K Viswanath’s cinema: Innate musicality intertwined with masterful storytelling

Viswanath’s social commentary and love for classical art are things that can be learned and borrowed, but his deft hand that manoeuvres all these threads into a single tapestry of cohesive beauty belongs to him alone.
K Viswanath’s cinema: Innate musicality intertwined with masterful storytelling
K Viswanath’s cinema: Innate musicality intertwined with masterful storytelling

When you are tasked with writing about a man who is a true master at what he did, your hands hover over the keyboard, not knowing where to start. Ever since K Viswanath’s recent demise, social media has been filled with videos of scenes from his 50 films, most of which can be considered masterpieces depending on who you are asking. Viswanath had managed to create a filmography teeming with cinema that tries to teach, without shortchanging the viewer's expectations. 

You can see his reverence for art in films as early as Kalam Marindi (1972). Films like O Seetha Katha (1974), Siri Siri Muvva (1976), and Seetamahalakshmi (1978) had characters practising some form of art. It is no wonder, then, this man looked at cinema not just as a mass medium but as an art form. That was how he made a film like Sankarabharanam (1979) — which revolves around an art form considered severe, serious, and barbed with societal prejudices — a bonafide success. This blockbuster had supposedly revitalised a nation's passion for classical music and dance. 

When I was offered the chance to write a piece on him, I knew I needed to rewatch some of his films. As a writer on a deadline, my intention was a cursory look that would jog my memory, but I ended up watching five of his movies almost in one go. Evasive ideas — the characters preach inclusivity but never a complete denouncement of the caste system — mired by a privileged gaze are prickly to watch, but the craft at display is mesmerising. You press play, and a few moments later, you suddenly realise you are 30 minutes into the film. 

Filmmakers of the current generation trying their hand at social commentary struggle to strike a balance because they like to posture. They use verbose dialogue to make their point instead of spending time writing a script that organically gets their point across. All Saptapadi's (1981) Haribabu (Girish Pradhaan) needed to do was push and pull a boat into the water, never letting go of the rope, to convey his state of mind after sacrificing his love. Meaningful gazes and well-juxtaposed reaction shots, with an innate musicality lent by a well-thought-out background score. 

If today’s filmmakers can learn anything from Viswanath, they should learn to practise his restraint. If they can borrow anything, borrow his silences and sense of humour. Swathi Muthyam's (1986) Sivayya squishing a helper's face while climbing a ladder is funny without punching down at either of the people involved. Or K Sathyanarayana disapprovingly saying 'Lovvara Lovvu' to his airheaded son in Subhalekha (1982).

His films were a phenomenon due to many reasons. His collaborations with great musicians such as KV Mahadevan, RD Burman, Ilaiyaraaja, and Keeravani, and dialogue writers including Jandhyala and Gollapudi Maruti Rao. From Arudra to Veturi, and Seetharama Sastry to Vennela Kanti, he has also worked with many talented lyricists. His trusted posse of actors - Somayajulu, Allu Ramalingaiah, Girish Pradhaan, Dubbing Janaki, SK Misro, and Sakshi Ranga Rao.

More often than not, the things that catch my eye are his filmmaking techniques, the ending of Swathi Muthyam being a favourite. Balu Mahendra's camera captures the passage of time by merely focusing on the changing intensity of the sun's light falling on Manju Bhargavi's face in Sankarabharanam. In the same scene, when we flashback to Sankara Sasthry's glory days, the transition happens by turning the shot of a pensive Manju Bhargavi into a dynamic frame that flows like a river. It match-cuts with the stage curtain, while also symbolising the process of remembrance.

The gender coding in his films, too, is fascinating. The men aren't saviours the way you expect them to be. His earlier works don't depict violence at all. He uses the sound of a drum to suggest a fight in Siri Siri Muvva, just like a form of L/J-cut in Subhalekha is used to convey that the goons have beaten the hero. Even when he shot violence, it was Sambayya hitting men with their chappals, only to mend them himself, for free, and send them home. Most of them look unglamorous, even as they successfully make their point. Balu's (Kamal Haasan) apt answer to Sailaja's unkind assumption at the beginning of Sagara Sangamam (1983) isn't diminished by the fact that he is sweating, probably alcohol, out of his shirt. His raised eyebrow when he asks her to name the dance form still exudes swag, despite his circumstances and demeanour. The thing with art, Viswanath suggests, is once you have it, you have to forever.

He also had a knack for detailing when it came to his characters; even small additions or changes make them well-rounded and real. Like the conversations between the sisters in Subhalekha, where one wears the other's glasses. Or how Jayapradha in Sagara Sangamam looks like a flower, but she bites her nails in an off-putting and, ultimately, human way. My favourite moment, though, is in Swayamkrushi (1987) when Vijayashanti's character finds out about a bank giving loans to small businesses, and she runs to tell Sambayya about it. But before she reaches him, she stops to inform a fruit seller about the same. She doesn't need to do that, but because she does, we know that she might be in love with Sambayya, but she is kind to everyone.

'Vevela Gopemmala' from Sagara Sangamam has Viswanath coming together with two other greats - Veturi and Ilaiyaraaja. Balu calls it a pious song deserving of thoughtful choreography. The people in charge disagree, which is how we get a song parodying the tradition of a couple gyrating around each other. Siamese twins, if they are attached by the buttocks. It is fun to watch both awkwardly get over-suggestive with their bodies; they even try to choke each other at one point. But at the song's end, we are back to Balu and his angst. We get a great song, a few laughs, and see Kamal shift from slapstick to earnest with his dance, and we never digress from the plot. His social commentary and his love for classical art are things that can be learned and borrowed, but his deft hand that manoeuvres all these threads into a single tapestry of cohesive beauty belongs to him alone.

Sankeertana is an engineer who took a few years to realise that bringing together two lovely things, movies and writing, is as great as it sounds. Mainly writes about Telugu cinema because no one else would.

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