THE late Rajkumar may be considered by many as the most celebrated icon of Kannada cinema, but Vishunuvardhan, who passed away on December 30, 2009, at the age of 59, was not far behind in terms of popularity and in iconic stature. From the mid-1970s Vishnuvardhan held his own, rivalling Rajkumar every bit of the way for the right not so much to be the king of Kannada filmdom but to be the monarch of the box office. He was a super-duper hero who steadily and painstakingly built up his career, fan following and fan clubs, wooing and moving the masses, scoring one golden hit after the other at the box office.
A gentleman to the core, the charismatic and stylish Vishnuvardhan probably cocked a snook at that crude American aphorism nice guys finish last. The actor was up there among the best as a popular megastar who could essay with equal ease the role of a swashbuckling hero, a rebellious and hot-headed young man, a sensitive lover, a musician or a soldier, and as a loyal friend and family man in real life.
Vishnuvardhan acted in nearly 200 Kannada films, almost always as the hero. He also acted in a few Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi films, and tried his hand at film direction, distribution and production. Besides, he was the first leading man in Kannada films to make a big-budget film in Hindi Inspector Dhanush, in which he co-starred with Sangeeta Bijlani.
Amiable and humorous, but with a fierce sense of knowing what he wanted, the quick-thinking Vishnuvardhan was prepared to discipline himself and work hard for success. And succeed he did. Blessed with good looks and a macho physique, a passion for theatre, and parents who encouraged him all the way, Vishnuvardhan had everything necessary to become a star. Aping nobodys style, he retained until almost the very end a rare kind of freshness. Two of his films Master and Apta Rakshaka (his last film, during the making of which he was injured in the leg) are yet to be released.
Vishnuvardhans success in Kannada cinema is noteworthy because he was able to overcome an undercurrent of opposition. His achievement in cutting the undergrowth of opposition made it possible for next-generation Kannada actors such as Shankar, Ananth Nag and Ambarish to succeed.
He had, says the noted playwright, film-maker and actor Girish Karnad, an aggressive ambition to succeed as a star. And for over three and half decades, he showed that he had the staying power to be at the top. Till the very end he never got overwhelmed by forces that especially during the early part of his career were out to undermine him and his value at the box office. Karnad should know. It was he who introduced Vishnuvardhan into Kannada cinema. In 1971, a Mysore-born youngster hardly out of his teens and named Sampath Kumar (as Vishnuvardhan was then known), who had completed his collegiate education in Bangalore during which time he had passionately done amateur theatre, was looking for a role in Kannada cinema. Karnad wanted a fresh face for Vamshavriksha, a movie he and B.V. Karanth were seeking to direct. Karnads description of that first meeting he had with Sampath Kumar at a journalists house is indicative of both Vishnuvardhans ability to think on his feet and his burning desire to make it big.
Recounts Karnad: At the suggestion of my assistant director Kankanhalli Gopi, I met Vishnuvardhan. As soon as he came in, without even waiting to be introduced, he started regaling us about his blossoming film career and the half a dozen films he was busy shooting for. In particular, he said that he was doing two films with Mala Sinha (the famous Bengali and Hindi matinee idol of the 1950-70 period) and that he had just returned from shooting with her in Nepal. After listening for over 10 minutes to tales about his career, I interrupted and said that it would not be possible for me to take him since shooting for Vamshavriksha was to start almost immediately and we wanted the chosen actor to give us dates. Vishnuvardhan then inquired who I was and when told him that I was the director of Vamshavriksha, he immediately withdrew everything he had just said about his blossoming film career [laughs]. He had assumed that I was another budding hero [actor] and wanted to both impress and demoralise me! He had that sort of desire to succeed.
Vamshavriksha, released in 1972, was based on S.L. Bhyrappas novel by the same name and largely dealt with genealogy and widow remarriage. The film, which won Karnad and Karanth the National Film Award for excellence in direction, was just the platform Vishnuvardhan was looking for. Says Karnad: He was a very sensitive and emotional individual. I still remember him bursting into tears when his first take did not go as desired.
But he did essay his small role with aplomb, and as L.V. Sharada, his co-star in Vamshavriksha, recounts, Vishnuvardhans portrayal of the youth who rejects the protagonists second wife but shows he understands her in almost the next scene earned him special praise. Says Sharada: He had dreams and was very ambitious. His portrayal in Vamshavriksha gave him the confidence. Vishnuvardhan was art cinemas gift to commercial cinema; the actor, ironically, shed his links with parallel cinema after Vamshavriksha. That very year, he got his first role as the hero. Noted film-maker S.R. Puttanna Kanagal, who was looking to revive and popularise commercial cinema, which had come under the onslaught of new-wave films such as Vamshavriksha and Samskara, made Nagarahavu with Vishnuvardhan in the lead. The film, based on the trilogy penned by T. R. Subba Rao, questioned the caste system, orthodox traditions and values and blind beliefs, and encouraged inter-community marriage.
Looking for a fresh face for his film, Puttanna Kanagal zeroed in on Vishnuvardhan from 300 other hopefuls. Vishnuvardhan impressed Kanagal with the way he turned his face, which to the director was akin to the way a cobra turns its hood when provoked. Nagarahavu also saw Puttanna Kanagal rechristen Sampath Kumar as Vishnuvardhan after the famous Hoysala king by the same name. Though the film brought him instant attention and stardom, Vishnuvardhan never acted in any of Puttanna Kanagals subsequent films, probably because most of the directors films were women-centric.
Vishnuvardhans success in Nagarahavu catapulted him to playing the second lead to Rajkumar in his very next film, Gandhada Gudi. The film set the tone for what was to become for over three decades the two leading factions in Kannada filmdom.
Rajkumar was of course always supreme. Having come through the professional touring theatre, he had been there from the very beginning of Kannada cinema and had built his success on hard work, discipline and identification with the masses. Vishnuvardhan, during the making of Nagarahavu, was a novice who had acted in just one film. Playing the role of a smuggler against Rajkumars forest officer (the protagonists turn out to be long-lost brothers in the end), Vishnuvardhan managed to hold his own.
An episode in the film reportedly sparked a feud between the two stars. It was used to create trouble for Vishnuvardhan, who had to face the ire of Rajkumar fans. A scene in the movie has a cobra slithering between Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan while they confront each other; Rajkumar picks up the cobra and thunders, Im not afraid of you. Many movie buffs rather debatably view this as Rajkumars message to Vishnuvardhan.
But Vishnuvardhan never acted with Rajkumar again, preferring instead to plough his own furrow. But according to those who knew him intimately, the actor had high regard for Rajkumar.
Nagarahavus success established Vishnuvardhan as a star. Over the next 36 years, hits just flowed. Among his major films are Bootayyana Maga Ayyu and Devara Gudi (1974), Nagarahole (1977), Hombisilu (1978), Simha Jodi (1980), Sahasa Simha and Jimmigallu (1982), Bandhana (1984), Maleya Marutha (1986), Mutthina Haara (1990), Nishkarsha (1993), Suryavamsha (1999), Yajamana (2000), Simhadri Simha (2002), Apta Mithra (2003) and Mathad Mathad Mallige (2007).
Was Vishnuvardhan a great actor? According to critics, he was a competent actor who knew exactly how the camera worked. Like many great film personalities he had realised early in his career that a star acted at his own peril.
With many scripts seemingly being written around his on-screen persona, some feel that Vishnuvardhan was stereotyped in hero-oriented roles. In later years he seemed under pressure to live up to his image as a macho star. It was as if his fans only came to see him fight. Nevertheless, he did have some challenging roles along the way with Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu, Hombisilu and Bandhana providing him with the kind of change he was looking for. Films such as Bandhana Maleya Marutha, Harakeya Kuri, Suprabhata, Mutthina Hara, Matte Haaditu Kogile, Yajamana, Apta Mitra, Mathad Mathad Mallige and Laali showcased his versatility. Vishnuvardhan occasionally sang for his movies; in recent times, when he turned very spiritual and philosophical, he took to devotional singing. An early song was Eee Notake in the movie Nagarahole. His rendition of Tuttu Anna Tinnoke Bogase Neeru Kudiyokke in Jimmigallu, a haunting ballad, is remarkable.
Vishnuvardhan won seven Film Fare awards and an equal number of State awards in the best actor category. He also received the Film Fare award for lifetime achievement in 2004, and the Dr Rajkumar Award in 2008. His film Suprabhata (1988) created a record of sorts by bagging awards in eight categories.
He acted in two Kannada films with Tamil superstar Rajnikanth (Galate Samsara and Sahodarara Savaal, both in 1977) and a number of films with his close friend Ambarish. In one film, Diggajaru, the protagonist Vishnuvardhan dies in the lap of his friend portrayed by Ambarish. The friendship between Ambarish and Vishnuvardhan was a model one. Both of them had entered the film industry through Nagarahavu.
Vishnuvardhan had a wonderful, if at times topsy-turvy, relationship with the film producer-director Dwarakish. Together they churned out blockbuster after blockbuster. Though their relationship had turned sour, when Dwarakish decided to remake the Malayalam hit Manichitrataazhu as Apta Mitra in Kannada, Vishnuvardhan was invited to play the lead role of a psychiatrist. The film was a box-office hit.
A true professional, he rarely, if at all, accepted more than one assignment at a time. He was also known for his punctuality and involvement even in films that he did not personally produce. He also stayed away from active politics, despite vigorous wooing by political parties. He once remarked that he was not against politics, but was certainly not after power. He, however, campaigned for Ambarish whenever the latter contested an election.
Vishnuvardhan was also prepared to fight for the cause of Kannada and Kannadigas. He took an active role in the Gokak agitation launched to obtain premier language status for Kannada in Karnataka, and lent support to Rajkumar, who was leading the agitation; he also participated in the protests over the sharing of Cauvery river waters. He was in the forefront expressing solidarity when the bandit Veerappan kidnapped Rajkumar in 2000, and periodically when the Kannada film industry protested asking for more concessions and sops in order to allow it to commercially compete against cinema of other languages, most notably Hindi.
Vishnuvardhan was married to Bharati, who at the time of their marriage in 1975 was one of the leading stars of South Indian cinema.
News of Vishnuvardhans death sparked sporadic violence in certain pockets of south Bangalore, both when the body was taken for public viewing and during the funeral procession. Around 40 people were injured and an equal number of public buses damaged. According to police estimates, a crowd of around 40,000 attended the funeral.
To many, Vishnuvardhans demise will further hurt an industry that is already in the doldrums, facing a dearth of stars and finding it difficult to compete with Tamil and Telugu films, leave alone Hindi.
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