The Telugu Film Industry is described as one of the most successful industries in Indian Cinema. Over the decades, it has entertained and influenced millions of audiences with hundreds of films. For many years, it stood first in the number of films made and revenues earned. It is truly an industry in every sense, and has seen many mega projects, big players, major hits along with low budget ventures, small time producers and miserable flops.
Notwithstanding all this, it has largely gone unnoticed at the national level, unlike the Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and Malyalam film industries which have produced many films that have won national and international acclaim. It has mostly confined itself to the elements of commerce in film making, rarely moving out of the beaten track. It has been criticized for pandering to the tastes of the mass audiences, with little regard for quality or standards, particularly so, in the past few years. Though a few off beat films or "art films" have been made in Telugu, mostly by film makers from other languages, Telugu films have been predominantly commercial in nature.
One film maker, however, has won wide national acclaim for some of his films in our language. Born on 19th Feb, Director Dr. K. Viswanath, is one of the best directors the Telugu Film Industry has produced. Through his work, he has created some truly memorable films, that stand out as remarkable works of art, in the field of Telugu cinema. With a judicious combination of artistic and commercial elements, he has created films that have appealed not only to the common cinema audience, but also to the more discerning and selective ones. His films have won many national and state level awards for him as a director and his cast as well. Many of them have been screened at various International Film Festivals and have been admired for their artistic and aesthetic values. This article is intended mainly to discuss the nature of some of his work and does not give any major facts or figures, historical or otherwise, related to his films. Since my knowledge related to some of his earliest films is limited, I shall mostly confine myself to his work starting from the seventies.
The earlier stages of his career saw Viswanath as an assistant to the veteran director, Adurthi Subba Rao. Viswanath considers him as his mentor. His first film as an independent director was Aatmagauravam. Most of his films during this period were based on family stories, with a generous dose of sentiment, much in the same pattern of the films in 60's. A notable exception is Sudigundalu, which he co-directed with Adurthi Subba Rao. To some extent the influence of his Guru is visible in some of these films. These were followed by a few films like Chelleli Kapuram, Sarada, O Sitha Kadha and Jeevana Jyothi. These films were based on powerful stories centered around women, often with an element of tragedy in them. They featured highly talented actresses like Sarada and Vanisri, who have turned out memorable performances in them. However, it is in Siri Siri Muvva, that the famed artistic touch of K. Viswanath first became visible to the people. This was followed by a series of films based on the themes of art, music and dance. Some of his later films discussed issues of social concern while others presented simple morals and facts of life to the common man in a palatable form. A popular observation is that, most of the names of his films begin with the letter 'S'. It is said that he has a sentimental preference for such names, though there are a few exceptions.
A notable feature of Viswanath's films is that all of them are wholesome family entertainers. Along with a liberal dose of humor and sentiment, they contain beautiful visuals, good music, powerful and realistic characters, and above all, a firm story line. In an age when most film makers are in a frenzy trying to make a quick buck by attracting the masses with substandard films containing vulgarity and an excess of commercial elements, he stuck to his style, in spite of a few commercial setbacks. This has earned him and his films, a respectability which very few directors can claim.
Viswnath's skill as a director is unparalleled in the industry. Few directors have been able to emulate the standards he has set in film making. His ability to treat even mundane subjects such as the non-violence, patriotism, social equality and the evils of dowry in a novel manner, has set him apart in a class of his own. The artistry which he displays in visualizing various sequences in his films, the fluency and the lyrical nature of his narration and the creativity in his ideas make his films thoroughly enjoyable and memorable. The various scenes in Sankarabharanam, the climax in Saptapadi, the incidents leading up to the romance between Jayaprada and Kamal Hasan in SagaraSangamam, the manner in which Moon Moon Sen shows the beauty of nature to a blind man in Sirivennela, the way in which Bhanupriya comes to realize the significance of dance in her life in Swarna Kamalam are all but a few examples of his directorial skill. His films, particularly the ones based on music and dance, are full of such artistic portrayals that make them such a feast for the audience. They are what one can truly describe as "Drushya Kavyalu", poetry recited in spectacle. His sincerity and complete involvement are perceptible in every frame of his film. Unlike many other directors, he usually confines himself to one film at a time, dedicating all his faculties to its making.
Viswanath's penchant for subjects centered around music and dance, is well known. He is fascinated by these subjects, to degree where he is accused of being obsessed with them. Sankarabharanam, Sagara Sangamam, SiriVennela, SrutiLayalu and SwarnaKamalam are all his movies based entirely on the themes of art, music and dance. Of these, Sankarabharanam, the internationally acclaimed film, brought him great fame as a director of art films. It narrates the story of two people, Sankara Shastri and his disciple Thulasi, who try to keep the tradition of classical music alive, against all odds. It is said that, after witnessing this film, many parents in those days encouraged their children to learn classical music and dance. SagaraSangamam deals with a highly talented classical dancer, who unfortunately fails to get the recognition he deserves, but passes the baton of classical dance to the next generation. Sirivennela depicts how a beautiful woman brings out the latent talent in a blind man to make him a famous musician. In SritiLayalu, it is up to a child artist to bring his family together, with his talent and his mother's guidance. In SwarnaKamalam, the heroine who originally believes that the pursuit of classical arts is of no worldly use, changes her mind on meeting an American dancer, who venerates Indian Classical Dance forms. In these films, the director has made the best use of the artistic talents of popular as well as lesser known film stars, which had mostly been untapped hitherto in the field of cinema. Manju Bhargavi, Bhamidipati Sabitha, Kamal Hasan, Jayaprada, Shanmuga Srinivas and Bhanupriya have all been shown to the world as highly talented artists. Even in films such as Saptapadi, Suthradharulu, Swathi Kiranam and Apathbandhavudu which deal with a wide range of subjects, classical and traditional art forms find a major place.
Apart from films related to the art forms, Viswanath has made many films dealing with a wide range of human and social issues. In Saptapadi, he decries the evils of untouchability and the caste system. In Subhodayam and SwayamKrishi he emphasizes the dignity and respectability of manual labor. In Subhalekha, he deals in a humorous way, with the dowry system, which is one of the major evils in today's society. While Suthradharulu urges the present day society to recognize the need for it to adopt the ideals of non-violence, SwathiKiranam depicts the harm that can be caused by the baser instincts of envy and anger in a man, however accomplished he may be. In spite of the nature of these subjects, they are presented in a subtle manner with an imaginative story line, with just the right amount of emphasis on the intended message. They exemplify, how a good film maker can deliver the right kind of message, making the best use of cinema as an art form and a powerful medium of expression. An inherent message, that is present in many of his films is the indomitable nature of the human spirit and determination, which cannot be subdued by any kind of physical handicap. With these films, he has won recognition as a director with a social commitment who understands the kind of role films can play in advocating desirable changes in man in particular and society in general.
Most of the characters created by Viswanath in his movies, are unique in nature. The meticulous attention to detail he pays is evident in every aspect of these characters, including the cast, appearance, behavior, mannerisms and dialogues. His technique of introduction and subsequent portrayal of these characters leaves them imprinted on our minds for a long time. A few of them deserve a special mention. The character of a film actress Sithalu in Sithamalakshmi, Sankara Shastri and Thulasi in Sankarabharanam, an unsuccessful dancer Balakrishna and his friend Madhavi in SagaraSangamam, a mental retard Sivayya and his wife Lalitha in Swathimuthyam, a reluctant and mischievous dancer Meenakshi in Swarnakamalam, an accomplished but vain musician Anantha Rama Sarma in SwathiKiranam and the milkman Madhava and his friend Hema in Apathbandhavudu have won accolades for their creator as well as the players. Some protagonists in his films have a physical or mental handicap, which is quite unusual in mainstream cinema today, where the hero and the heroine are a picture of perfection. Quite often, the comedy in his films is centered around theses main characters, rather than being confined to the comedians meant for the purpose.
Given the standard and quality of his films, it is not surprising that Viswanath has won innumerable honors and awards for them. His films have bagged many Nandi Awards, including those for the best film, best director and the best screenplay. Apart from these, many art associations and film clubs have bestowed several honors on him. He was awarded the Honorary Doctorate in recognition of his contribution to Telugu Cinema. His work with in field of art cinema in Telugu has earned him the title of "Kala Thapasvi". The extraordinary visualization of his characters provides the cast playing them an extensive scope for performance. His ability to bring out the best in them has seen many of them winning awards for their performance in his films. Chiranjeevi in Subhalekha, SwayamKrishi and Apathbandhavudu, Kamal Hasan in SagaraSangamam an SwathiMuthyam have won Nandi Awards for the best actor. Sumalatha for SrithiLayalu, BhanuPriya for SwarnaKamalam and Amani for Subha Sankalpam have won the best actress awards. Several of his films including SwathiMuthyam and Suthradharulu have been recognized as best regional films made in Telugu at the national level.
Notwithstanding his achievements, Viswanath has had his share of commercial setbacks. One of his films, Sirimuvvala Simhanadam, was released in theatres only for a couple of days, before being canned for good. Films like Saptapadi, Sirivennela and Swathikiranam were not received well by the masses. Apathbandhavudu, a major film with "Mega Star" Chiranjeevi and Meenakshi Seshadri in the lead roles, bombed at the box office, though it won a few Nandi Awards. The success of his films in Hindi can, at best be described as modest. Most of his films in Hindi were remakes of Telugu versions, which somehow seemed to lack the depth and magic of the originals. The Hindi version of Sankarabharanam, Sur Sangam, went practically unnoticed. Remakes like Kaam Chor ( Subhodayam), ShubhKamna (Subhalekha), Sanjog (Jeevana Jyothi) , Jaag Utha Insaan (Sapthapadi) and Eeshwar (Swathimuthyam) have received less than a warm reception from the Hindi audiences. A notable exception is Sargam (Siri Siri Muvva), which was a reasonable hit. One of his straight films in Hindi, Sangeet, with Madhuri Dixit playing the dual roles of a mother and her blind daughter, was described as a respectable film. Dhanvaan, another straight film in Hindi, however, was a flop. A probable reason for this is that these films did not contain adequate "spice", which the Hindi audience is used to. Moreover, the remakes lacked the nativity and finesse of the originals.
Viswanath has, some times been accused of being too simplistic in his view of the present day's materialistic world. His films rarely contain an evil angle, the likes of which is seen in most other films. Though films like Swathimuthyam, Apathbandhavudu and Subha Sankalpam do have characters that resemble the conventional villain, the idea of "good vanquishing the evil" does not find a major place as such, in these films. The common man, who is fed with a generous quota of villainy and evil in most other films, probably finds this too bland for his taste. Another popular criticism heard against him is that he is obsessed with the subjects of music and dance. While it is true that quite a few of his films are based on these subjects, he has mostly made use of them as a medium of expression, to put forth a simple message. Notwithstanding such criticism, his films continue to provide the audiences with healthy entertainment. He can be credited with some degree of success in bringing the classical art forms closer to the common viewer. Though no social problem can be solved with a single film, any effort that is made to create an awareness about it through the powerful medium of cinema is commendable. In an age when cinema has remained just but an item of commerce, we are lucky to have a director like K.Viswanath who works with it for what it is, an art form and a effective medium of expression.