Veteran Telugu director Kasinathuni Vishwanath has recently been honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke award for his outstanding contribution to the film industry. Anybody who has been following his work will vouch for the fact that this recognition for the 87-year-old director has come very late in his career. But this is not surprising, considering that he hails from the Telugu film industry where caste politics, heredity, and monetary power pull the strings and determine the success of artists. Nevertheless, the award comes as an honour not only for the Telugu film industry but for Indian cinema as a whole, considering the director’s rich body of work and the timeless classics that his movies are.
My first K Vishwanath movie was “Swarnakamalam” (1988) – part of my mother’s attempts to keep me firmly rooted to my Telugu culture, as I was growing up in a different state. As an 11-year-old girl then, I laughed at the rib-tickling humour that Meenakshi (the feisty female lead, essayed by Bhanupriya), and characters like Omkaram and Akhilandeswari evoked. When the songs came, I would see my parents savouring every single word of the lyrics along with the music. As a dancer myself, I was fascinated by how the art, without being corrupted in the name of ‘mass appeal’ (which many ‘veteran’ directors continue to do even today), was woven into the story in its pristine form. The movie continued to remain my favourite, and eventually, my DVD collection welcomed “Swati Muthyam” (1985), “Sagarasangamam” (1983), “Saptapadi” (1981), “Sankarabharanam” (1979), and many others. Over the years, I have watched many of K Vishwanath’s movies repeatedly, and the movies have grown on me.
I realised eventually what a master craftsman this director is. Every time I watch his movies, there is some new dimension to discover – the delightful traits or reactions of his characters, the subtlety behind the humour, the purpose behind the placement of certain songs, or simply a wholly alternate interpretation of the storyline and its ending. Vishwanath’s movies are an experience. The beauty of each of his movies reveals itself little by little, and one is always compelled to watch them repeatedly. Watching his classics is like reading poetry – no matter how many times you watch them, the beauty never fades, and there is always something new to take away from them.
K Vishwanath, like Bapu (yet another poorly honoured genius of a director), adopted the brand of socially conscious filmmaking, where perspectives were always portrayed responsibly. Cinema has always been caught in the debate between being idealistic in order to provide respite to the audience from their mundane lives and having to show reality. But, Vishwanath’s movies were a bridge between the real and the ideal, and he made sure that he gave the audience enough perspectives to think about. Movies like “Swarnakamalam”, “Sagarasangamam” and “Sankarabharanam” rigorously engaged with the plight of music and dance in India, and brought out the myriad perceptions about art and the problems it faces. “Saptapadi” engaged critically with the caste system, and movies like “Swayamkrushi” (1987) were motivational in portraying the story of a man who rises from rags to riches without losing his humility.
What is most characteristic of these socially conscious movies is that Vishwanath never attempts to sermonise. It is through the journey of the characters, which is made so very relatable, that one is introduced to the message that the director is trying to convey. He also employs a multitude of elements in his dialogues, music and songs to bring out ideas.
A commonly recurring theme in his movies is concern about the influence of Western music and dance on Indian art forms. In this popular scene in “Sankarabharanam”, the protagonist Sankara Sastry chastises a group of youngsters who belittle his Carnatic genius as he loses his popularity with the advent of Western music. After showing them that a Carnatic artiste like himself can successfully sing Western notes with perfection, he conveys to them an important message- “Music is Divine, whether it is Western or Indian. Oka rakamaina Sangeetham goppadani, Maroka sangeetham adhamam ani nirnayinchadaaniki manam evaru (Who are we to judge that one form of music is better than the other)?” In “Swarnakamalam”, Meenakshi, the heroine, is motivated to return to dancing after having left (thinking that it is not economically viable), because of opportunities to perform abroad. In the song “Shiva Poojaku”, the protagonist tells her, “Padamara Padagapai, Merise Taaralakai, Ratrini Varinchake, Sandhayasundari (O evening beauty, don’t embrace darkness because you are lured by the shining stars on the hoods of the West)!” It is through these subtleties that the director conveys his messages – they are never hammered into the heads of the audience.
These strokes of artistic brilliance were a culmination of Vishwanath’s collaboration with geniuses in other departments of filmmaking. Particularly music directors, dialogue writers, and lyricists, with whom he shared a symbiotic relationship. They always extracted brilliance from each other. It is impossible to distinguish what made movies like “Sirivennela” (1986) stand out as sheer poetry – whether it was Seetharama Sastry’s lyrics (he debuted as a lyricist with this movie), KV Mahadevan’s music, or Vishwanath’s picturisation. One of the most famous songs from the movie, “Vidhaata Thalapuna”, is about ‘Om’, the primordial sound of the universe, which is performed by the protagonist, the blind flautist Hari, at a wedding. His role was essayed by Sarvadaman Banerjee, and he was named after Hariprasada Chaurasia, who played the flute in the songs of the movie. One wonders whether, in such a movie, there is space for such a song on an abstract concept which is often perceived as religious. But Vishwanath creates a space for these ideas to take shape into a perfectly placed song, accompanied by Seetharama Sastry’s incomparable lyrics, which succeed in simplifying an abstract concept without taking recourse in religion. In “Sagarasangamam”, an inebriated Balu sings the famous “Thakita Thadhimi”, a song laden with deep philosophy – Veturi Sundaramamurthy’s lyrics complement the situation perfectly. He says, “Narudi brathuku natana, Eeshwaruni thalapu ghatana, aa renti natta naduma, neekendhukintha thapana (A man’s life is drama, and events happen in accordance with God’s will, between these two, what is your quest for)?” This is not merely the kind of drunken rant that we see in most movies. Vishwanath makes it a song of introspection. These are but a few examples of the creative liberty he takes to present alternate manifestations and representations of emotions and situations without ever making them seem inappropriate.
Vishwanath also plays so beautifully with rasas and integrates them into the aesthetics of his storylines. His treatment of romance is breezy, and the expression of love in his movies is never physical. Vishwanath loved to focus on building bonds between his male and female leads, and has always copiously made room for friendly engagement; whether it is “Kothaga Rekkalochena” in “Swarnakamalam”, “Aura Ammaka Chella” in “Aapadbandhavudu” (1992), “Raagala Pallakilo” in “Subhalekha” (1982), or “Naada Vinodam” in “Sagarasangamam”. There is space for the hero and heroine to engage with each other purely on the basis of a good friendship, and bond over convergent sensibilities. He then allows love to blossom between characters, almost as though it is imminent, and a natural progression. His movies almost always focus on the slow realisation fo the characters’ love for one another, rather than engaging in romance after having fallen in love.
Interestingly, the names of his heroes and heroines are always derived from mythology, sometimes tangentially. They mostly allude to Shiva and Parvathi – we have Ganga and Sambayya in “Swayamkrushi”, Meenakshi and Chandrashekar in “Swarnakamalam”, and Shiavaiah and Lalitha in “Swathi Muthyam”.
There is never a single peak emotional moment where the characters profess their love for one through elaborate speeches. In “Swarnakamlam”, for instance, Chandrasekhar (essayed by Venkatesh) merely sends a letter to Meenakshi, who is going abroad to pursue her dreams of dancing, and signs off simply by saying, “Do not think otherwise if you hear my heartbeat in the jingling of your anklets – it is only because I can never forget our short, but memorable acquaintance.” This simple letter makes her realise that she has always been in love with him.
Apart from these beautiful subtleties, Vishwanath borrows generously from the compositions of traditional Carnatic music geniuses and integrates their songs in the romantic tracks of his films. They always present a metaphoric play between the Bhakti rasa that underlines the Carnatic compositions, and the Sringara that Vishwanath incorporates into the visuals. The Sringara rasa is never overdone and is always merely suggestive. In “Sankarabharanam”, “Samajavaragamana” (originally a composition of Tyagaraja describing the qualities of Lord Rama) is tweaked to show the blooming romance between Sankara Sastry’s daughter and her suitor with whom he falls in love. And then there is “Innirasulayuniki” from “Shruti Layalu” (1987), an Annamacharya composition that aligns zodiac signs with the qualities of Goddess Padmavati. Vishwanath moulds that song into a romantic bonding between the hero and the heroine, while retaining the original lyrics. They are not singing praises to each other. Rather, the romance lies in their act of singing praises to the Goddess together. It is this togetherness that Vishwanath celebrates through such subtle amalgamations of Bhakti and Sringara, rather than just the physical manifestations of romance.
How can one forget Saint Tyagaraja’s “Marugelara” that was used in “Saptapadi” to show Hema’s acceptance of Haribabu’s love? He previously sends her a small letter containing the notes to one of Tyagaraja’s famous “Nagumomu Ganaleni” – a song that depicts Tyagraja asking Lord Rama why the Lord cannot take pity on his sad state, that is bereft of the privilege of seeing the Lord’s smiling face, and thus, come to assuage him. She simply sends back a note with a “Namaste” symbol on it. Later, she meets him, and sings the composition “Marugelara”, where Tyagraja asks Lord Rama why he is concealing himself. She simply hands him flowers taken from an idol of the Lord, and he transfers them back into her hands, showing that they have both accepted each other. Here too, there is bonding over compositions that have been written with Bhakti. But they are used allegorically. Haribabu asks her why she can’t bestow him with the presence of her face, and Hema, in return, asks him why he is concealing himself. They both never openly profess their love to one another.
Such was the aesthetic quality of emotions in Vishwanath’s films. He never shied away from marrying traditional and modern representations of art – whether it was music or dance – to reinforce the beauty of each. As an audience, it is nothing short of amazing to watch such elements of traditional music and dance blend perfectly into the storyline without even the slightest incongruence.
Recently, I discovered a delightful series of interviews with the legendary director, titled “Vishwanadaamrutham”. Here, the current crop of artistes in the Telugu film industry discuss and analyse classic works of K Vishwanath in his presence, and understand how such ideas had germinated in his mind. I came to realise how it is nearly impossible to stop discussing Vishwanath’s movies, simply because there is so much brilliance in every scene of his classics. His movies restored the strength and beauty of the Telugu language and the richness of Telugu culture. They have become a part of our lives.
Today, in honouring K Vishwanath with the Dadasaheb Phalke award and celebrating him, we are celebrating an era of cinema which uplifted the sensibilities of the audience and did not serve as mere entertainment. We are celebrating cinema that made one think. We are celebrating an era where art was greater than the artist. We are celebrating an unparalleled director to whose films I, a 21-year-old, owe my interest in arts. We are celebrating the timelessness of films in its true sense. We are celebrating a ‘Kalatapaswi‘, a title rightly conferred upon him for his dedication towards arts. Most importantly, we are celebrating the human manifestation of the most prestigious filmmaking institution that could have ever existed.