few people took an interest in body building. Venugopal joined one but soon realised it lacked something. He bought some books to understand what bodybuilding is all about. He opened a gym to encourage more people to come into bodybuilding. For 15 years, he ran the gym for free.
Venugopal, whose left leg has been affected by polio, says that his physical handicap has nothing to do with his interest in bodybuilding. It comes from playing badminton as a kid along with his brother Vimal Kumar. “It is really my brother who got me into this. He is a national-level player. He has won the French Open,” says the older brother proudly. At the age of 9, the two brothers won the state championship at sub-junior level.
Gradually Venu—as he is fondly called by friends—became interested in boxing. “Boxing is something everyone should learn. One of the first lessons you learn is to face your enemy without blinking your eyes, that way you can avoid getting hit. And this makes you a go-getter in life,” he says. Showing an old punching sack that hung in his gym in Jawahar Nagar, he says: “It has been with me for years. It is old and worn out but I don’t want to replace it. My customers made me get a new one, but I am still fond of this old one.”
Venu working out on his punch sack
In the ’80s, gyms were mostly for lower class and lower middle class people, especially gundas, adds Venu. “I have made friends with many of them.” Venu feels that it could be because there was no glitz and glamour in the field that more people did not come into it. “It was after people like Arnold Schwarzenegger came into cinema that people found it attractive. In India, with stars like Salman Khan and Hritik Roshan showing off their muscles, more and more people sought bodybuilding.”
Gym is for losing or gaining or maintaining weight, says Venu. His books taught him everything he knows. “Now I have a collection worth Rs. 2 lakh,” says the man who has also innovated a few techniques of his own. One of these exercises became so popular that people from all over the world call him to thank him for helping them lose a few kilos so easily.
By late ’90s, lifestyle of people in the city changed. Men and women wanted to be slim and trim and fit. It was in 1998 that Venu starting taking fees for new members in his gym. Belair Health Club has a lot of people pouring in. At present, there are around 350 men and 50 women visiting his gym. “Whatever women say, they are still a reluctant lot. When it comes to working out with men in a shared space, they are shy.”
But Venu had his own share of trouble for his controversial exercises and advises. “I might be the only instructor who would advise to eat lots to lose weight. Cutting down your food is not something I suggest. But there is a difference between eating to your stomach’s fill and eating to your heart’s fill,” he says. A diet is necessary, he believes, to keep your body energised so it can be ready for the next time you exercise. “When it becomes a daily routine, your body knows when to be prepared.”
Venu’s new exercise routine, reducing the number of times to do it to 2, from the usually-practised 15, received a lot of abuse from the world over. “I sent it to experts all over the world. When they sent me abuses, I asked them to try it out first. After they did, they apologised and told me it works.”
Shameem Faruq, who reduced eight kilos in two months, says: “It is amazing. Venu is a great instructor. I am not saying anything more when I say he is the best in this field. I joke to him sometimes that he has to get me new clothes, because all my old ones are now too big for me.” She has practised Venu’s exercises at home. “He is a very experienced man and knows exactly what a person needs.”
Shameem Faruq before losing weight Shameem Faruq after losing weight
Indeed he seems to need only to take a look at your face to tell you what your problem is. “You are lucky to be on the slim side. But if you are not careful, your lower tummy will expand. Once you cross 20, you have to exercise regularly,” he tells me.
Dr. Jacob is another witness to Venu’s expertise in the field. “Seven years ago, I checked out a few gyms and I found only Venu’s approachable. He is like a father-figure who keeps motivating you. He gives this personal touch. And by increasing the number of times I eat, I reduced the quantity of food I take. At a time, I can’t anymore eat a lot like I used to.”
Venu’s good deeds do not stop there. He used to visit schools to take classes on civic sense. “It is much easier to teach kids. Some of my topics were about not spitting in public places, vegetarianism and so on. One kid stopped taking meat after my class and his father complained about this at the school.” Venu, who is a member of People For Animals (PFA), says that it is a myth that vegetarians are not so strong. “If you look at all the big things around, like gorillas for instance, they are vegetarians. I promote vegetarianism.”
Venu, who was born and brought up in Trivandrum, lives here with his wife and three kids. His father, sitting next to him, says proudly: “He is a self-made man. He reached where he is now only through his hard work.”
And that line says it all.