K Vishwanath: A Trailblazer
- Ranee Kumar
February 5, 2023
The sun has set on aesthetic cinema in south India with the demise of ace director Kasinadhuni Vishwanath. He was one-of-a-kind film director who worked his way up by sheer dint of merit in a highly commercial and competitive world of Telugu (south Indian) film field. He used cinema as a vehicle to propagate performing arts. Unlike earlier filmmakers who adapted classical dance and music to suit a film audience, K. Vishwanath introduced the movie-goers to traditional classical arts in their purest form. It was a bold and risky step as Telugu audience was used to cheer at gyrations in the name of dance and light song sequences - risky in the sense of vagaries at the box-office in case an experimental film failed to garner audience which meant collections at the ticket counter. Afterall, cinema production was business in right earnest. He was a bold director who jettisoned the run-of-the-mill romance and sob stories of social movies and challenged the conditioned environs of middle-class morals, caste bias then (1960s-2010). He also 'created' artistes as he gave them their first break in challenging roles. So sure of his expertise was he, that any actor - new or experienced - delivered the goods like never before in his/her career!
Devadas Kanakala, Girish Pradhan, J. Somayajulu, Shanmukha Srinivas were his 'finds' whose roles made them memorable in the minds of audiences to this day. He had a way to trim the glamour off commercial heroes and heroines and chisel them into actors from stars.
O Seeta Katha (Story of a Seeta) was his first daring venture in the 70s, though not necessarily his first directorial film. It created ripples in an otherwise placid society and crass cinema. The educated middle and upper crust took to it with awe and admiration. With this movie being an overnight hit, there was no looking back for Vishwanath. A large section of educated, working class started looking forward to his next venture as soon as one was out for release at the theatres. He was not the kind to churn out movies for commercial count but by the same token was conscious of the finances involved in moviemaking, the ingredients needed to ensure success and his own power plus limitations as a director. It was only a man of his calibre who could strike a perfect balance between his own creativity, value system and the needs of the industry which he represented. And he achieved this with absolute aplomb. The fact that most of his films were dubbed into many Indian languages stands as a testimonial of his unique talent.
If the super hit Sankarabharanam was a musical bonanza that made dancer Manju Bhargavi an actress, his Saptapadi, Swarna Kamalam, Sagara Sangamam opened the vistas of classical dance to common households. During the 80s there was an exodus of middle-class girls and boys joining institutes of music and dance in all the towns and cities of Andhra Pradesh. And that enthusiasm continued way into the millennium. I have to say this with vehemence because in Telugu society of the 80s and through 90s, technology and the lure of US for jobs and money made sweeping changes in the lives of all in the region. All art learning was given up as waste of investment and every second youngster aimed to get into technological courses to make a viable future. It was at this juncture that Vishwanath entered as a trend-setter; his movies brought about a sea-change. What started as admiration for his films with strong story base, went on to become an inspiration to learn dance and music.
He was not just a director par excellence; he was a man of great ideas and an affectionate helping hand. My association with him goes back to two decades first as a journalist, later got merged into a confidante of sorts though there was a real age gap between us. He would call me for discussing an idea, would ask me to suggest a new young talent that could dance and act, help me through my own little issues, counsel me when I most needed an experienced advice and many such things. I was always free to walk into his home or wherever he was staying. For some reason, one of his very original films got stalled at release. Never one to despair he arranged for private screening of Sirimuvvala Simhanadam and had an audience he valued. I had the privilege of being invited by him personally. The movie was so perfectly made with a poignant story to boot, that I was inspired to publish a review of it. Later, it got released in morning shows.
My last interview of him was when he came to Delhi to receive his Dada Saheb Phalke award in 2017. I expressed my feelings that it was too late in the day to get this recognition which was long due. His cool response: "I'm glad to have got it when I'm still alive to experience the fact." What more, this says it all.
I can never forget certain sweet memories which are entirely personal. I needed a nine-yard saree for a marriage and photo session to be draped in an Iyer style and was at a loss as to manage the length of the fabric. All known friends let me down and finally I took the initiative to take my silly problem to him. He solved it in no time; he advised me to get it stitched like a salwar with pleats, drape, et al and immediately sent a talented movie clothes maker tailor my way. And it's the best 9-yard drape to this day!
His persona was also a fine balance of film social life on the exterior with a spiritual, philosophic inner being. An artist at heart, his creativity was satiated by making films high on aesthetics while his philosophical outlook, he applied to his personal life. That made him a Kala Tapaswi in the true sense. He set a sterling example of a karma yogi. Such yogis live forever; death is just a physical closure (He passed away on Feb 2, 2023 in Hyderabad). As long as the generation of the 80s lasts, K. Vishwanath will be re-visited through the bulk of his invaluable movies. And let's hope they become archival treasure for the future.
Ranee Kumar is a freelancer who worked as journalist with mainstream newspapers for two and half decades with numerous contributions in the form of critical reviews on dance, music and drama, interviews, articles on art, etc.
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