Fifty years into a successful acting career – five years on the stage and 45 in front of the camera – Anant Nag does not feel like a movie star.

“Who or what is a movie star?” asked the Kannada screen icon. “An actor should be like water. Ego-less. Only then can he mould his talent or fit into the skin of different characters and stories.”

Sitting on the steps in front of his house in Bengaluru, Nag hesitated when asked if he could be photographed. He hadn’t shaved, and felt that he should have been better dressed. After a moment of contemplation, he smiled and gave the go-ahead. “Sometime in the early 1970s in Bombay, theatre director Satyadev Dubey took me to meet Shyam Benegal,” Nag recalled. “Benegal asked me to first look to my left, then to my right and then finally told Dubey, okay, he has a photogenic face. I had told myself then that I needn’t be conscious of how I look anymore. I had got the stamp of approval from none other than Shyam Benegal himself.”

Nag cut his teeth in parallel cinema after a career in theatre. The 69-year-old actor and politician made a quiet debut with Kannada film Sankalpa in 1973. Slowly, alongside a steady career in arthouse films in Kannada and Hindi, Nag nurtured an even more successful career in commercial cinema in Kannada. This apart from also appearing in Marathi and Malayalam films. With more than 300 titles, Nag continues to be a regular presence in most of the big Kannada productions.

March 22, a film about water conservation, has been released in Dubai. Nag is also gearing up for key roles in Hemanth Rao’s Kavaludaari and Rishab Shetty’s untitled film about the state of affairs of Kannada-medium schools. “There is a lot of interesting work that is happening today in Kannada,” Nag said. “A number of youngsters are coming forward to make interesting films. A lot of new themes are being tried out. Of course, the mass-hero films are also being made, but the percentage of their success has come down very heavily.”

Nag grew up in Bhatkal in Karnataka and moved to Mumbai to finish his studies. “I grew up in Ananda Ashram and had very spiritual moorings till I was about 12,” he recalled. “I would see Yakshagana and Bayalata performances as a child. I grew up watching such films as Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Amara Bhoopali, Ratnagiri Rahasya, films of V Shantaram and so on. I would imitate people a lot and entertain small audiences. But never did it cross my mind that I could become an actor.”

His father sent him to Mumbai for higher studies at the age of 12 in the hope that he would become a doctor or an engineer. “But because of studying in Kannada medium first and then English medium in Bombay, I lost out,” Nag said. “I lost interest in studies. When theatre finally happened, I felt that something which I knew was coming back to me. This was something I felt I knew instinctively. I excelled in it and persevered with it for about five years acting in Konkani, Kannada, Marathi and Hindi plays.”

Switching streams

A career in cinema was around the corner for the actor. After his debut in Sankalpa, Nag grew to become a core part of parallel cinema, which was at its peak in the 1970s and ’80s. He starred in six of Benegal’s films: Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1978), Kondura (1978) and Kalyug (1981).

When he got his first commercial role in YR Swamy’s Devara Kannu in 1974, Nag was apprehensive. “There was a song in it and I had to play the tabla,” he said. “It was not the main role and I thought okay, let me take a chance. I was noticed in that role more than [in] all my art films.”

Then came Dorai-Bhagwan’s Bayalu Daari in 1976, which was a runaway hit. “More commercial roles came my way after that,” Nag said. “If there were five roles in parallel cinema, there were 20 on this side. When you are a professional actor, you cannot sustain yourself through parallel cinema alone. It simply does not pay. So, once the ball set rolling, I wasn’t afraid of taking chances. I knew that the years I had toiled in theatre, learning from the best in the field, will stand me in good stead no matter what. It has done so for 45 years.”

Bayalu Daari (1976).

Nag’s success as a commercial hero continued with such films as Naa Ninna Bidalaare (1979), Chandanada Gombe (1979), Benkiya Bale (1983), Hendthige Helbedi (1989), the Ganesha series – Ganeshana Maduve (1990) and Gowri Ganesha (1991), Mungaru Maley (2006) and so on. Whatever be the genre of the film – horror, romance or comedy – Nag could fit right in.

His most recent hit, Hemanth Rao’s Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (2016), in which Nag plays an Alzheimer’s patient, opened to rave reviews. “When I read the script for the first time, I couldn’t keep it down,” said Nag. “I told Hemanth if he can transfer what is on paper onto the screen, then that’s it. We’ll have a classic in our hands.”

The size of a role matters little to Nag. “When a film is offered, first I read the script carefully,” explained Nag. “I have to have a prominent role if not a main role. All I’m looking for is a film with good content and where there is potential for acting.”

Money matters, of course, and Nag does not pretend otherwise. “Even today, sometimes, as I’m listening to the story, I realise my role is very good in the film but the film is not that good,” said Nag. “But the money is very good. So, I say yes to the film. See, if you are a professional actor, you have to look at things from these perspectives too.”

No regrets

Is there ever a film or a role he regrets doing?

“I don’t take cinema so seriously,” Nag said. “Cinema is an appendage to life, not vice versa. Life is more important. Growing up, I was taught that everything is pre-destined. Your will is irrelevant. So, I have that kind of resigned state of approach towards my career.”

Nag’s process of getting into a role combines instinct and intelligence. “When I read the script, I grasp the role and then keep mulling over it,” he explained. “I start thinking of the role while sleeping, bathing, doing my daily chores. Then once my mind is set, I keep the role aside. Even during rehearsals, I don’t fully perform. I study the other aspects of the scene, where the light is, at what point is it going to hit my eye, what position the camera and take a vantage position. Finally, when it is time to perform the scene, I turn to my instinct. While preparing for a role, you need intelligence, but only up to a point. At the time of performance, what you need is spontaneity.”

Godhi Banna Sadharna Mykattu (2016).

Despite a successful run in Hindi parallel cinema, Nag stuck to Kannada movies. “Between 1972 and 1982, I did some good films in Hindi but by then, this political bug had bit me,” said Nag, who identified himself with the Janatha Party, was a Member of Legislative Council for six years, a Member of Legislative Assembly for five years and a State Cabinet Minister in 1994 for three and a half years. “I also found that the political bug can be best nurtured in Karnataka because I’m from here.”

It was instinct that led Nag to get his hands dirty in politics. “I was influenced by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan who had urged the youth to join politics and said if we’d stayed away, it will only get murkier,” Nag said. “I quit when I turned 50. There was excessive in-fighting and everything became about people and their egos. But I came away with a wealth of experiences.”

Nag was also instrumental in introducing the world to the talents of his brother Shankar Nag. “I persuaded him to come into films,” he said. “All his classmates had gone abroad to pursue their careers. We came from a lower middle class family and had limited means. There was no hope for him to go abroad. I told him, see there’s this chance that has come to you [Sarvasakshi, 1978], why don’t you try it. Then more offers came and then there was no looking back. Who knew that god’s will was that he would only live for 12 years after that.”

Shankar Nag went on to write, direct and produce films after his acting debut until he died in a car crash in 1990.

Geethanjali (1989).

Did he guide his younger brother’s choices? “No, he would only come to me if someone had not paid him,” Anant Nag said. “We have learnt the importance of money the hard way. I started from scratch in a city like Bombay – there was no umbrella to take refuge under, nothing to fall back on. That’s when you realise, you are nobody without money.”

Anant Nag feels that he would not have found the sheer variety of roles that he did in Kannada cinema anywhere else. But is he happy with where Kannada cinema is headed? “The only thing that makes me angry is incompetence,” Nag said. “There are no rules or goals for cinema. This is a creative field and one is free to do whatever they want. I don’t want cinema to privilege its parallel or art strains or wholesale worship of its heroes. Let that be there too but there is a lot of space for what I call the middle cinema which can take up good themes that entertain, enlighten, educate and guide audiences.”