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Kasinadhuni Viswanath, a legendary filmmaker and one of the doyens of Indian cinema, may be no more but his oeuvre speaks volumes about him. His 93th birthday was just a little over a fortnight away when he passed away at age 93 in Hyderabad on February 2 2023.
The ‘kalathapasvi’ as he was hailed was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award of Indian cinema in 2017. The award was preceded by several other honours such as Padma Shri, Filmfare Award and Nandi Awards in his film career spanning over six decades starting from 1951. Viswanath was also accorded the ‘Prize of the Public’ at the Besancon Film Festival of France in 1981 and his films got special mention at the Moscow International Film Festival and got dubbed in Russian as well.
Viswanath, who worked in the Telugu, Tamil and Hindi film worlds, with 53 films mostly on social issues and caste system, entered the film industry from Chennai where he worked as an audiographist in Vauhini Studios.
Born at Repalle in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh on February 19, 1930, Viswanath graduated in BSc from Andhra Christian College. With his heart afire with the desire of making it big in cinema, he worked as an assistant director in the Telugu-Tamil movie Pathala Bhairavi in 1951. It took him 14 long years to make his debut as a full-fledged director. Right from his maiden venture Aatma Gowravam in 1965, he crafted his directorial career mainly centred around his mother tongue Telugu. In all, he directed 53 films, mostly Telugu, including his last film Subhapradam (2010).
The films he did in Hindi too became hits, namely Sargam (1979), Kaamchor (1982), Sur Sangam (1985), Dhanwan (1993) and so on.
The ‘kalathapasvi’ as he was hailed was honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest award of Indian cinema in 2017. The award was preceded by several other honours such as Padma Shri, Filmfare Award and Nandi Awards in his film career spanning over six decades starting from 1951
The film Siri Siri Muvva (1976) was a runaway success and it catapulted him to star status. Indian cinema started looking up to him — a no-nonsense film-maker. Apart from direction, he took to acting too from 1995. The actor in him held his own in the Telugu film Subha Sankalpam. He went on to perform in over 30 films including some Tamil films such as the Dhanush-starrer Yaaradi Nee Mohini, Kamal’s Uthama Villain and so on and in a few TV serials as well. The last film he acted in was Oppanda (Kannada: 2022).
It is a testament to Viswanath’s stature and calibre as a filmmaker that major south Indian actors deliberately shed their star status tags to get transformed into out-of-the-box characters that he had designed with dexterity. For instance, when Kamal portrayed the dancer struggling with perishing dreams of art and love in the film Sagara Sangamam (Salangai Oli in Tamil) in 1983, he had already gained star power with films such as Moonram Pirai and Kadal Meengal and was hailed as one of the top two heroes, the other being Rajini.
Viswanath endeared himself to the Tamil audience with Salangai Oli that had, of course, the usual ingredients of love, comedy, songs and dance numbers, but with high aesthetics and artistic sensibility. It had a healthy tinge of the parallel cinema popularised by Bengali directors such Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and so on, inspired by Italian neorealism.
Viswanath’s Salangai Oli truly fed the artistic hunger of the method-acting wizard Kamal. In particular, in the finale of the film as Sarath Babu wheels Kamal out of the large auditorium where the aged dancer at last got his lifetime chance to be appreciated by the people, it is raining in the dark. Then heroine Jayaprada appears from nowhere, holding an umbrella over the dancer’s limp body. That was one of Director Viswanath’s magic moments which conveyed the message that human society always ignores great artists and thinkers who are way ahead of their time. As the curtain is slowly rolled down, the dancer is seen going off into the distant eternity, leaving the viewers’ eyes moist.
Similarly, Swathi Muthyam (1986) dubbed into Tamil as Sippikkul Muthu, featured Kamal playing a totally different role from that of his superstar image — a character in loose-fitting garments who has developmental disabilities, innocent like a child, unspoiled by the guiles and tricks of the world around.
Viswanath’s cinema is mainly populated by heroes and characters from the lowest rungs of society, neglected and scorned by the mainstream majority, the kind who never dazzle in duets and flex muscles in stunts. Caste and gender discrimination, alcoholism and misogyny were staple themes of his films.
Chiranjeevi, a Telugu commercial hero, cast aside his image of someone who is always on heroic exploits to play a waiter in Viswanath’s film Subhalekha (1982), a cobbler in Swayamkrushi (1987) and a cowherd in Aapadbandhavudu (1992).
Similarly, another Telugu superstar Balakrishna joined hands with Viswanath in Janani Janmabhoomi (1984) and Malayalam superstar Mammooty donned the mantle of a fading musician in Viswanath’s film Swathi Kiranam (1992).
Viswanath’s cinema is mainly populated by heroes and characters from the lowest rungs of society, neglected and scorned by the mainstream majority, the kind who never dazzle in duets and flex muscles in stunts. Caste and gender discrimination, alcoholism and misogyny were staple themes of his films
Viswanath transformed big stars into brilliant actors and nobodies into stars.
Any profile of Viswanath is incomplete without touching on one of India’s most iconic films Sankarabharanam (1980). Incidentally, the day Viswanath became one of the mighty moguls of Indian cinema with the release of the Carnatic music-centred film Sankarabharanam coincides with the day of his demise. It was on February 2, 1980 that Sankarabharanam was released. The tale of its pre-production and post-release ordeals brings to light the ironies, the contradictions and the precariousness that Indian cinema is riddled with.
When Viswanath approached certain producers and heroes with his story, they were taken aback at the unorthodox features of the story which seemed like parallel cinema. They said a firm ‘no.’ The story of a subtle and refined love sans cinematic stereotypes between a Carnatic genius well beyond his middle age and a Devadasi bharatanatyam danseuse felt like a moral shock back in the day. Besides, with the trend of cinema music getting westernised with pop, Carnatic music would put off the audience, they feared.
As if proving them right, the film opened to empty halls. However, over the following days, mainly by word of mouth the film started gaining the popularity it deserved, and debutant actor J V Somayajulu shot to overnight fame. K V Mahadevan’s soundtrack and the melodious voices of S P Balasubramaniam, S Janaki and Vani Jayaram resounded all over the country in songs such as Omkaara Naadaanusandhanamou, Sankaraa Naadasareeraparaa, Dorakunaa Ituvanti Seva and so on.
Other filmmakers were left dumbfounded by the phenomenal success of the film. Had the tastes of film buffs become so refined to the point of relishing the fully classical music of the film? Ironically, it is the same audience who made Vittalacharya’s film Jagan Mohini (1978) — an out-and-out commercial potboiler steeped in superstitions — a roaring success too.
There was an anecdote doing the rounds in the media then. A bed-ridden old woman on the verge of death expressed her last wish, that she wanted to hear the heart-rending songs from Sankarabharanam. The songs were played for her. She listened to them, enthralled and enraptured before breathing her last.
Apart from four national awards and a few more awards in India, Sankarabharanam was given the Prize of the Public at the France film festival in 1981. Somayajulu’s performance figured in the Forbes’ list of ‘25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema’
Sankarabharanam was ranked 11th in the list of the greatest ever Indian films in the 2013 online poll conducted by CNN-IBN to mark the centenary of Indian cinema.
The film, though made in Telugu, set the cash registers ringing in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada as well as Hindi (Sur Sangam – 1985). Its success proved that music had no language barriers.
Death may have taken Viswanath, but his art keeps him alive for eternity as Sankarabharanam’s Sankara Sastri still lives on.
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