The popular cinema in India generally indulges in mindless plots punctuated by songs, action & comic sequences which cling to the narrative simply because they are put on. Such movies, irrespective of their commercial outcome, lack the harmony and connection to forcefully create an impression among audience.
K. Viswanath, a pan-Indian filmmaker whose (major) works incidentally happen to be in Telugu, is among the handful of Indian directors whose works (less than 25 films) created memorable characters that would stand the test of time. Weaving stories centred on a passionate protagonist against the larger context of preserving Indian arts and culture, Viswanath churned out masterpieces year after year until, much like Sankara Sastry’s story, his era was eclipsed by rise of “commercial cinema”.
Born in generation that never saw his movies in theatres, my introduction to his movies was with explicit knowledge about his repute. But expectations notwithstanding, I was pleasantly surprised whenever I saw his movies for if one discards technological advancements, purely from a director’s / writer’s standpoint his works are light years ahead of present-day movies.
Here is a director who trusts audience’s intelligence and doesn’t go about explaining the obvious. Instead, using the fine visual medium that cinema is, he lets audience connect the dots themselves once he’s done with providing the layout. If an artist’s confidence is measured by the minimalism in their art, Viswanath is confidence personified - for not once he indulges in excessive elaboration of a scene for the sake of audience understanding.
Sample his idea of hero-elevation, now routinely expressed through thigh clapping and soaring cars, in a particular scene from Sankarabharanam. Tulasi, just after being acquitted of charges of murder in court, stands hapless against her uncle who wants to force her back into prostitution. Out of nowhere, they hear some footsteps and out comes the imposing posture of Sankara Sastry; one stern look is enough to unnerve her uncle and one glance at Tulasi (no words throughout) almost instructs her to follow him. The authority that Sastry derives emanates from a lifetime of principled existence; it’s not a force of a brute.
Or his idea of giving a message to audience from another scene. After much persuasion, Sastry’s friend Madhava (Allu Ramalingaiah’s character) convinces him favourably about a marriage proposal for his daughter. Unfortunately, he spoils the affair by flaring up on his daughter for deviating from norms while singing and a gaffe from groom draws his ire further and alliance falls apart. An angered Madhava pours his angst against the rigid discipline of Sastry that only resulted in his poverty and now threatens to spoil his daughter’s life too. He rues that society no longer is interested in classical music and its time he lets go his fixation too. At one level, this scene appears to be directed against Sastry, and yet at another level, it’s targeted to the current generation that’s too immersed in foreign cultural imports while ignoring the timeless cultural riches of its own. He criticizes their apathy that chokes the creativity of such artists.
Another scene in Sagara Sangamam decisive in the protagonists’ life (and movie’s plot) - where Madhavi (Jayaprada’s character) approaches Balu (Kamal Haasan) to (probably) express her love. Right amid the positive ambience (indicated by great background score) - suddenly silence reigns. Madhavi sees her long separated husband waiting for her at a distance, but he understands the situation and nobly comes forward to unite them. At this moment, Balu transforms his love into respect for Madhavi and for the institution of marriage, and unites her with her husband. This cusp of change is expressed without much aid of words (with least help from music too), and through subtle expressions of the artists; Viswanath taxes the audience’s mind to interpret this all. One cannot imagine anyone else to convey so much, with so little.
What’s the aim of art? Please others, earn riches & fame? The aim of art as Schopenhauer noted and as Swarnakamalam shows is to immerse oneself into it and derive artistic bliss. Diving deep into the ocean of artistic ecstasy one is impelled to perform without external inspiration / force. It’s like a plant that grows and bears fruits, but demands of the world nothing more than a soil. Chandu (Venkatesh), alternates between a tough teacher and soft-hearted lover, as he drives Meenakshi (Bhanupriya) mad in the initial part of movie before she finds her voice catalysed by a conversation with NRI dancer.
Is art pursued only in the ivory towers of imagination? No, says Swayamkrushi where the protagonist finds artistic bliss in a very mundane profession of cobbler and rises high by dent of his ‘self-effort’. The movie culminates in his (adopted) son, learning the hard way, the importance of hard work symbolically represented by his readiness to cobble shoes himself.
While upholding native wisdom, he never shied away from criticizing outdated customs that throttle individual freedom. His social-reform oriented movies such as Saptapadi and Subhalekha focus on caste-system and dowry system respectively. In Sankarabharanam, Sastry anoints a prostitute’s son as his successor, reaffirming his belief that caste springs from capability and not condition.
Viswanath seeks to re-interpret the tradition of marriage through Saptapadi and Swati Mutyam. Saptapadi questions the futility of finality in marriage when one’s heart simply isn’t in the relation, and instead longs for another person. This is bold stance, colliding head-on with the sanctity of Hindu marriage, and yet, Viswanath’s respect for dharma comes out unscathed, for he positions this as an evolutionary manifestation of continuous internal churning of Hindu ideas, not a rebellion against Hinduism.
Swati Mutyam deals with an equally controversial topic of widow remarriage replete with the symbolic and literal presentation of husband, for a change, following the footsteps of wife (where Radhika’s character (Lalita) leads and goads Kamal Haasan’s (Shiviah) to step forward). One poignant scene that stays with you long after the run is when Shiviah, upon chiding by Lalita’s in-laws, thinks it fit that they should enjoy the prosperous life they’re entitled to with her in-laws, than stay with a social misfit like him. Yet, he’s unable to contain himself back home, until Lalita (along with boy) returns making it clear that she would rather live a life of penury with rich-at-heart person like him.
If Sankarabharanam elevates the Guru to stratospheric heights, where the combined onslaught of poverty, fall from grace and rumination over cultural degradation fail to shake his idealism, Swati Kiranam drags the Guru through hell, back to earth. It speaks volumes about Mammootty’s acting prowess that even with the veneer of his character’s respectability torn into shreds he still doesn’t evoke hatred from audience who are still left aghast over how such a great man could succumb to his baser instincts. How a man who once refused to accept Padma Sri just because he feels other awardees were not his equal could be so completely possessed by jealously over his student’s superior talent! And how, more than people’s reproach, it was his own conscience that haunted him, refusing to absolve him of the sin committed. Ultimately, he allows himself to be corrected by a young girl, representing the burial of his ego, and rebirth into a transformed, humble self.
Viswanath’s ability to move audience was considerably enhanced by support from capable music, lyrics and dialogues departments that shared his vision. In his films, songs are part and parcel of the movie, strongly linked to the flow, not meant as diversionary tactic. His ability to let music be a subordinate to lyrical flow is unique - in that music doesn’t dominate, rather it plays in the background and allows the lyrics take the centrestage. This is no mean feat because it involves composing tunes that clothe the lyrics - unlike the present trend where lyrics are forcibly accommodated into a preset tune. Credit is due to KV Mahadevan and Ilayaraja for understanding the spirit of those movies and dovetailing their works to Viswanath’s standards without diluting their individuality.
Often, Viswanath does away with use of words itself while portraying sensitive scenes. Instead, amply exploiting the visual media to the hilt, he lets the artists’ expressions & background score to effectively communicate the situation. This aspect of using silence to communicate is (partially) replicated successfully only by Ramgopal Varma among the current breed of directors.
Above all, Viswanath’s works are firmly rooted in native traditions & wisdom, not out of blind adherence but from experience soaked in lessons learnt first-hand. At the same time, it doesn’t stop at mere admiration, but critiques the systems and appreciates their worth but also notes its limitations & repercussions from rigidity.
The commercial failure of Aapadhbandhavudu with Chiranjeevi, released immediately after the mega success of Gharana Mogudu, in a way signalled the end of his kind of movies. Chiranjeevi, the star, was now too big to fit into the shoes of Viswanath’s characters. Others followed suit and hero-centric mindless masala fares were soon to become the norm completely shadowing his brand of movies - slow, sensible and sensitive.
Viswanath has since transformed into an actor and exudes dignity to his characters amid mediocrity that rules the industry. Although, his best works are still remembered by Telugus who’ve fondly awarded him the epithet of Kala Tapasvi, I feel he deserved more. To paraphrase what writer-director Trivikram Srinivas said of Sirivennela Sitaramasastry, it is Telugu film industry’s fortune to have Viswanath with them while it’s the latter’s misfortune to be confined to the former.