The prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award for 2016 has been awarded to Telugu director K Vishwanath. The 87-year-old director shuttles between Hyderabad and Chennai with his family. Coming ahead of World Dance Day on April 29, this award has been given to a highly deserving person who redefined the aesthetics of Telugu cinema through song and dance.

Vishwanath can be called the Renaissance Man of Telugu aesthetics. All of post-independence Telugu cinema can be classified into the pre-Vishwanath and post-Vishwanath phases. Vishwanath films inevitably mean soulful music, a gripping story, brilliant acting, memorable dialogue and an aesthetic presentation.

Kasinathuni Vishwanath was born in Repalle village in the erstwhile Madras state, now in coastal Andhra Pradesh. As a struggling filmmaker, he assisted several veterans through the late 1950s. After working as an assistant director, screenplay writer and in the sound department of several social films, he eventually ventured out into filmmaking.

The core of all Indian arts is the experience of rasa, and Vishwanath has explored rasa in all his movies. He had a strong sense of the classical arts, which helped him translate rasa onto the screen. Vishwanath’s contribution to Telugu cinema is as great as V Shantaram’s to Hindi cinema. If Shantaram introduced kathak in his films, Vishwanath went a step ahead and introduced Telugu cinema viewers to bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, Odissi, Carnatic music and more.

K Vishnwanath directing Kamal in Sagara Sangamam (1983). Photo courtesy Prakash Annavarapu.
K Vishnwanath directing Kamal in Sagara Sangamam (1983). Photo courtesy Prakash Annavarapu.

Vishwanath explores the middle-class Telugu ethos through their love for classical arts. In his all-time great Shankarabharanam (1979), he cast a Kuchipudi dancer like Manju Bhargavi as the heroine, a risk very few directors would take in mainstream cinema. The plot is of a veteran Carnatic vocalist whose music attracts a low caste dancer. This film made the career of actor AV Somayajulu as a Carnatic vocalist. The film was hailed as a classic and ran successfully breaking box office records. The movie was remade in Hindi starring Girish Karnad.

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Shankara Naadasharirapara from Sankarabharanam (1979).

That Kamal Haasan is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer is a well-known fact. It was Vishwanath who explored Haasan’s dancing potential to the fullest in Sagara Sangamam (1983). Haasan plays a struggling classical dancer who finds a rich married patron (Jayaprada) and eventually falls in love with her. He eventually sacrifices his love for her. The film is filled with melodious music by Illaiyaraaja and dance sequences. To think of how Vishwanath exploited Kamal’s talent as a classical dancer, here is a memorable scene.

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Sagara Sangamam (1983).

Haasan is an ageing dance critic who just published a scathing review of a popular dancer. She visits the newspaper office to confront him. Haasan gives her a display of his virtuosity, not just by pointing out her mistakes but also giving a befitting reply in several classical dance forms.

The sequence makes one think of the famous controversies between the iconic dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy and the most caustic critic classical dance has ever seen, the infamous Subbudu. The debate rocked the classical dance world, and was likely an inspiration for Vishwanath. In this way, real life plots and situations in the arts worked their way into Vishwanath’s films to make some of the finest scenes.

Swarna Kamalam (1988) is about the daughter of a veteran classical dancer who takes her father’s art for granted. She is made to realise what she is missing with the help of the hero, a struggling painter who values her father’s scholarship. Vishwanath introduced his audiences to a traditional Odissi dance by Sharon Lowen, a student of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.

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Swarna Kamalam (1988).

Vishwanath was the master of delivering content. Be it a Sanskrit sloka from Bhartrihari or the Natya Shastra, or a traditional composition of poet saint Thyagaraja or the King Shahji of Thanjavur, he found their relevance in plots and situations in his films. He was criticised for portraying was termed as Brahminical culture in Andhra Pradesh. However, his critics fell silent when the socially relevant themes across all his important films were highlighted.

It is not like Vishwanath didn’t have a social subtext to his stories, but he chose to deal with social issues through the lens of aesthetics, rather than flag-waving activism.

In Saptapadi (1981), Vishwanath explores inter-caste marriage, which disrupts the norms of a patriarch in a conservative Brahmin community. In Swathi Muthyam (1984), Vishwanath endorses widow remarriage in middle-class Telugu society. In Sirivennala (1986), he explores the musical craving of a blind flautist, whose dreams are realised with the help of the heroine.

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Sirivennala (1986).

In Shruti Layalu (1987), Vishwanath looks at the passion of a musician grandfather, whose estranged and disinterested sons return to classical music because of a maverick and talented dancer grandson. In Swathi Kiranam (1992), he deals with the bruised ego of a classical maestro who is overshadowed by his talented disciple. All these characters emerged from real life situations.

No other film director explored the ethos of coastal Andhra Pradesh the way Vishwanath did. As a master storyteller, he drove home finer points to show the power of classical music and dance. In teaming up with music director Illaiyaraaja, lyricist Veturi Sundararama Murthy, dialogue writer Jandhyala and others who had a strong grounding in Carnatic music, Vishwanath created modern classics. He made his films with a great deal of conviction and his audiences related to everything he showed on the screen. None of it was unreal.

Venkatesh and Bhanupriya in Swarna Kamalam (1988). Photo courtesy Prakash Annavarapu.
Venkatesh and Bhanupriya in Swarna Kamalam (1988). Photo courtesy Prakash Annavarapu.

If you were to take the careers of his actors, at least one Vishwanath film will feature in their top five list. These films continue to be watched and admired and their songs are still sung by connoisseurs. In the ’80s and ’90s, nearly every Telugu household was inspired by Vishwanath’s movies. Every other home had children learning classical music or dance. Vishwanath made classical arts cool by making them accessible to the masses. As another World Dance Day comes around, we must thank ourselves of being worthy of a visionary filmmaker like him.

Veejay Sai is an editor, culture critic and the writer of Drama Queens Women Who Created History On Stage.