Reed-thin Allan “Shishir” Inocalla gently laid his two arnis sticks down on the ground, stood upright, closed his eyes, and then backflipped.
Then he flipped his wallet out of his back pocket, and showed me his senior citizen card.
Allan, or “Shishir” (he prefers to be called the latter), is all of 60 summers. But he could still pass for a 40-year-old, both in appearance and physical capabilities.
I asked Shishir, an arnis or escrima master whom I met through mutual fellow vegan friends Dada Shiveshanda (Mario Antonio Reyes, a former Ananda Marga monk) and yoga instructor Esa (Teresa Lee), to teach me the basics of the martial art. But before we literally went through the motions, he told me his life story.
As he told his story, it became clear that I was in the presence of a Hollywood journeyman who broke out of his shell, in a manner of speaking. He spoke voluminously, sharing memories as they streamed from his mind, then plopping onto my notebook like toppings on pizza.
So, let me just start by revealing that Shishir was the Michaelangelo character in the third live-action big-screen adaptation of the popular TV animated series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in 1993.
Yes, this unassuming, 5′-2” Filipino-Canadian was actually inside one of those 15-pound suits (there were also 60-pound animatronic suits used for scenes with no stunts, created by the late-great Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, no less) performing those neat ninja moves. And he has the pictures (turtle head off, revealing the master inside) to prove it.
But wait, there’s more. Shishir was able to crawl out of the shell of the TMNT franchise, and move into the shoes of others, or wear many other hats—however you’d like to call his subsequent Hollywood experiences.
He was also stunt double for a rapidly rising star named Jessica Alba during the “Dark Angel” sci-fi TV series in 2000. Before donning the turtle suit, he doubled for fellow Filipino martial artist Ernie Reyes Jr in an episode of the TV action-thriller series “MacGyver” in 1988.
Oh, and did I already mention that Shishir returned to the TMNT franchise in 1997, this time as a female—the ponytailed Venus de Milo character (Mei Pie Chi)–in the TV series?
Shishir admitted that he also assumed unglamorous bit roles such as an old lady, a mascot, and even a monkey and a crocodile in various “B” movies. He said he also found himself playing a part in a sex flick (though in what capacity he wouldn’t care to tell). All to sustain his needs as a struggling actor in Hollywood.
A killer skill set
Shishir doesn’t deny that he can’t hold a candle to such celebrities as Brad Pitt in the looks department. But what he lacked in height and handsomeness, he made up for with a very special set of martial arts skills—skills he had been perfecting and reinventing since the age of 8.
From 1970 to 1973, Shishir won one competition after another, taking titles in the light/heavyweight karate/kung fu championships in Subduary, Ontario. He was number one in Kumite (fighting division), and was featured in an article in Black Belt Magazine, titled “From Monastery to Tournament Floor”. He also won in the Kata (forms) division. He continued to compete in Canada (from Vancouver, British Columbia to Ontario) up to 1975, and from 1980 to 1984.
Back then, there were no escrima categories in competitions.
“Then GM Remy Presas made me a ‘Datu’, or a master instructor in modern arnis. I ended up teaching arnis to most of the karate kung fu masters in Canada, particularly in British Columbia. They were also officials and judges in the martial arts tournaments I competed in,” he said.
From streetfighter to Acharya-yoga instructor
Shishir the martial artist and instructor wasn’t always this “professional”. During his teens, the fighting sport did little to temper his growing immaturity. So, of his own accord, Shishir integrated yoga in his training.
“I practiced yoga when I was 13 because I was very bad tempered. I was always involved in fights. Friends suggested that I take up yoga, which I did.”
Shishir said that he left home and stayed with his friends in Quezon city and Mandaluyong.
“During this time I was always involved in gangs and street brawls. My family was so worried for me. My older brother, a mason and Rosicrucian (a member of a secret society founded in the 17th century devoted to the study of metaphysical, mystical, and alchemical lore) who was also in training for karate and judo sponsored me to yoga class in YMCA. And the rest was history. I ended up living in the yoga house and became a houseboy of Indian Dada Sumitananda,” he said.
Shishir joined the Ananda Marga (a socio-spiritual organization founded in India in the mid-1950s) for his full-time yoga training in 1970.
Before long, he excelled in it enough for Eddie Ilarde, a popular TV personality of the ’70s and ’80s and a yogi and member and supporter of Ananda Marga, to send him to India in 1972 for teachers’ training. He was the first of three Filipinos who was given a scholarship to become the first Filipino Acharya-yoga instructor.
“My parents agreed to send me to India, if only to take me away from the street violence I was getting myself into,” Shishir recalled.
But India was easier seen in pictures than lived in, at the time. Shishir recalled that he was “shell shocked” during his first few days there. “There were so many beggars in the streets.”
Shishir learned that part of his training would entail him to live like a beggar, as well. For over a year, Shishir stayed in the training center, barefoot, shabbily dressed, holding up a bowl and begging for his food. On top of that, he was not allowed to speak, except when he had to utter “hari Omm Tat sat” (“God is everything”).
Shishir persevered, and soon he felt at home in such conditions. “I was sent to Vanarasi with three other Filipinos to meditate, practice and study the science of yoga, and study social philosophy, English, and learn sanskrit. I memorized the lessons and became overconfident. I was in a hurry to become an ‘acharya’ teacher. Unfortunately, I was not ready emotionally and spiritually. The examiners wouldn’t allow me to take the exams which were held only every three months. I punched the walls when I learned I was refused the tests,” he related.
Worse, Shishir fell ill in the crowded training center. He alternately slept and meditated during these days, while still doing his daily chores. Soon after, the examiners allowed him to take the exams. He passed, and was ready for the next level of training.
Shishir was then sent to various orphanages and schools in India, helping in the day-to-day operations and in the food collections. He was then sent to Bangladesh to help provide relief to war victims. He subsequently returned to the Philippines for a brief respite. In 1973, he was assigned to Los Angeles to become Pacific Region secretary of Ananda Marga. This posting covered the entire US West Coast and Canada.
But by then, Shishir was already a fearsome force on the mats, a circumstance that his bosses in Ananda Marga frowned upon.
“My senior Dada Yatiishwarananda, Ananda Marga sectorial secretary, was not pleased with what I was doing, competing in martial arts competitions and making a name for myself. I was supposed to teach and promote only AnandaMarga Yoga. So, I was sent back to the begging bowl in India for re-training,” Shishir said.
Shishir related that while he and his fellow monks and trainees were staying in New Delhi in Ananda Marga Ashram, one week before the country declared Martial Law in 1976, the Indian military police arrested them for ‘disturbing the peace’.
“I befriended everyone in jail and was able to send letters to the Philippine Embassy and my family. When Martial Law was lifted, our case was changed to ‘political detention’. After 9 months in the Tihar jail. I was deported to the Philippines.”
While in the Philippines, Shishir made the most of his time. During the period 1978 and 1979, he taught martial arts to action movie stars and stunt doubles. He also doubled for stars like Rey Malonzo, Ramon Zamora and Jack Lee in particularly difficult action scenes in action flicks produced by Eastern Film and Melrose Productions.
He also befriended President Ferdinand Marcos’ nephew and head of the sports development project Gintong Alay Mike Keon, and subsequently worked with him in that project. He also became a wellness trainer for the University of Life in Pasig, Mirador Hotel in Manila, and Caliraya resort in Laguna.
In 1980, he finally got his 10-year multiple visa in the United States (with the help of one of his students, an American consul stationed in Subic). He then wasted no time going back to Canada, where he basked most in martial arts glory.
“From Seattle, Washington, I went to Vancouver, British Columbia. There, with the help of my students, I started working with the street kids of Sunflower Crisis Shelter and rainbow homes run by my friend, who later became my wife, and I opened my first wholistic martial arts center. From 1980 to 1984, I trained students there, and in 1986 we presented arnis in Expo 86.”
By that time, filmmaking in Vancouver was a booming business. In 2000, after stints in Hollywood, he and his group started the Action Stunt Team.
The Asian David Carradine?
“I was like David Carradine at the time. I also wore orange, meditating as well as engaging in martial arts competitions,” Shishir recalled, referring to the late action star as the warrior-monk Kwai Chang Caine in the ’70s TV series “Kung Fu”.
Shishir took pride in being one of the rare martial artists who also practiced yoga—two seemingly incompatible philosophies he was able to marry with the help of Ananda Marga.
“The perception then was that one cannot practice martial arts if he or she espoused yoga, because the latter was all about non-violence, yet I was engaged in a violent, full-contact sport,” he noted.
Shishir eventually divorced himself from Ananda Marga but continued his devotion to yoga, and stuck to his vegetarian diet of no animal food products (devoid of beef, pork, chicken, egg, freshwater fish and seafood–although he occasionally takes yogurt and cheese–as well as the Ananda Marga requirement of no garlic, onions, and mushrooms).
“Yoga has helped me keep my balance, emotionally and physically. My vegetarian diet has helped me look and feel 20 years younger,” Shishir smiled.
During his long residence in Canada, he decided to concentrate on his two passions: Arnis and moviemaking.
When he had time off from training himself and others, he would fly to Hollywood to try his luck in movies. This was pretty much his life for the greater part of two decades.
“I embraced arnis heart and soul because this originated from our own Asian culture, and I discovered myself through this martial art,” Shishir stressed.
Shishir traces his roots to Paracale, Camarines Norte province, near the southern end of the main island of Luzon in the Philippines. Shishir’s older brother Herbert was instrumental in getting Shishir involved in arnis. Master Herbert Villafria “Dada” Inocalla would eventually go on to become one of the most revered arnis masters in, of all places, Brazil.
Despite arnis coursing through his veins, the lure of tinseltown was equally overpowering. Once he had a taste of being in the silver screen back in his homeland, Shishir often found himself craving for more. He just had to take a chance at being a star, and not just beating the stars out of opponents.
The last to audition
Shishir recalled that it was just out of sheer luck that he got the part of Michaelangelo. The original actor, he said, literally broke a leg during filming in 1992, so the producers had to search for a replacement. Shishir got in by the skin of his teeth, being the last to audition for the part.
“A friend of mine called me, and told me that the producers of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were in town, and were conducting auditions,” he recalled. “At the time, TMNT was the biggest show on earth.”
The producers were looking for an arnis expert, and Shishir fit Michaelangelo’s profile to a tee, since this turtle wielded a trisectional nunchuck like it was no one else’s business.
But there was one slight problem. The filmmakers wanted an acrobatic, back-flipping arnis expert. Before he got the part, he’d have to perform an impressive back flip.
Meanwhile, back in his adoptive hometown in Vancouver, the community was rooting for him to be the next mutant ninja turtle, which added no small measure of pressure upon Shishir’s shoulders.
While practicing his routine for the final leg of the TMNT auditions, Shishir injured himself while attempting the back flip. He walked in the LA auditions limping.
“I went to an empty room and meditated, performed my sense withdrawal, and prayed to God. I came out of the room and I was doing back flips like there was no tomorrow. I was doing my kicks like I never did before. Right there and then, the filmmakers declared: ‘That’s our Michaelangelo!’”
“I replied: ‘Oh my, cowabunga!’”
And just like that, Shishir became one of the heroes in a half-shell.
That was in 1992, when he sweated out the role of ‘Michaelangelo’ for over a year, and got his Screen Actors Guild Card.
Money in, money out
As soon as Shishir donned the turtle suit, money started to flow in.
“We were making up to $20,000 a day. I didn’t know where to put it in. I ended up coming back to the Philippines to invest here,” he said.
A series of unfortunate event in the Philippines caused Shishir to lose money in virtually all of his investments in the Philippines.
“I was planning to develop a ‘Hollywood of Asia’ in the Philippines, in collaboration with then-President Joseph Estrada. But then suddenly People Power 2 happened, and Erap was in jail. Then I invested in stocks and gold mining, which all went under. These things happened while I was in the United States, and I trusted some people in the mining and gold bar business whom I realized later on that I shouldn’t have,” Shishir explained.
“I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars here,” he said, still smiling.
Artistic considerations were the last on Shishir’s list of reasons for wanting to squeeze himself in Hollywood. Try “survival”. He had a growing family, with four kids, to feed. There were bills to pay, and gym staffers to remunerate.
The rejections were a dime a dozen; landing a role—any role—felt like striking oil in the desert. “I was called by my agent in Los Angeles to audition for a small role in ‘Karate Kid’. I spent $700 on plane fare to be in the audition hall at 9 a.m. When I arrived, there were already thousands of hopefuls in Universal Studios.” He realized he had just spent $700 just to watch his chance slip away with every auditionee stepping up for the routine.
He didn’t get the part.
But like any struggling actor in Hollywood, Shishir did what he had to do—take on work where he could find it. He became a production assistant, a choreographer, and a stunt double. He even agreed to be involved in a sex flick after being promised $750.
Behind the scenes of a glittery showbusiness industry, the work was inhuman, quite literally. “I became a monkey and a crocodile in a B movie. I played the part of an old lady, too,” Shishir laughed.
But he had his fond moments, as well. “I doubled for Jessica Alba in Dark Angel,” he smiled. But those fond memories came far and few in between.
Those fond memories included working on the “MacGyver” set, meeting Jessica Alba, working with the “21 Jump Street”, meeting fellow Pinoy and then-Hollywood action star Ernie Reyes Jr and his father Ernie Reyes, Sr, and becoming a member of BCMA (Canadian Actors Union) and Alliance of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artists.
“After the TMNT stint, I was getting typecast in animal roles. I was being offered to play a dog and a muscat. I said, ‘Man I won’t be able to get away from this.’”
By then he had had enough. “One day, I came back to reality and just said, ‘I’m not gonna be a Robert Redford nor a Brad Pitt. I’m not gonna be a Hollywood star. Forget it. I’ll go back to the gym.’”
He claims his being a yogi served him well during these uncertain times. “I was able to face all the stresses and the butt-licking with maturity and integrity,” he laughed.
Shishir brought the film bug back in Vancouver. No sooner was he back, he was itching to study filmmaking.
“I went to the Vancouver Film School and studied directing, acting, producing and financing. In between projects I started producing and filming my own arnis, yoga, and tai-chi video series. Every time my schedule was free, I would come back to the Philippines and promote arnis with Arnis Philippines and other local modern arnis groups. I became vice president for Arnis Philippines in Pan America, and president of Modern Arnis in the Philippines. In the late 1980s I co-starred with Julio Diaz in ‘Nag-Aapoy na Dagat’ and in another actioner titled ‘Tekkie’,” Shishir enumerated.
In 1994, during a visit to the Philippines, he founded Modern Arnis of the Philippines. Back in Hollywood, in 1997-98, he participated in the production of 24 episodes of the TV series “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation”. After that, he co-starred with the father-son team of Ernie Reyes Sr and Jr for the action film “Ultimate Fight”.
In 2000, he went back to the Philippines to again try his luck in business. Of course, he continued promoting arnis. In 2002, he was back in Vancouver to teach. In 2005, he worked in Championsgate, Florida as Wellness BMST (Body, Mind, Spirit Trainer), and at the David Leadbetter Performance Center and Celebration Health. He was awarded Grandmaster and instructor of the year by Grandmaster Sokeship Council in Orlando, Florida.
While teaching arnis to golfers at David Leadbetter, he also studied golf, massage therapy, and personal training. Thus, for almost seven years, while teaching arnis, he also competed in golf tournaments in Championsgate, Florida.
In 2011, he came back to Philippines and has stayed here since, promoting arnis and developing the Inocalla Eco-Wellness Sports Tourism in Jose Panganiban town, Camarines Norte.
“We have also started our Arnis Maharlika Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) World Federation Inc to promote arnis worldwide. We have also created farming and responsible mining cooperatives in the towns of Paracale, Jose Panganiban and the city of Daet in Camarines Norte. We have also coordinated with the Department of Education for the Physical Education teachers’ training in arnis, sanchou, kickbox, wrestling and tennis,” Shishir said.
Shishir’s four kids have also gone on to become successful in their chosen careers. Jesse, 27, is a professional actor, as well as an arnis and capoera master in Vancouver; Josh, 23, is a stand up comedian, writer, film and TV producer, kickboxer/arnis expert in Nashville, Tennessee (talk about killer punchlines!); daughters Rica, 17, is in Richmond, British Columbia as a student and is also into kickboxing and arnis, and Rada, 13, is following her big sister’s footstep.
Much simpler life
Nowadays, Shishir can be found practicing his beloved martial art and yoga in a friend’s (a fellow ex-Ananda Marga) private compound-cum-retreat house somewhere in Paranaque City. On most days, Shishir is back at his birthplace in Camarines Norte, teaching a new generation of arnis students at the Inocalla Eco-Wellness Sports Tourism facility.
It’s a much simplified life that allows Shishir to focus on elevating arnis to the next level in international sporting competitions.
“FMA has been pushing arnis to become an Olympic sport. Now we are integrating it in the Palarong Pambansa. Hopefully, arnis will be part of international competitions come 2016,” he revealed.
He estimates that worldwide, there are now over 25 million arnis students.
But there is only one arnis master who has been a back-flipping, nunchuck-toting, mutant ninja turtle. At 60, and still as wicked with the sticks as ever, Shishir looks headed to live as long as a turtle, too.