Kings of Sandalwood: Tracing the careers of Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh

After Dr Rajkumar, it was Ambareesh and Vishnuvardhan who ruled the Kannada film industry.
Kings of Sandalwood: Tracing the careers of Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh
Kings of Sandalwood: Tracing the careers of Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh
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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.

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