Madhu has cranked the camera for films in nine different Indian languages and has also been a part of Hollywood films.
  • Sunday, October 14, 2018 - 17:07

Armed with a degree in Physics, a young Madhu Ambat had two options in front of him. He had secured admission in IIT where he could pursue a career in engineering. He had also gained admission to the prestigious Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune that offers multifarious courses related to cinema. A yen for cinematography saw him plump for the latter, a decision that he has never had to rue till date.

Madhu passed out of FTII with a Gold Medal and in 1973, bagged his first assignment, a documentary on ‘Industrial Estates’ directed by Ramu Kariat of Chemmeen fame. In over four and a half decades, Madhu has cranked the camera for an incredible 250 films, his milestone film being Pani in Malayalam. He is perhaps the only cinematographer in Indian films who has worked in nine different languages and has also been a part of Hollywood films directed by Manoj Night Shyamalan (Praying with Anger) and Jagmohan Mundhra (Provoked). Madhu’s first full-fledged film was in Malayalam, titled Love Letter released in 1974. He then forged a partnership with another up and coming cinematographer, Shaji N Karun, and the duo worked together in three films before branching out separately.

A marked feature of Madhu Ambat’s career has been his penchant to work in films made by offbeat directors whose work signalled a clear departure from the traditional auteurs who concentrate more on the entertainment angle. Even after establishing himself and earning plaudits for his camera work he has never shied away from films made by first-time directors. In fact, his 250th film Pani is helmed by debutant Santosh Mandoor. A major chunk of Madhu’s work has revolved around Malayalam cinema and here too he has worked with established professional directors and the younger lot as well. The cinematographer cherishes his association with one of Mollywood’s most acclaimed directors, KS Sethumadhavan, with whom he worked in films like Oppol, starring Balan K Nair and Menaka, and the Tamil film Nammavar with Kamal Haasan in the lead.

The late Bharathan was another director who placed a lot of faith in Madhu and their collaboration in films like Amaram, Vaishali, Sandhya Mayangum Neram and Padheyam, among others, turned these movies into aesthetic and visual treats. Particularly haunting were the visuals in the period film Vaishali shot at lush outdoor locales. The talents of Bharathan, who was also an accomplished art director, and Madhu fused admirably to turn the film into a panoramic delight for viewers.

Lenin Rajendran was another filmmaker who rarely looked beyond Madhu while scouting for a cinematographer. Some of their outstanding works include inter alia films like Swathithirunaal and Makaramanju. Incidentally Makaramanju, based on the legendary painter king Raja Ravi Varma, featured one of Madhu’s illustrious contemporaries, Santosh Sivan, in the role of the protagonist. Other discerning directors with whom Madhu has been associated in his long and fruitful innings were KR Mohanan (Purushartham), Rajeev Nath (Sooryante Maranam) and Pavithran (Aaro Oral).

First-time director Salim Ahamed too had Madhu wielding the camera for Aadaminte Magan Abu, a poignant film that narrated the story of an aging, poor Muslim yearning to fulfil his dream of going on the Haj. The focus here was on highlighting the pathos of the central character and Madhu’s frames conveyed the angst to perfection. Madhu Ambat’s third National Award for Best Cinematography came to him for this film. The director-cameraman team came together again for the Mammootty starrer Pathemari.

Although his exposure to Kannada cinema was limited, Madhu had the opportunity of working with some of the finest directors in Sandalwood. The late acclaimed director GV Iyer placed considerable faith in Madhu and their combination resulted in some of Iyer’s finest films on celluloid. Adi Shankaracharya (Sanskrit), Kudure Motte, Madhvacharya Bhagwad Gita (Sanskrit) and Swami Vivekananda, all helmed by Iyer had some fascinating lenswork from Madhu. In fact, Madhu’s first National Award was for Adi Shankaracharya. As the ace cameraman confessed to this writer once, shooting for Iyer’s films was extremely tough as comfort was the last thing on the director’s mind, especially during outdoor shoots.

Another Kannada director for whom Madhu had high regard was the late Prema Karanth with whom he did Phaniyamma. Multiple National Award winner Girish Kasaravalli too roped him in for Tabarane Kathe, a film based on a novel by the late Poornachandra Tejaswi. This film again was an emotion-laden human drama with a great deal of pathos woven into the script. A national award winning portrayal by Charuhasan was the highlight of the film and Madhu’s contribution with the camera too won him accolades.

Madhu Ambat won his second National Award for the film Sringaram, directed by debutant Sharada Ramanathan, which depicted the life of Devadasis during the 1920s. Other notable films that provided Madhu an opportunity to showcase his talents were Amodini, a Bengali film directed by the well-known literary critic and father of actor-film maker Aparna Sen, Chidananda Dasgupta, Sai Paranjape’s Disha, Mani Ratnam’s Anjali and Mohan Sharma’s Namma Gramam. Madhu has also directed a film 1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love.

The cinematographer who turns 70 next March remains wedded to the silver screen and we hope he continues to work with filmmakers who can add new dimensions to cinema with their novel themes and ideas.

Also read: Freedom and the confidence to face anything: Why these Indian women travel solo

From Kasturi Siva Rao in the silent cinema days to recent entrants like Vennela Kishore and Priyadarshi, a list of Tollywood’s popular entertainers.
  • Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 15:55

Comedy has been an integral part of Indian cinema right from the time the first talkie hit the screens and comedians have always been in great demand in south Indian cinema as well. Comedy of course is a serious business and unless one really has the talent and flair for it success could well prove elusive.

Tollywood has had a long tryst with comedy and a name like Kasturi Siva Rao was popular among the audiences even during the silent cinema days. The early 50s witnessed the emergence of the talented comedian Relangi Venkata Ramaiah who in tandem with another funster Ramana Reddy earned name and fame by portraying comic roles. They were also referred as the Laurel and Hardy of Telugu cinema with the rather portly Relangi earning the sobriquet Oliver Hardy and the thin Ramana Reddy hailed as Stan Laurel. Films like Gunasundari, Missamma and Maya Bazaar, which starred the duo, were huge hits with their comic interludes contributing greatly to the success.

Another pair that rocked Telugu cinema in the 60s and 70s and added new dimensions to Telugu film comedy was Allu Ramalingaiah (Chiranjeevi’s father-in-law) and Padmanabham. They too captivated audiences with their brand of comedy and had separate tracks written for them. Raja Babu, famous for his quirky mannerisms, dressing style and dialogue delivery, ruled the roost in Tollywood for quite some time and producers queued up to sign him for their films. Later he went on to turn hero and his fans appreciated his performances, though with his facial contortions he was always seemed a little over the top. Raja Babu also went on to produce and direct films before his untimely death at the age of 45.

The stocky Babu Mohan and Kota Srinivasa Rao, the latter seen as a scheming villain in Kollywood, also made the rounds of Telugu cinema as a comic pair and a few films featuring them were well-received. Two other actors who also started their careers as comedians but later drifted to playing hero roles were Rajendra Prasad and Sunil Varma. Both of them had excellent timing sense and even after turning heroes, producers often cast them in social comedies revolving around family themes.

MS Narayana was another comedian who struck a good rapport with audiences. But the actor who has epitomised comedy in Tollywood for well over three decades is undoubtedly Brahmanandam. He made his debut in 1985 courtesy director Jandhyala and has had an uninterrupted run with well over a thousand films to his credit. The former Telugu lecturer first gave glimpses of his talent in Rama Naidu’s Aha Naa Pellanta and went on to become a household name in no time. His set of stock mannerisms and facial expressions notwithstanding, Brahmanandam has been able to invest his roles with elan and flourish with his unique style of dialogue delivery.

Money, Anna, Anaganaga Oka Roju, Vinodham, Ready, Boss, Hitler, Race Gurram, Manmadhudu, Koncham Ishtam Koncham Kashtam, Dookudu and Baadshah are a few films that banked heavily on Brahmanandam to deliver the goods. The role of Khan Dada in the film Money is easily one of his best so far. In collaboration with fellow comedian Ali too, Brahmanandam’s comedy tracks have been outstanding. The actor’s cameos in Tamil films like Mozhi and Saroja were impressive. Of late, however, a few of his films have crashed at the box office raising speculation that the ace comedian might be losing his Midas touch. The industry nevertheless can hardly give him short shrift considering his immense popularity with audiences of all ages.

Ali, an illustrious contemporary of Brahmanandam, started out as a child actor. He too has been extremely prolific and directors like Krishna Reddy, Puri Jagannath and actor Pawan Kalyan have cast him in almost all their films. Generally cast as a friend of the hero, Ali has always found enough scope to mouth his one-liners and punch lines to good effect. His comic flair was to the fore in films like Super (Kannada), Race Gurram, S/O Sathyamurthy, Gabbar Singh, Amma Nanna O Tamil Ammayi and Narasimha Raju. The actor continues to be in great demand and has a packed calendar ahead of him.

Although not in the same league as Brahmanandam or even Ali, mimicry artist turned comedian Venu Madhav too has the capacity to raise a good laugh. Films like Master, Tholi Prema and Hungama provided him an opportunity to prove his talent. These days, however, the comedian has turned choosy and has been in hibernation having turned down roles that required him to indulge in low brow comedy laced with double entendre. But he has at least three films awaiting release. Among other comedians who are in the reckoning are Jayaprakash Reddy, Raghu Babu, Prudhvi Raj and Allari Naresh and a few recent entrants like Vennela Kishore, Priyadarshi and Shakalaka Shankar.

Comediennes, however, have always been in short supply. While Tamil cinema’s greatest comedienne Manorama has done Telugu films, it was the likes of actors Geetanjali, Sri Lakshmi and Ramaprabha who were considered for comedy characters, which at times were reduced to blink-and-you-miss roles. Kovai Sarala, another Kollywood veteran, and young Vidya Raman are now in demand for comedy roles and they have been acquitting themselves well.

Comedy films have been doing fairly well in Tollywood, if the success of some of the recent films are any indication. But there is plenty of room for improvement where this genre is concerned.

Also read: ‘Nannu Dochukunduvate’ review: A love story that promises much but delivers little

The two directors have only a handful of films to their credit but they have created a space for themselves in the industry.
  • Saturday, September 01, 2018 - 14:58

There is hardly any dearth in numbers as far as the release of Tamil films is concerned, only a handful of films have impacted the box office while the others have returned to the cans in record time.

But, the silver lining is that the industry now boasts of a number of young filmmakers who can be counted on to hold the banner of Tamil cinema aloft in the coming days. Themes considered taboo are being tackled with gusto, and audiences which were lulled into a soporific slumber by the monotonous fare now have something to cheer for.

Two directors who have already made a name for themselves though they have helmed only a handful of films are Vetri Maaran and Pa Ranjith. To the former, goes the credit of bagging the prestigious National Award for Best Director for his second film Aadukalam. Ranjith is not far behind - when he was just two films old, he managed to get back to back assignments to direct Rajinikanth starrers, something that directors would give their right arm for.

But what is refreshing about these auteurs and others like them is that they are not too wary of the box office and are prepared to swerve from the beaten track to tackle fresh and novel themes.

Vetri Maaran, a protégé of the late cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra, commenced his innings with a regular commercial film Polladhavan, a title borrowed from an yesteryear starrer of Rajinikanth. With Dhanush as the hero, the film had little to commend it as it more or less revolved around stunts and romance with the vivacious Divya Spandana paired opposite the hero. The director hardly gave any glimpses of his craft in the film, which however had a good box office run.

However, it was his second directorial venture Aadukalam again with Dhanush in the lead role that won plenty of critical acclaim and a bagful of awards that marked out the young director as a talent to watch out for. Set in a village where cock fights are common, Aadukalam mirrored life in the raw with flaring passions, gang wars over roosters, enmity between different sects etc forming the leitmotif.

A petite Tapsee Pannu was roped in to play the female lead. With excellent choreography by Dinesh and riveting music by GV Prakash Kumar, the film had everything going for it. But where Vetri Maaran scored was in fleshing out his characters with Dhanush, Naren and Jayabalan all perfectly cast in tailormade roles, A taut screenplay and pithy dialogues too added plenty of pep to the film. A rich haul of National Awards came the film’s way and the box office collections too were heartening, considering the fact that the film was made on a shoestring budget.

But arguably, the best film by Vetri Maaran was the hard hitting Visaranai, India’s entry to the Oscar Awards. It was based on an autobiographical novel Lock Up by Auto Chandran. The film, which dealt with custodial violence, had a surfeit of blood, and gore. So much so, that Dinesh, who was incidentally introduced by Ranjith in Attakathi and played the lead role in Visaranai, confessed that he would get nightmares recollecting the graphic violence in the film.

Visaranai elicited mixed reviews, but critics also lauded the director for not chickening out in depicting the sordid sequence of events where police use extreme third degree tactics to extract confessions from innocents. Vetri Maaran, who has floated his own production unit, has also produced films like Kaaka Muttai and Kodi, with Dhanush as a co-producer. His next film, too, has Dhanush leading the cast and Vada Chennai is touted to be a movie based on gang wars in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to his Dhanush fixation, Vetri Maaran is yet to make films with other A lister heroes. 

Pa Ranjith debuted with a romantic comedy Attakathi, but it was with the political film Madras that he won his spurs as a director. Madras, in which Kaarthi played the lead, dealt with depression and unemployment among the youth. The film had a political slant and the symbolism was apparent as the story unfolds around a giant hoarding of a politician on a wall that leads to intrigue and murder.

Ranjith shot to further fame with the two films that he made with superstar Rajinikanth.. Directing superstars, however, has its pluses and minuses and while it can assure a good outing at the box office, the director has to finetune his script keeping the superstar’s image in mind. This would leave him little elbow room to maneouvre. But that did not unnerve Ranjith who not only turned Kabali into a hit, but also bagged Rajini’s next film Kaala.

Kabali, extensively shot in Malaysia, pleased the superstar’s fans with the director affording Rajinikanth free rein to showcase his mannerisms, flex his muscles etc, while putting forth his brand of politics. In Kaala, it was the director and scriptwriter Ranjith who stole the show. Kabali, the story of a don who goes in search of his family after serving a stiff jail term, was also written by Ranjith but Rajini’s overpowering aura was the piece de resistance of the film.

Kaala, set in Asia’s biggest slum - Mumbai’s Dharavi -  dealt with the displacement of have-nots from their homes by land sharks. With a theme revolving around oppression and anti-caste politics, Ranjith’s fiery dialogues were the mainstay and even the star’s charisma had to take a backseat. While Ranjith is not keen on being labeled as a Dalit filmmaker, caste inequalities have always been part of his films. The grapevine has it that Ranjith is all set to do a web series on the late actor Silk Smitha.

Ironically, despite their success, both Vetri Maaran and Ranjith have not found the sailing smooth so far in their careers. Vetri Maaran, especially, has had producers play ducks and drakes with him and stars too have opted out of his films at times. But the future augurs well for both the filmmakers, as they have the courage of their convictions and the innate ability to tell a story the way it should be told.

The actor, whose centenary is being observed this year, worked in 162 films, 109 in Telugu and 53 in Tamil, in a career spanning nearly 3 decades.
  • Sunday, August 05, 2018 - 15:11
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A towering personality with an electrifying screen presence, SV Ranga Rao who acted mostly in Telugu and Tamil films was ranked on par with the superstars of the 1950s, 60s and 70s such as NT Rama Rao, Nageswara Rao, MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan.

The actor, whose centenary is being observed this year, worked in a total of 162 films, 109 in his mother tongue Telugu and 53 in Tamil, in a career spanning nearly three decades before his untimely demise at the age of 56.

Ranga Rao was the only actor apart from the legendary NT Rama Rao who remained an automatic choice for Telugu filmmakers for mythologicals which were a rage in those times. But even NTR was no match for Ranga Rao in terms of the sheer range of characters that he portrayed on the screen.

NTR, of course, was the ultimate actor when it came to playing Lord Krishna as films like the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Karnan would testify. But Ranga Rao played Akbar, Bhishma, Duryodhana, Yama, Ravana, Ghatotkacha, Kamsa and Keechaka, and what really propped him up as an actor par excellence was that he performed all these roles with effortless ease. For one, his height and physique suited all these larger-than-life roles and when it came to voice modulation, Ranga Rao was peerless. Even though some of these characters had to be essayed in a loud, over-the-top manner, the audience never got an inkling that he was going overboard with his acting.

Ranga Rao had landed a job after completing his education but also had a penchant for acting. His first outing Varoodhini, however, tanked and this took a toll on the actor’s morale. But the film Mana Desam where he acted with NTR with the legendary singer composer Ghantasala scoring the music convinced him that with a little patience he could still make the grade.

It was the role of the scheming tantric Nepala Manthrudu in Patala Bhairavi that brought Ranga Rao to the centre stage and proved to be the launchpad for his career. The film turned out to be a runaway hit and Rao’s performance was acclaimed though NTR as the hero hogged most of the frames. But the film that fetched him laurels, that too at an Afro-Asian Festival held in Indonesia, was Narthanasala. Ranga Rao was cast in the role of Keechaka and the actor used his deep, bass voice to great advantage while delivering the lengthy dialogues, bowling the award jury over.

The role of the glutton Ghatotkacha in the film Maya Bazaar also endeared him to children and the song ‘Kalyana Samayal Sadham’ sung in the Tamil version by Tiruchi Loganathan became one of the biggest hits of the year. When the epic Ramayana was made on celluloid as Sampoorna Ramayanam, Ranga Rao was the ideal choice for the role of Ravana, the antagonist in the film. One of the highlights of the film was a lengthy monologue by Ravana and Rao’s baritone voice and his style of dialogue delivery were to the fore.

Rao was also impressive as Duryodhana in the film Pandava Vanavasam as well. Two other memorable characters that the thespian enacted that charmed audiences were those of Yama in Sati Savithri and Hirankyakashipu in Bhakta Prahlada.

Ranga Rao was also prolific in social dramas that came alive on the screen. Unlike the fiery characters that he portrayed in mythologicals he was much more sober in films in various other genres. The eternal do-gooder, the village elder, the compassionate, long suffering family patriarch, a doting elder brother, a caring father-in-law were all characters that he played with consummate ease.

Tamil cinema exploited his histrionic talent to the optimum by utilising him in films like Missiamma, Annai, Naanum Oru Penn, Karpagam, Kai Kodutha Deivam, Vidivelli, Parthiban Kanavu, Padikkatha Medhai, Thaikku Thalaimagan, Enga Veetu Pillai and others. He always had well-defined roles in films where the two titans of Tamil cinema, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, played the hero. One of his rare appearances as villain was in MGR’s Nam Naadu.

In Telugu too Ranga Rao starred in many memorable films, including Aathma Bandhuvu, where he played a rich landlord, and Thatha Manavadu, in which he was cast as a daily wage labourer. A frothy comedy with an illustrious contemporary Nagabhushan, Andaru Dongale (remake of the Hindi laugh riot Victoria No. 203 starring Ashok Kumar and Pran) amply proved that Ranga Rao could sparkle in humorous roles as well. Rao later turned producer and director with films like Chadarangam and Bandhavyalu.

Ranga Rao was one of the earliest to be hailed as a ‘method’ actor and a substandard performance from him was simply out of the question. Rated as one of the most dignified and cooperative stars, he was held in high regard by the acting fraternity. He was one of the earliest stars to feature in commercials and his ad for a popular cigarette brand of a foregone era, Berkeley, was extremely popular.

A self-taught actor who rose to great heights, Ranga Rao was always an endearing presence on the silver screen. He was conferred the title ‘Viswa Nata Chakravarthy’ in recognition of his versatile acting talent.

Also read: From 'Godavari' to 'Chi La Sow': Telugu rom-coms you should not miss

These stars have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised throughout their careers.
  • Tuesday, July 03, 2018 - 14:42

In the Malayalam film industry, only the so-called upper crust of actors have always remained in the limelight. Also, the industry has always adopted different yardsticks for its male and women actors. Over the years, however, there is a long list of unsung stars who have made handsome contributions but have remained unrecognised right through their careers.

Chemmeen, directed by Ramu Kariat, won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Film in 1965 at the National Awards. The film could qualify as one of the earliest multi-starrers with most industry folk landing roles in it thanks to its wide canvas. Two characters in this epic novel by Jnanpith Award winning writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai were those of Chemban Kunju and his wife Chakki Marakkaiyi. Kariat chose veterans Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair and Adoor Bhavani for the roles and they turned in superlative performances. But the portrayals by these two actors remained unheralded. Incidentally Sreedharan Nair’s son Saikumar remains one of the most popular villains in Malayalam cinema and also excels in character roles.

One of Mollywood’s mainstays where story and scriptwriting is concerned has been another Jnanpith awardee MT Vasudevan Nair, who has also directed well-known films such as Nirmalyam (1973) and Oru Chiru Punchiri (2000). In Nirmalyam, theatre artiste PJ Anthony, from whom the late Thilakan picked up his craft, was cast in the main role of a velichapad (oracle). The most riveting sequence in the film was the climax.

Sword in hand, the character approaches the idol of the goddess who had failed him and his family. With great deliberation he draws the sword across his forehead and begins to bleed profusely. Gathering spittle in his mouth he spews it in a blob mingled with his blood at the deity, collapses in a heap and dies. One wonders whether a scene like this can get past the censors in today’s India. Antony won the National Award for Best Actor that year. He revealed his angst at the raw deal that he had been receiving at the hands of the industry in his acceptance speech.

Another actor who could have been utilised much better was the late Premji, who enacted the role of Professor Eachera Warrier, the grief-stricken father of student Rajan, a victim of the Emergency in Piravi (1989). The directorial debut of cinematographer Shaji N Karun, it fetched Premji a National Award but the publicity remained low-key.

One actor whose long career witnessed several highs and lows was undoubtedly Thilakan, who had to serve an unofficial ban after some industry bigwigs took offence at some remarks he made. There was a time when Thilakan, who began with small, insignificant roles in films, had become indispensable. And rightly so, for very few of his contemporaries could hold a candle to him where portrayals of diverse characters were concerned.

Can one imagine films like Rithubhedam, Mookilla Rajyathu or Spadikam without Thilakan? Directors like Vinayan who too had to face the industry’s wrath on various occasions ensured that Thilakan remained a part of all his films. Director Ranjith, who cast Thilakan as Dulquer Salmaan’s grandfather in his film Ustad Hotel, when questioned on opting for the actor reportedly stood up to the actor’s detractors and demanded that they produce a better actor than Thilakan for the role he had in mind.

Thilakan’s contemporaries including the likes of the late Narendra Prasad, no mean actor himself, had the highest regard for him. Thilakan’s departure from the scene has left a void that is yet to be filled.

Among underrated actors in Malayalam cinema, the comedians deserve a notable mention. One of the most successful comedians was Jagathy Sreekumar, who was seriously injured in a car accident in 2012 and still remains out of action eight years later. Jagathy was always a delight to watch on screen and, in tandem with actors like Innocent, could bring the roof down with their antics. The laugh riot Kabooliwala, which featured the duo, still remains green in memory.

Two comedians who nailed the lie that comics in Malayalam films were good only at slapstick and buffoonery were Salim Kumar and Suraj Venjaramoodu, both National Award winners. Salim won his award for Adaminte Makan Abu, a moving film about a poor man who yearns to go on the Haj against heavy odds. His role in Achanurangatha Veedu as an anguished father whose daughter is trafficked and raped was no less memorable. Suraj proved that he could deliver in serious roles with the Dr Biju directed Perariyathavar, which fetched him several awards including the National Award. Cast as a municipal sweeper, Suraj simply lived the role. In more recent times he did a wonderful job in Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. Such roles have, however, been few and far in between and with the films failing to cut ice with the masses it is back to square one for these fine actors.

Siddique (not to be mistaken for the reputed director of the same name) is another actor who has been around for over three decades but is yet to make it to the top bracket. There is hardly any kind of role that Siddique has not done; in some films he has even donned multiple disguises. Like another star who now does character roles after playing the hero for decades, Nedumudi Venu who remains an inevitable part of most films, Siddique too has never had a dearth of assignments. But where star ratings are concerned, Siddique has never been able to rise to the heights of his contemporaries like Mammootty or Mohanlal though he has been an integral part of most of their films.

Script and screenplay specialist, actor, director and producer Sreenivasan is another star performer who has given the industry several hits in all capacities. Although his forte has remained the comedy genre, Sreenivasan has also played the hero with aplomb. Films like Sandesham and Mazhayethum Munpe fetched him state awards for Best Screenplay. Sreeni’s son Vineet has now established himself as a singer, actor and director as well and his other son Dhyaan too has followed in his father and brother’s footsteps.

It is only in recent times that heroine oriented films have caught on in Mollywood thanks largely to the ability of actors like Manju Warrier, Rima Kallingal and Parvathi Thiruvoth to carry a film on their shoulders. Sharada, a brilliant two-time National Award winning actor, remained in the shadow of superstars like Sathyan and Prem Nazir. It was the late cinematographer-director Vincent who cast her in a woman-oriented film, Thulabharam.

Sukumari, a gifted dancer and actor, cousin of the famous Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, and director Bharathan’s wife, and KPAC Lalitha, a versatile actor in her own right, are two stars who remained in the periphery right through their long careers.

Seema was not director IV Sasi’s first choice for his bold, pathbreaking film Avalude Ravukal. The story of a woman who turns sex worker was pitched to many heroines but Sasi drew a blank as not only was the subject taboo but there were quite a few risqué scenes as well. The film became a blockbuster and Seema was flooded with roles. The one-time background dancer in films would later prove her mettle in the MT Vasudevan Nair scripted Aaroodam, directed again by Sasi, whom she married. Sasi’s Aalkkoottathil Thaniye was another film in which she delivered a stunning performance. Seema later faded away and was last seen in Tamil TV serials.

The petite Jalaja too was another dignified performer in the 1970s and 80s. Introduced by the late Aravindan in Thampu, Jalaja went on to work with ace directors like Lenin Rajendran in Venal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Elippathayam.

The Malayalam film industry boasts of some of the finest acting talent in Indian cinema. But Dame Luck smiles only on a few of them. But the rest, far from being disheartened, have always laboured with sincerity and devotion to their craft. And their contribution to the industry’s growth has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Also read: Her story: 12 Malayalam films where women characters have their own arc

What is gratifying about the music scene in Kollywood is that with production of films on the rise there is enough work for every music director.
  • Tuesday, June 05, 2018 - 15:46

Music has been an integral part of cinema ever since the first talkie hit the screens. There have been films without songs but a film without background music is an unheard of concept.

Tamil cinema has always placed great emphasis on music and has been well served by excellent music directors right from its early days. Music directors like CR Subburaman, G Ramanathan, SM Subbayya Naidu came up with brilliant scores. Actor-singers like MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, SG Kittappa, PU Chinnappa and NS Krishnan became household names for their full-throated rendering of songs written by the poet laureates of the time.

But the first superstars in Tamil film music were the immensely talented duo, MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy, known widely as Mellisai Mannargal (Monarchs of Light Music). MSV-TKR, poet and lyricist Kannadasan along with singers TM Soundararajan, P Susheela, PB Srinivas, Seerkazhi Govindarajan and S Janaki enthralled a whole generation of music lovers. Almost all the songs in their films turned out to be chart toppers. The duo, however, split and MSV branched out on his own and proved his mettle in such blockbusters as Sivaji’s Sivantha Mann and MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.

Equally popular was KV Mahadevan, who was inevitably the first choice for mythological films. His scores in Kandan Karunai and Thiruvilayadal embellished the films a great deal. But his crowning achievement was Sankarabharanam, the story of a classical singer and a danseuse, directed by K Viswanath. To the dismay of classical music connoisseurs, KVM roped in SP Balasubramanian to render all the numbers. With Carnatic music stalwarts like Balamuralikrishna and Yesudas available, this was a clear gamble as SPB had no grounding in classical music. But it paid off in a big way and all the three National Awards for Music that year were bagged by KVM, SPB and Vani Jayaram.

The music directors who came later, like Shankar-Ganesh, were quite popular too and their music for MGR’s Idaya Veenai had some soulful melodies. ‘Thenisai Thenral’ Deva too had a good run and is credited for the introduction of a new genre in music, the ‘Gaana’. Even today Gaana songs are extremely popular and singers like ‘Gaana’ Ulaganathan and ‘Gaana’ Bala continue to be in demand.

The real revolution in Tamil film music, however, came with the 1976 film Annakili. Produced by Panchu Arunachalam, poet Kannadasan’s nephew and a lyricist in his own right, this film introduced to Tamil cinema, a shy, demure young man, Ilaiyaraaja. Annakili was a perfect launch pad for Raaja who later teamed up with Bharathiraaja in several films, right from the latter’s debut film Pathinaru Vayathinile. The music director, who had good exposure to Western music as well, regaled audiences with his background score for Bharathiraaja’s Sigappu Rojakkal, an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Their partnership ended after Bharathiraaja opted for AR Rahman for a couple of films.

Raaja’s association with the late cinematographer director Balu Mahendra was no less fruitful. Azhiyatha Kolangal, Moodu Pani and Moondram Pirai all had chart topping numbers. Balu never looked beyond Raaja and the fact was acknowledged by Raaja himself. Raaja’s association with Mani Ratnam too was an enduring one, beginning with Mani’s first film in Kannada Pallavi Anu Pallavi. Mouna Ragam, and Nayagan were a few of the films where the Mani-Raaja team worked wonders together.

The release of Roja in 1992 was like Annakili in 1976 – a real gamechanger in the musical firmament of Tamil cinema. Veteran director Balachander, the producer of the film, plumped for a 22-year-old newcomer, AR Rahman, till then a keyboard player for several music directors, including Ilaiyaraaja, and a creator of jingles.

The Mani Ratnam directed film had perhaps the best score ever in Tamil cinema. Though Rahman has worked in hundreds of films in various languages and also pocketed a couple of Oscars for the English film Slumdog Millionaire, his aficionados still opine that he has never surpassed his score for Roja.

Mani stuck with Rahman ever since and Rahman has always reserved his best for Mani, even scoring for his Hindi films like Dil Se and Guru. Rahman’s rapport with another director, Shankar, too began with the latter’s first film Gentleman and their combination has given the industry hits like Kadhalan, Jeans, Robot and so on. But with his commitments in Hindi and his international ventures, Rahman has been quite choosy about his projects.

Among other music directors who have been highly successful in Tamil films are Harris Jayaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raaja and D Imaan. Harris has given his best in films directed by Gautam Menon, such as Kakka Kakka, but a tiff with the director resulted in his losing out on films like Nee Thaane En Ponn Vasantham, where Ilaiyaraaja was assigned the job. Yuvan and Imaan have been extremely prolific and the quality of their work is reflected in their numbers finding acceptance from listeners from different walks of life.

Anirudh Ravichandar arrived with a bang in 3 and the number Why this Kolaveri Di, written and sung by the hero of the film Dhanush, became a rage with millions of online hits. Two composers, Vijay Antony and GV Prakash Kumar (Rahman’s nephew), have decided that donning the greasepaint and turning into heroes is a better proposition than wielding the baton. Antony, whose creation Nakka Mukka reached every nook and cranny of the state and outside as well, and Prakash, whose work in films like Adukalam was highly acclaimed, are no great shakes when it comes to histrionics and just ham their way through their films.

But the flavour of the season is none other than young composer Santhosh Narayan, who has been a permanent fixture in all movies directed by Ranjith, right from Ranjith’s debut Attakathi (2012). His background score for films like Pizza and Jigarthanda, directed by Karthik Subburaj, was noticed and appreciated. But the two Rajinikanth films directed by Ranjith, Kabali and the yet to be released Kaala, have shown him to be a force to be reckoned with. With films like Parayerum Perumal, Shaitan Ka Bachcha and Vada Chennai in his kitty, he is clearly sitting pretty.

What is gratifying as far as the music scene in Kollywood is concerned is that with production of films on the rise there is enough work for every music director. While the big guns like Rahman get the cream in the form of big budget films, the others too have multiple projects to work on. As far as talent goes, Tamil cinema has some of the finest composers, lyricists and musicians and they have the latest technology at their disposal as well.

Also read: From thundu to 'Kaala' sunglasses: Rajini's style props over the years

The characterisation of Gemini Ganesan, especially, has stirred a hornet's nest.
  • Thursday, May 24, 2018 - 15:11

The biopic Mahanati, which revolves around the life and times of actress Savitri who was a popular heroine in Telugu and Tamil cinema in the 50s and 60s, carries a caveat right at the beginning. It states that the film is a fictionalized account of the late actor's life.

This disclaimer absolves the makers with regard to the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the narration of the story, and in the depiction of the events in the life of the late star. But just as biographies often turn into hagiographies, biopics too can present a highly favourable picture of the protagonist, concealing warts if any and needlessly exaggerating hidden virtues while presenting other characters in a less than flattering light.

Apart from a fleeting reference to thespian Sivaji Ganesan with whom she starred in several films, mostly tearjerkers, her association with actors like MGR and even her husband Gemini Ganesan with whom she worked in a number of hits has been given the go by. She was equally popular in Tamil cinema as she was in Telugu and had a huge fan base in Tamil Nadu as well.

But what has stirred a hornet’s nest is the characterisation of the man who shaped her life and destiny from a very young age, Gemini Ganesan. The authorisation to make a film on Savitri was given by Savitri’s daughter Vijaya Chamundeswari, who also provided vivid insights into her mother’s life and career. While she has not noticed any flaws in the representation of her father Gemin Ganesan on screen, Gemini’s daughter by his first wife Alamelu (Bobji), Kamala Selvaraj, a leading doctor in Chennai has taken umbrage at the supposed raw deal meted out to Gemini.

Kamala is sore that in their overzealousness to put Savitri on a pedestal, they have allegedly denigrated Gemini. The late actor is alleged to have introduced Savitri to alcohol at a party and that eventually led to her lifelong affair with the bottle which ultimately took a heavy toll on her health and led her to an early grave. While this fact has been vouched for by those who were close to the actor, Kamala vehemently denies such a development.

The film has also chosen to overlook the agony suffered by Gemini’s first wife when the realisation dawned on her that Gemini had taken on a new and much younger wife. But Savitri’s angst on hearing about the actor’s infatuation with a contemporary, Pushpavalli (mother of Bollywood siren Rekha) has been well documented. Did Gemini desert Savitri and leave her to her fate or was it vice versa is another matter where the film has taken a contrarian stand.

This apart, Dulquer, the Malayalam actor and megastar Mammootty’s son who essays the character of Gemini is shown in a few frames as a jobless actor hanging around the sets where Savitri is shown as busily shooting for her films. This is in stark contrast to the real situation as Gemini was, right through his long and eventful career, a highly rated actor, third in the pecking order after MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. He also had a considerable fan following. As a matter of fact it was Savitri who struck a lean patch towards the fag end of her career when she began to pile on the pounds and her health took a beating with diabetes setting in. Only directors like the late Dasari Narayan Rao continued to cast her in their films but the spark had long gone out of her acting and her performances too began to suffer.

The first part of the film has detailed her advent into cinema, how she first met Gemini, then a manager in a studio and how she slowly worked her way up the ladder to fame and prosperity. She was by no means stylish or svelte like the actors of today but she had the innate ability to light up the screen with her nuanced portrayals. She was the ultimate tragedienne but was also adept at comedy. The film has highlighted all these features of the star in the early frames.

Savitri’s alcoholism was not the only factor that debilitated her and turned her into a physical and mental wreck. Like Gemini who had a nose for business and invested heavily in real estate, Savitri too took a leaf from his book and followed suit. But where she really put her foot wrong was in turning director and producer. She ignored the sane advice given by, among others, the famous scriptwriter of the time, Aroor Das, who was also a close confidant. She sunk a fortune into the films she produced only to end up on the verge of bankruptcy as her ventures turned into duds at the box office.

Generous to a fault she never turned down any request for money and this trait was often exploited by sycophants and hangers on who fleeced her. In the final analysis one can safely conclude that Mahanati is a biopic that blends fact and fiction. The makers have delved deep into the life of the star and have brought out the essence, highlighting her rise and fall in the process. But a dispassionate view of the roles played by all those associated with her at various phases of her life and her own failings is indeed conspicuous by its absence.

(Views expressed are author's own.)

'Bhayanakam' won three National Awards this year.
  • Wednesday, May 02, 2018 - 12:37
Facebook/Jayaraj Nair

Malayalam cinema has reaped a rich harvest at the National Awards for 2017 and three of those awards were won by the yet to be released film Bhayanakam.

 The awards were for Best Direction (Jayaraj), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jayaraj) and Best Cinematography (Nikhil S Praveen). For director Jayaraj who helmed his first film Vidyarambham in 1988 and is still going strong, this was his second National Award for Best Director. The first came way back in 1997 for the internationally acclaimed Kaliyattam starring then mainstream hero Suresh Gopi in the lead role.

Apart from several National Awards, Jayaraj's work has also won international honours at various film festivals. An engineering graduate, Jayaraj was drawn to films after being fascinated by classics like Akiro Kurosowa’s Rashomon and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Fortunately for the young man, he had as his neighbor one of Malayalam cinema’s most celebrated directors, Bharathan. Bharathan took Jayaraj under his wing and their first collaboration together was Chilambam.

Jayaraj assisted the veteran in six more films, including the lavishly mounted Vaishali. After getting his first break with Vidyarambham, Jayaraj went on to direct several films that did precious little to further his career. Most of them were commercial ventures like Aakasha Kottayile Sultan, Johnnie Walker, Highway, Arabia, Kudumbasameham etc. But the first film in which Jayaraj showed flashes of his brilliance was Desadanam, released in 1997.

The film which eschewed commercial ingredients in toto, narrated the story of a young boy all set to renounce material life and embrace the life of a sanyasi and the emotional churn in the lives of his parents who are loath to part with him. The film turned out to be a commercial success and also won the National Award for the Best Regional Film. But the film that created a greater impact was Kaliyattam, also released in 1997 an adaption of Shakespeare’s Othello.

The principal characters of Theyyam artistes were played by Suresh Gopi, Lal and Biju Menon, with Lal playing Iago to Gopi’s Othello and Manju Warrier, with her large expressive eyes was cast as Desdemona. Misled by Paniyan ( Lal), Kannan Perumalayan (Suresh Gopi) suspects his wife’s fidelity and slays her, only to realise later that she was innocent of his suspicions. Stung with remorse, Perumalyaan kills himself.

Jayaraj won the National Award for Best Director for the film and Suresh Gopi was adjudged the Best Actor. After flirting with comedy in Thilakkam, starring Dileep and Kavya Madhavan, Jayaraj again captivated audiences with his hard hitting film 4 The People, a story of four engineering college students who raise a banner of revolt against corruption. The major highlight of the film, however, was Jassie Gift’s music score with a few numbers turning into chartbusters. While 4 The People was a hit, the other two films which were part of the trilogy - By the People and Of the People turned out to be damp squibs.

Jayaraj embarked on a series of films, dubbing them as a ‘navarasa’ series and the culmination of the journey was Bhayanakam. The films were titled ShanthamKarunamBheebats (Hindi with Seema Biswas and Atul Kulkarni), Adhbudham, Veeram and Bhayanakam. Except Bhayanakam which is expected to hit the screens this month, all the other films were released commercially to varying degrees of success. 

Veeram, which had Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor in the lead, was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and was a period film set in 13th century Kerala. A painstaking effort by Jayaraj, his cast and technicians, the film which had Kerala’s celebrated martial arts discipline ‘kalari’ as a backdrop met with little success at the box-office.

Bhayanakam was based on a couple of chapters that were a part of Jnanpith winning author Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai’s epic novel Kayar. A simple film with a few characters, Bhayanakam is set in the days of World War II and the protagonist isa postman (Renji Panikkar) who delivers money orders from soldiers to their kin in a village in the pre-war days. With the outbreak of war, the same postman turns into an omen of death, carrying telegrams conveying tragic news of ultimate sacrifice on the war front and becomes a dreaded figure.

Among the oeuvres of this director who has always trodden his own path, was Naayika, the story of an actor. It had Urvashi Sharada in the role of a diva past her prime and Padmapriya as her younger version. Jayaram, as the evergreen hero of Malayalam cinema Prem Nazir, played his part to perfection, bringing to life the mannerisms of the star and his perfect diction as well. Naayika won critical acclaim but bombed at the box office.

But, perhaps the one film that should deserve a pole position among Jayaraj’s works was the much admired Ottaal, the plot of which he borrowed from the play Vaanka by the Russian playwright and author Anton Chekov. The film narrated the story of an emotional bond between a young orphan boy and his grandfather, with their simple joys and profound sorrows forming the nucleus. Brilliant acting by Ashank Sha as the young boy and Kumarokom Vasudevan (a fisherman in real life), as the grandfather, haunting visuals and Jayaraj’s deft directorial touches were the highlights of the film. Ottaal won all the major awards at the International Film Festival of Kerala and also the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The film also had the distinction of being the first Malayalam film to be released in the theatres and online simultaneously.

While Jayaraj has worked with superstar Mammootty in three films Johnnie Walker, Loudspeaker and The Train, he is yet to make a single film with the other reigning superstar Mohanlal. Jayaraj has plans to direct films based on the arts, Shringara, Roudram and Hasyam in the coming days. His greatest strength so far has been the discerning viewer and most of his films have catered to that segment of film aficionados.

ANR, Nagarjuna, Naga Chaitanya and Akhil Akkineni - how has each generation contributed to Telugu cinema?
  • Tuesday, April 24, 2018 - 14:25

In the sixties and for even a good part of the seventies, Madras (now Chennai) was the Mecca of south Indian cinema. Sprawling studios like Vauhini and AVM, recording theatres and labs were all situated in Madras. In those early days, when outdoor shoots were rare, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada filmmakers made a beeline to Madras to shoot their films. 

Two men - actor Nageswara Rao and producer D V S Raju - were instrumental in Telugu cinema shifting gradually to Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh. 

The thespian Nageswara Rao also founded Annapoorna Studios with state of the art facilities and slowly, Tollywood began to warm up to functioning in its own territory. The two superstars of the time, N T Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao, dominated Telugu cinema for several decades before handing over the baton to others, including their sons. Rama Rao’s son Balakrishna, and Nageswara Rao’s son Nagarjuna, along  with the likes of Chiranjeevi and Mohan Babu.

The Akkineni family is now in its third generation, as Nagarjuna’s sons Naga Chatianya and Akhil Akkineni continue to hold the family banner aloft.


Nageswara Rao faced a lot of challenges in the initial stages and was cast in women's roles in theatre before he began to be noticed by filmmakers. 

Biographies and mythologies  were a rage in those days and Nageswara Rao found his métier in performing vital roles in such films as Tenali Rama, Mahakavi Kalidasu, and Bhaktha Thukaram

He also landed the plum role of Abhimanyu in Maya Bazaaar, one of the biggest grossers at the box-office. Rao further essayed the characters of Mahavishnu and Arjuna as well. His ability to emote and deliver lengthy dialogues stood him in good stead and he added several notches to his popularity as a mass hero. 

However, the role that really brought him into the limelight was that of Devdas in a  bilingual film of the same name, (Devadasu) released in 1953 and based on a story by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya. 

The role of a besotted alcoholic was performed with panache by the actor and it was reported that Dilip Kumar, who acted in the Hindi version of the film lauded Nageswara Rao’s performance, rating it above his own portrayal of the role. 

With the slow fade out of mythological roles, Rao drifted towards social themes and here too, he tasted a great deal of success with hits like Prem Nagar, Premabhishekam, Megasandesham, Dharma Daata etc. The Nageswara Rao – Dasari Narayana Rao combination proved to be a formidable one and Dasari’s film Premabhishekam not only broke several box office records but also ran for more than a year in theatres across the state. 

Nageswara Rao donned dual roles in films like Iddaru Mithrulu and Buddhimanthudu. Apart from being a good singer, Rao was also a fleet-footed dancer and could match steps with gifted dancers like Jayaprada, Jayasudha and Sridevi among others with consummate ease.

 A simple man with spartan habits, Nageswara Rao who also produced films under his home banner, excelled in a whole gamut of roles during his long and eventful career. A Padma Vibhushan awardee,  Rao won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest honour  in Indian cinema. Their home production Manam, which brought together all the three generations of the Akkineni family, was released after he passed away at ninety. Manam, which fared well at the box office, had Nageswara Rao as an aging patriarch of a family with Nagarjuna and his two sons Naga Chaitanya and Akhil Akkineni also in pivotal roles. Samantha, who would later go on to marry Naga Chaitanya, was part of the cast, too.


Unlike his father who could not even afford primary education, Nagarjuna passed out with an automobile engineering degree from the Michigan University in the US but was inexorably drawn into films, following in his father’s illustrious footsteps. Nagarjuna, though a chip off the old block, never aped his father’s acting style or mannerisms and embarked on his career, largely relying on his handsome looks and electrifying presence on screen. 

Although he acted in several pot boilers like Aatma Porattam, Janaki Ramudu and others, the two films that gave a distinct fillip to his career were Mani Ratnam’s Geetanjali and Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, both released in 1989. 

Varma’s Shiva became a cult film and Nag’s role of a fiery student leader won him plaudits galore and the film too became a blockbuster. One trait that Nagarjuna shared with his father was a penchant for biographical films, a genre that none of his contemporaries with carefully cultivated images were willing to touch with a barge pole. 

Nagarjuna’s performances in films like Annammayya, Sri Ramadasu and Shirdi Sai were a far cry from his commercial avatars where he was cast as a swashbuckling hero opposite the biggest heroines of the time like Sridevi, Vijayashanthi and Ramya Krishnan.

 His home production Ninne Pelladatha, directed by Krishna Vamsi, Gharana Bullodu and Allari Alludu were all big box office hits. Ninne Pelladatha also won a National Award for the Best Telugu Film of the year. Nagarjuna ventured into Bollywood and acted in Mahesh Bhatt’s bilingual Criminal, the Amitabh Bacchhan starrer Khuda Gawah and also films like  Zakhm, Agni Varsha, and LOC Kargil. However, his foray into Tamil cinema with Rakshagan, opposite Sushmita Sen cut no ice with the viewers.

Naga Chaitanya and Akhil

Although he has been around for nearly a decade, Naga Chaitanya, Nagarjuna’s son, has to go a long way to go before he can come anywhere near the lofty standards set by his father and grandfather. He, however, has the benefit of training in a Film Institute in Mumbai and in Los Angeles as well. 

Naga Chaitanya impressed in Gautam Menon’s Ye Mayave Chesave as a lovelorn young man  and in Sukumar’s 100% Love but films like Autonagar Surya and the latest Rarandol Veduke Chudham and Yuddham Sharanam did little to further his career. Bejawada, where he played the role of a college student who turns gangster, was perhaps the worst of the lot. Tadakha, a remake of the Tamil hit Vettai was a face saver and Naga Chaitanya did full justice to the role. The Telugu Premam, remake of the popular Malayalam hit, also did well.

Nagarjuna’s son with actor Amala, Akhil Akkineni who picked up his acting lessons at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute, made his debut as a full fledged hero in Akhil, after playing a cameo in Manam. He also has a film Hello to his credit and this was helmed by Vikram Kumar who also directed Manam. Like his step brother Naga Chaitanya, Akhil, too is on the lookout for meaty roles that can provide adequate scope for his acting talents.

After Dr Rajkumar, it was Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan who ruled the Kannada film industry.
  • Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 13:51

MGR and Sivaji Ganesan after their long tenures at the top passed on the baton to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The duo ruled the roost in Kollywood for decades.

Likewise, Sathyan and Prem Nazir, the superstars of Malayalam cinema, ceded their positions to Mammootty and Mohanlal. A similar phenomenon also prevailed in Tollywood where NT Rama Rao and A Nageswara Rao had able successors in Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna.

However, in Sandalwood, the one hero who held the fort for a considerable length of time was Dr Rajkumar who ploughed a lonely furrow till two young men who would eventually metamorphose into macho heroes appeared on the scene in the early seventies.

Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh have had long and illustrious careers in Kannada cinema. Vishnu, however, passed away in 2010 when he was just a year shy of his sixtieth birthday, having served the industry for close to four decades.

Ambareesh, currently in the autumn of his acting career, has been balancing politics and films and has now taken to doing character roles in a few Kannada films.

Both the actors have been prolific and have more than 200 films to their credit.

Vishnuvardhan was introduced to films in the year 1972 by actor-director Girish Karnad in the National Award winning film Vamsa Vriksha, based on the novel by the same name penned by SL Byrappa. But the real mentor for both Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh was one of Sandalwood’s most acclaimed auteurs Puttana Kanagal.

The film Nagarahavu featured Vishnu as a hot-headed young man Ramachari and in his first full fledged role, the actor revealed flashes of his potential. Incidentally, Ambareesh had only a cameo role in the film that marked his debut in Sandalwood. Nagarahavu was a super duper hit at the box office and was the launching pad for the two stars.

Some of Vishnu’s films that afforded him a lot of scope to reveal his mettle were Rajendra Singh Babu's Bandhana, Muthina Hara, S Narayan’s Veerappa Nayaka, Simhadriya Simha, Gandhada Gudi, Sooryavamsa and Santosh Sivan’s ‘Navarasa’. Among his latter day films. P Vasu’s remake of Manichitrathaazhu, Aptha Mithra and its sequel Aptha Rakshaka fared well at the box office.

Incidentally, Aptha Rakshaka was released in theatres after Vishnu breathed his last. Many of his earlier films were directed by Rajendra Singh Babu and the 1984 film Bandhana in which he was paired with Suhasini still remains green in memory. More so, it was the biggest hit in his career.

Vishnu has also acted in films in other languages. His Tamil films like AlaigalMazhalai Pattalam and Kauravar caught the audience's attention. In Telugu, he did a couple of films Okkadu Chalu and Sardar Dharmaanna.

In Malayalam, Vishnu worked in films like Adima Changala, Mazhakala Megam and Samarpanam. He made his debut in Bollywood with Ek Naya Ithihas and went on to do films like Inspector Dhanush, Ashanth and Zalim.

Vishnu brought to bear a great deal of charm and grace in his portrayals and looked every inch a swashbuckling hero. Dubbed the Phoenix of Kannada cinema for his comebacks, Vishnuvardhan was also fondly called as ‘Sahasa Simha.’

Veteran singer S P Balasubramanian who sang for Vishnu in Nagarahavu remained his favourite playback singer and even in his last film Aptharakshaka SPB rendered as many as five hit numbers. Incidentally, Vishnu himself was no mean singer and had sung in as many as twenty films, apart from cutting a few discs comprising religious songs. His duets with acclaimed singers like P Susheels, S Janaki and K S Chithra were all chart busters.

The careers of Vishnu and Ambareesh ran parallel to each other and the duo’s popularity levels too matched a lot.

Ambareesh who earned the title ‘Rebel Star’ impressed audiences as a tough as nails Inspector Amarnath in Chakravyuha and went on to act in successful films like Diggajaru (with Vishnu), AnthaRanganayakiEllu Suttine Kote, Masanada Hoovu, Shubamangala, Gaddu Bheranda, Operation Antha (sequel to Antha) and Sree Manjunatha’ among others.

He later went on to do supporting roles in films like Upendra’s Katari Veera, Surasundarangi.It was his performance in the film Chakravyha that fetched him the title ‘Rebel Star’.

Ambareesh also excelled in dual roles in Antha as a cop and a prisoner. He matched strides with thespian Rajkumar in the film Odahuttidavaru. Ambi Ning Vayassaithu and Kurukshethra where he plays the role of Bheema are the films that the star is presently shooting for. 

Vishnu and Ambareesh shared a lifelong friendship and were like two peas in a pod before the icy hand of fate snatched Vishnu away. Both married co-stars and while Vishnu tied the knot with Bharathi, Ambareesh found his soul mate in Sumalatha.

Their saga of success had a lot to do with the way they shaped their careers. They knew their limitations and range and their directors too ensured that the kind of roles that they signed up for were right up their street. A remarkable aspect in the long innings that the duo essayed on the silver screen was that they managed to keep their fan bases intact. Nearly eight years after his passing, Vishnu’s birth and death anniversaries are observed by his diehard fans who do their best to contribute to the charitable causes that he espoused during his lifetime.