The term auteur – meaning a filmmaker who stands for a distinctive cinematic vision – is reserved for a handful of Indian storytellers. Filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt, G Aravindan, Mrinal Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan make the cut, but so does Kasinathuni Viswanath, the Telugu director whose compelling dramas on classical art forms present a not-always-seen side of India.
Starting out as a sound engineer before assisting pioneering Telugu filmmaker Adurthi Subba Rao, Viswanath began his directing career with realistic narratives. Inspired by Tamil filmmaker K Balachander, Viswanath began to fuse classical art forms into his films, such as Siri Siri Muvva (1976), about a mute girl passionate about dancing. The movie was remade in Hindi as Sargam (1979), starring Jaya Prada and Rishi Kapoor. Siri Siri Muvva set the blueprint for a career dedicated to classicism, one that would go on to earn Viswanath the title “Kala Thapasvi”, a devotee of the arts.
Viswanath’s films were essentially love stories about the arts, featuring characters deeply passionate about song and dance. As Andhra society inched towards modernisation, his films audaciously sided with the arts of yore. While some critics consider his approach dated, and Brahminical even, it must be noted that his works cut through class and caste barriers.
In Sankarabharanam (1980), his most popular film, a Carnatic music legend (JV Somayajulu) is scorned at when he brings home a destitute dancer. Her past life as a prostitute and the ascendency of pop music are considered key factors in his decline. Sensing his downfall, she leaves, only to send her son to learn under him several years later, gifting him not only a protégé but a renewed sense of purpose. The winner of several National Film Awards, Sankarabharanam is a prime example of Viswanath’s social consciousness.
Viswanath’s cinema often makes a strong social and cultural statement in a time marked by incivility and rootlessness. Each movie emphasises the art form and its ability to demand unwavering commitment, making and breaking lives at will. In Sirivennela (1986), a former escort helps a blind flautist rise to the pinnacle of success and gains his untainted affection. Evoking a career-imprinting performance from Kamal Haasan, Sagara Sangamam (1983) was released 33 years ago on June 3. It is the tear-jerking story of a skilled classical dancer, accomplished in all styles, who turns to liquor to nurse a broken heart and a failed career. A classical music teacher brings home three orphaned boys and enthuses them with a passion for music, only to lose them to the glitzy world of fame and its temptations in Shrutilayalu (1987). Swarnakamalam (1988) sees a gifted classical dancer rejecting her art and pursuing more rewarding dreams before returning to love dance again. And Swati Kiranam (1992) remains a classic tale of envy, in which an egotistical Carnatic music singer fails to come to terms with the growing popularity of a child prodigy.
Viswanath also gave the Telugu film industry some of its finest performances from such actors as Kamal Haasan, Mammootty, Radhika, Sarath Babu, Bhanu Priya, Manju Bhargavi, JV Somayajulu, Venkatesh and Chiranjeevi. He has been admirably backed by the musical genius of KV Mahadevan and Ilaiyaraaja composing music for the vocals of SP Balasubramaniam, P Susheela, Vani Jairam and S Janaki.
Never one to command huge numbers at the box office, Viswanath’s movies in the 1980s and ’90s were reflective of passion and perseverance. As mainstream cinema chased larger-than-life heroes and their adventures, Viswanath’s brand of movies was truly offbeat, affirming their high ground and rejecting theatrics of the eye-grabbing kind.
Nothing describes him as well as a moment from his own work. When the patriarch of the family has to sell his house to repay the debts incurred through teaching his adopted children music in Shrutilayalu, his wife has but one thing to say of him: “Monuments and mansions don’t interest him. He has forever been indebted to only the arts – music, dance, literature and theatre”. Perhaps the most telling quote about Viswanath’s career itself.