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Social Concerns and Human Relationships: The Cinema of K. Viswanath

By Nishi Pulugurtha

Kasinadhuni Viswanath, or K. Viswanath, as he is better known, the Dadasaheb Phalke awardee for 2017, has had a film career spanning six decades. Beginning his career as an audiographer at Vauhini Studios in Madras (Chennai), Viswanath moved on to direct films in Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi. A recipient of five national Film Awards, six Nandi awards, many Filmfare awards, the Padma Shri, and Prize of the Public at the Besancon Film Festival of France for his National-Award winning Telugu film, Sankarabharanam (1981), Viswanath has directed over fifty films. National media covering the news of his being conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke award referred to him as the director of Hindi films like Sargam and Kaamchor. Viswanath’s larger corpus of work is in Telugu films.

Viswanath’s first film as director was the Telugu film, Aatma Gowravam (Self Respect, 1965), which won the Nandi Award for Best Feature Film. This was followed by films like Chelleli Kapuram (Younger Sister’s Household, 1971), Sharada (1973), O Seetha Katha (The Story of a Seetha, 1974), and Jeevan Jyoti (1975) – social dramas with women protagonists. In addition, he directed Siri Siri Muvva (Small Anklet, 1978) that was later remade in Hindi as Sargam. The film about a young girl who could not speak, dreaming to make it as a dancer and succeeding despite all odds, was a great success with melodious songs in both the Telugu and Hindi versions.

Sankarabharanam (The Jewel of Shankara, 1980), starring J. V. Somayajulu (who debuted in films with this film), Manju Bhargavi, Chandramohan and Rajyalakshmi with wonderful music, dwells on the changing fortunes of a Carnatic classical music practitioner at a time when the influence of popular music has begun to hold sway on the imagination of the younger generation. An important concern in the film is the doing away with class barriers with music serving as a bridge that connects all. The success of this film saw a sequence of films in Telugu that had as its subject classical music and/or classical dance – films like SaptapadiTyagayya (1981, directed by Bapu), and Meghasandesam (1982, directed by Dasari Narayan Rao). K. Viswanath used classical music and/or dance as the subject in many of his later films like Saagara Sangamam (1983, Confluence with the Ocean) in which Kamalahasan essayed the role of a Kuchipudi dancer, Sruthi Layalu (1987), Swarna Kamalam (1988, Golden Lotus), Swayamkrushi (Self-made 1987),  and Swati Kiranam (White/Pure Rays, 1992). It was Sankarabharanam that made the playback singer S.P.Balasubramaniam a household name in South India winning him his first National Award for the Best Male Singer for the film.

Viswanath’s films presented characters who were simple, who struggled to lead a principled, disciplined life. The films addressed issues of caste, socio-economic differences, prejudices, the challenges of the differently abled, of the weaker sections, the marginalized and women, using an idiom that was popular and appealed to all sections of Telugu audience. The protagonist of Sharada (1973) is a mentally challenged woman; Swati Mutyam (White Pearl, 1986) presents the life and times of an autistic person with Kamal Haasan essaying the role. The film also brought in the subject of widow remarriage and was India’s official entry to the 59th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category. In Sirivennela (Dim Moonlight, 1986), the protagonists inhabit a world where there is no sound, they cannot hear or speak, a world where music creates wonders.

Saptapadi (Seven Steps, 1981) rakes up the issue of caste and untouchability and questions if at all the idea of caste should matter in human affairs. The film won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. Subhodayam (Good Morning, 1980) and Swayamkrushi (1987) bring to fore the idea of dignity of labour. Subhalekha (Marriage Invitation, 1982) deals, in a humorous way, with the evils of dowry. Sutradharulu (Anchor, 1989) voices the need to abhor and do away with violence. Though these films have a social message that the director wants to convey, they are presented in such a way that they do not seem to be outright didactic and moralizing. K. Viswanath’s films were popular entertainment that kept the box office ringing.

Viswanath directed Hindi films, too. His Hindi directorial ventures were remakes of his Telugu box office successes – Sargam (Siri Siri Muvva, 1979), Kaamchor (Subhodayam, 1982), Shubh Kaamna (Subhalekha, 1983), Jaag Utha Insaan (Saptapadi, 1984), Sur Sangam (Sankarabharanam, 1985), Sanjog (Jeevan Jyothi, 1985), Eeshwar (Swati Mutyam, 1989), Sangeet (1992) and Dhanwaan (1993). In 1995, Viswanath began his acting career in the Telugu film, Subha Sankalpam and has since acted as in many Telugu films, notable among them being Narasimha Naidu (2001), Santosham (2002), Lakshmi Narasimha (2004), Swarabhishekam (2004) and Pandurangadu (2008). He went on to act in Tamil films and Telugu serials as well.

Many of the big stars of South Indian cinema acted in his films, but as he said he chose them not for their star power but as actors who would successfully essay their roles. Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Jayaprada, Bhanupriya, Venkatesh, Radhika, Mammooty, Vijayshanti acted in his films in memorable roles. Kamal Hasan had, by then, acted with the best directors of South India like K.Balachander and Bharatiraja. Sagara Sangamam, a landmark film in his career, showed that the protagonist could be flawed and need not be young and dynamic. One of the most memorable sequences of the film was the actor dancing on the edge of a well in an inebriated state. Even if he chose big stars to act in his films, it was the story and the issues that were of greater importance.

In the era when Telugu films, released in the late 1970s and 1980s, were characterized by outlandish costumes and glaring colour, meaningless violence and absence of good plots, Viswanath’s films stood out by their sensitivity and concerns. Viswanath’s films successfully negotiated the chasm between offbeat/parallel cinema and popular films straddling an in-between area that appealed to all sections of audience. In an interview to The Hindu, Viswanath says, “Movies are visual by nature and visual art has to be aesthetic. The aesthetic element prevails in all my films: it lends a finesse to every frame.” It is this art and finesse that have appealed to audiences and are the reason for the popularity and success of his films.

Bio:
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Masculinities in Urban India’, edited by Madhura Lohokare, Shiv Nadar University, India.

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