Phalke Award

Rooted in tradition

Print edition : May 26, 2017

K. Viswanath arriving for a function in Visakhapatnam in 2016. Photo: C.V. Subramanyam

The director’s films were instrumental in reviving the use of classical music and dance in mainstream South Indian cinema in the 1990s. Two of the most notable films are "Sankarabharanam" (above) and "Sagara Sangamam".

The director’s films were instrumental in reviving the use of classical music and dance in mainstream South Indian cinema in the 1990s. Two of the most notable films are "Sankarabharanam" and "Sagara Sangamam" (above).

Rakesh Roshan and Jayaprada in a scene from "Kaamchor", one of the director’s biggest hits in Hindi.

Subtlety and understatement are the hallmarks of the films of K. Viswanath, who has been honoured with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award this year.

SOME seven years ago, when the Dadasaheb Phalke Award was conferred upon the noted producer and distributor D. Ramanaidu, K. Viswanath, the doyen of Indian cinema, came across as a man happy at the award, even arguing against his own possible candidature. “I am a humble man. I am lucky to have made films close to my heart. People have liked them. I am happy. I have no complaints. That is all,” he said, ending the brief conversation on a note of self-effacement.

Cut to 2017, when Viswanath himself has got the honour, albeit belatedly. He remains the same modest self, not ready to get into a debate of “why only now”. A peerless film-maker, he refuses to hog the limelight, preferring that art, not the artist, be in the public domain. In the age of relentless overstatements, Viswanath harks back to an era that was, the people that we were. Much like his films.

His world

For several decades, through films in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, he has been talking of Indian mores and values with a fetching dignity. In his world, everybody is close to nature. Everybody goes to a temple or performs pooja at home. Almost every character is at least conversant with Indian classical music. And every other house throbs with traditional Hindu culture. There is a family deity, a temple, a ghat, a river. Atheism does not exist. Nobody is a villain. Only circumstances turn villainous.

A careful look at his cinema tells us about a man steeped in the hues of the nation, a true son of Bharat in the age of India. Equidistant from the cinema of, say, Manmohan Desai or K. Bapaiah—he would never have made an Amar Akbar Anthony or a Maqsad—and the arthouse fare of Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen, Viswanath carved out a niche for himself as a man who made realistic cinema without the added layer of boredom. His films had a tinge of melancholy, a leisurely pace suitable for long summer afternoons. With minimal dialogues and no curse words, they appealed to the family audience, that section of the crowd that in pre-multiplex days filled the balcony in evening shows during weekdays and almost the entire hall on weekends. The typical Hindu family or culture he depicted was never abrasive, almost always peaceful, accommodating, respectful of tradition, devoted to God. No bellicosity, no hatred anywhere. Simply serene.

Sample this: In the mid 1980s, everyone was humming “Zu, zu, zu...Yashoda ka Nandlala Brij ka ujala hai”. The Laxmikant-Pyarelal composition from Sanjog was lapped up across the country, a rarity for a south Indian banner in the context of the clear language divide. It became the song young mothers sang to put their babies to sleep, it mattered little that the baby was born to Hindu or non-Hindu parents. Viswanath’s magic had everybody enthralled; it has not changed in 2017. It is not unusual to find young fathers having the song as their ringtone in Delhi even today.

Sanjog had another song that reinforced the primary religiosity of the country: “Mera Shyam salona Kanha khoya re kahan”. While it was not unusual until the late 1980s for a Hindi film director to insert a bhajan to attract women audiences, only Viswanath could pull off a film with more than one song derived from Hindu mythology. The film had Jayaprada in a double role. She went on to carve out a niche for herself in Hindi cinema as a Sati-Savitri, a woman who would be the upholder of tradition—beautiful saris, henna on her hands, sindoor on her forehead and colourful bangles on her wrists, all part of the projection. She would even feed the cows. Interestingly, it was after watching the footage of the young Jayaprada in the film that the legendary film-maker Satyajit Ray called her the most beautiful woman in the industry, something she still carries as a lifetime achievement award.

But Sanjog was not Viswanath’s sole date with Hindu mythology in mainstream cinema or reinforcing the Hindu family ideals. Or even his only effort at getting his music directors to give music that stemmed from Indian classical tradition. In the age of R.D. Burman, he stood by Indian classical music, refusing to dive into an ocean where the best of the East and the West merged. Happily, he took a dip into the sacred notes of Indian classical music. There was a relatively lesser known film called Sur Sangam, which was originally made in Telugu as Sankarabhar a nam. When the film was released in Delhi, it hardly had any takers. The film’s hero, Girish Karnad, had no box-office appeal. And classical music was not every man’s cup of tea on the streets of Delhi. Slowly, though, the word spread about its ragas and dances. The film went on to do decent business, having a fine run at the historic Regal cinema in morning shows, much like the original, which too was a slow starter at the box office before it went on to revive classical music in popular films in Telugu and even Tamil. Sur Sangam had it all: compositions based on Bhairavi, Malkauns and Bhoopali; ecstatic dancing; and the good old backdrop of temples, priests and cows. Rajan and Sajan Mishra gave it all in their rendition, Lata Mangeshkar was rarely behind. And Karnad, in a role that the grapevine suggested was initially offered to Dilip Kumar, was restrained, never once allowing himself to get ahead of the moment. When he lip-synced to “Jaun tore charan kamal par vari”, his face brought out the devotion of a man in love with his god. And Jayaprada was aeons removed from her Shar a bi and Tohfa avatars. That was the magic of Viswanath; he made the stars forget themselves. He brought out the actors in them. Earlier, he had done the same with Kamal Hassan and Chiranjeevi, later he did the same with Mithun Chakraborty, even Sridevi. In fact, in many ways, he brought out the redoubtable dancing skills of Kamal Hassan (in Sagara Sangamam) like nobody before, or after, him. Similarly, nobody could have visualised Sridevi of the Himmatwala days to do a Jaag Utha Insa a n.

Not just Sanjog or Sur Sangam, every time Viswanath directed a film, audiences could be certain that it would be steeped in tradition and rich in symbolism. Take for instance his super-hit Hindi film Kaamchor. When the film was released, it had seemingly little to recommend it: Rakesh Roshan was no draw for the first day, first show crowd. The heroine, Jayaprada, had not been heard speaking a word of Hindi. Yet, the film, riding on its music, surprised one and all. However, there was a reason beyond music for its success. The film, yet again, quietly brought alive the age-old Indian values of a woman regarding her home to be her temple, her husband to be her deity. In a Holi song, “Mal de gulaal mohe”, that otherwise had the boisterous energy of a festive song, Viswanath pleased his family audiences by getting the heroine, who is separated from her good-for-nothing spouse, to take the gula a l from his feet and apply it on her head. Symbolically, it was all about sindoorand union.

Without a word, the director told his audiences that his heroine was the epitome of all that was good about Indian women, the ever-accommodating, ever-acquiescing spouses. It was hardly surprising that the film had another song whose lyrics said it all: “Tum mere swami, main tumri daasi” (You are my god, I am your servant). Modern-day feminists might cringe at the words, but back then nobody could have enough of it. When the film played at the downtown Robin cinema in Delhi, the local people requested the management to extend its run. The cinema, which was patronised by migrant men from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, usually played a different film every week. Every time “Tum mere swami” played in the film, there were requests from men in the front stalls for the film to be rewound. Probably unknown even to him, Viswanath had touched a chord with blue-collar workers living a lonely life, away from their wives in villages in north India.

There was another neat piece of symbolism. Early in the film, the love birds send letters to each other using the river current, surrendering themselves to the flow of their emotions. In fact, subtleties, niceties and understatements were all Viswanath’s hallmarks. No sermons or long dialogues. For instance, in Sangeet, where he presented a deglamourised Madhuri Dixit, the heroine, a blind girl, stands in front of a lantern as she begins to sing, music being her path to enlightenment. Similarly, in Sur Sangam, when the Brahmin singer performs, the girl of questionable repute stands in the auditorium, merely leaning against the wall, while everybody else is seated. Caste stereotype is revived, only to be quashed later in the film. In Ee shwar, where he sought to give Anil Kapoor a new image as a village bumpkin, the heroine, played by Vijayashanti, is a widow seen in saris. And they are not just white. Again, the director scoffs at the stereotypes of widows’ lives. That the hero marries the widow struck a blow for widow remarriage. Without exaggeration, without a trace of melodrama, Viswanath spoke out against the caste system and a social order that denies a woman the right to find fulfilment following the death her of husband.

On similar lines was Jaag Utha Insa a n (a remake of Saptapadi), where Viswanath sought to take on the bane of the caste system. The Sridevi-Mithun Chakraborty starrer was about a Brahmin girl in love with a Harijan boy. Songs and sequences based on Hindu scriptures were a constant. In Eeshwar, Vijayashanti sings “Kaushalya main teri, tu mera Ram”, whereas Jaag Utha Insaan had Mahendra Kapoor’s “Jai Matadi”. Sargam, Viswanath’s biggest hit in the Hindi belt, had a super-hit song “Dafliwale dafli baja”. The song was quite a favourite among wedding music bands then. Again, like most of his subsequent films and songs, the director drew from the sea of Hindu deities. It begins with the heroine taking the garland from the idol of Krishna to put it on her beau, thereby reinforcing the Krishna-Radha tale. The mention of the song brings to mind the shrewd and tough director that Viswanath was. When the film was being shot, the hero Rishi Kapoor lost his cool at Jayaprada’s inability to match her steps to his dafli in a sequence. He let her know his frustration. The heroine cowered at the senior star’s chastisement. Which is when Viswanath stepped in, telling him, “She is a young girl, she will do it”, and telling the heroine, “One more time and you will be perfect”. He was proved right. The next shot was perfect, with no retakes necessary. Without losing his cool, Viswanath brought out the best from the stars. No wonder that they all came back to work with him again and again. Not just stars, even character actors such as Sujit Kumar, Deven Verma, Paintal and Dr Shreeram Lagoo were regulars in his films. As were the music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal. There was a certain comfort level that everybody shared with him.

No wonder that when the announcement of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award was made, Kamal Hassan took to Twitter to salute the man he reveres. “My K. Vishwanath gaaru is a Dada Saheb Phalke award winner. In his humility, he would say, ‘I am lucky’. Truth is Indians are lucky. So am I.” Indeed, his words were almost an exact reiteration of what Vishwanath himself said. “I am a humble man. I am lucky to have made films close to my heart....”

Lucky are his viewers, his stars, his fans. And the traditional Hindu society that he showed in film after film with exemplary finesse. In the age of Hindutva, a bigger blow could not have been struck for the real Hindu culture.

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