The director has given hits like 'Shankarabaranam' and 'Sagara Sangamam'.

Blending entertainment with social messaging in Telugu blockbusters the K Viswanath wayScreengrab
Flix Tollywood Monday, May 01, 2017 - 18:20

The Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour in Indian cinema has always been a cherished goal for film personalities as it is the ultimate recognition for their contribution to the industry. 

Telugu director K Viswanath, who entered the industry as an audiographer and has directed over fifty films mainly in his mother tongue in a span of over five decades, has been chosen for the award for the year 2016 and has joined an august list which includes the likes of veterans Nageswara Rao, Nagi Reddy, Rama Naidu, Sivaji Ganesan and K Balachander. 

The octogenarian, however, is renowned only for a handful of his films and a majority of his works did not elicit much response from the audience or the critics. The director, who first wielded the megaphone for ‘Aatma Gauravam’, shot into prominence with films like ‘ Siri Siri Muvva’, ‘Shankarabharanam’, ‘Sagara Sangamam’, ‘Swati Muthyam’, ‘Swarnakamalam’, and ‘Sri Vennela’ - all of which centered around social themes and were enriched largely by musical scores rendered by maestros like K V Mahadevan and Ilaiyaraaja. 

While his earliest works went unrecognised, it was with the song and dance film ‘Siri Siri Muvva’ (1976 ) starring actors Chandra Mohan and Jayaprada (later remade in Hindi as ‘Sargam’ with Rishi Kapoor and Jayaprada) that Viswanath first struck a rapport with the audience. The film was an out and out commercial entertainer. He then had a three year wait before he again came into the reckoning with ‘Sankarabharanam’ often hailed by critics as his best work to date.

The film highlighted the glory of classical music and dance as opposed to the western style and also narrated the story of an abiding friendship between a classical vocalist and a Kuchipudi dancer belonging to a lower caste.  The major plus of the film was the musical score by veteran K V Mahadevan who made a bold decision to pick an up and coming singer S P Balasubramaniam who had no formal training in classical music to render all the numbers.

The singer rose to the occasion in splendid fashion with able support from Vani Jairam and S Janaki.  The lead stars Somayajulu as the vocalist and Manju Bhargavi as the dancer, too, chipped in with memorable performances.

At several points, the film meandered along with the comedy track falling flat and apart from the music and the lyrics penned by Venturi, the cinematography by Balu Mahendra too propped up the film a great deal.  The film won National Awards for the music director, K V Mahadevan, the playback singers SPB and Vani Jairam and also the award for Most Popular Film providing Wholesome Entertainment. 

The director made a bid to explore the latent talents of the disabled in ‘Srivennela’ in which he cast Sarvadaman Banerjee as a blind flutist and Suhasini as a mute painter who aids him to find his true calling in life.

Viswanath also directed films like ‘Sapthapadi’ where the theme was inter caste marriage and untouchability and the trials and tribulations of a couple who tie the knot though belonging to different castes. Viswanath has always been fortunate to have established actors like Kamal Haasan and Chiranjeevi in his films and Kamal was clearly the mainstay of his directorial efforts like ‘Sagara Sangamam’ and ‘Swati Muthyam’ with the director’s old faithful Jayaprada in the former film and Radhika in the latter also pulling in their weight.

In ‘Sagara Sangamam’ again, Viswanath could score a hit largely due to the musical genius of composer Ilaiyaraja which not only set the tempo for the film but also lifted the proceedings to an appreciable level. While ‘Sagara Sangamam’ explored the relationship between a depressed, aging dance teacher who had taken to the bottle and a famous dancer whom he dares to critique much to her annoyance, ‘Swati Muthyam’ was about an autism patient who finds a kindred spirit in a young widow, whom he eventually marries. Swati Muthyam’ was India’s official entry for the Oscar Awards for the Best Foreign Film that year.

Kamal and Viswanath again came together for the S P Balasubramaniam produced ‘Shubhasankalpam’ where Viswanath also featured in a pivotal role as an actor.

This film was salvaged by the lilting music of M M Keeravani with SPB, his sister Shailaja and K S Chitra coming up with some soulful numbers.  Matinee idol Chiranjeevi who turned to director Balachander to fulfill his craving for meaty roles and landed one in ‘Rudraveena’, worked with Viswanath in three films. All of them featured the actor, mainly seen in commercial potboilers, in varied roles where he could show his mettle. 

The films which met with varying degrees of success were ‘Subhalekha’, 'Swayam Krushi’ and ‘Abathpandavudu’  While ‘Subhalekha’ tackled the menace of the dowry system, ‘Swayam Krushi’ extolled the virtues of manual labour. The director’s first foray into Bollywood was with ‘Sargam’ the remake of his Telugu hit ‘Siri Siri Muvva’. The film turned out to be highly melodramatic with Rishi Kapoor making a hash of the role essayed very convincingly by Chandramohan in the original. The strong point of the film was the music.

A number of films like ‘Kaamchor’ ‘Shub Kaamna’ ‘Jaag Uktha Insaan’ ‘Sur Sangam’ Sanjog’ ‘Eashwar’ (remake of Swati Muthyam), ‘Sangeet’ and ‘Dhanwaan’ followed but like the famous Tamil director Balachander whose only success on the Hindi screen was the remake of his Telugu blockbuster ‘Maro Charitra’ ‘Ek Du Je Keliye’, Viswanath too hardly created a ripple in Bollywood. He was clearly all at sea though he had a good star cast to support him in some of the films.

The director whose last film was released  in 2010 had acted in a few of his Telugu films but has also been impressive on the Tamil screen in character roles in films like the Dhanush starrer ‘Yaaradi Nee Mohini’ where he played the role of an aging patriarch in a feudal household. The winner of five National Awards, Viswanath has, right through his long career revealed a penchant for blending parallel cinema with the mainstream and has been by and large successful in his efforts.

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