The first time that Shankar Nag was seen on the screen was in 1978 in a song in Ramdas Phutane’s Marathi anti-superstition drama Sarva Saakshi. Nag’s role was so short that he disappeared as soon as the song ended.

The film that actually put the spotlight on the then 28-year-old actor and soon-to-be superstar came the same year. Playwright and filmmaker Girish Karnad directed a samurai-themed adventure called Ondanondu Kaladalli (Once Upon A Time) and cast Nag as Gandugali, a mercenary adept in the art of war.

The film won the National Film Award in the Kannada language category that year. Nag also bagged the Best Actor Silver Peacock Award at The International Film Festival of India. Ondanondu Kaladalli put Nag on the map, earning him accolades for his smooth acting prowess and fighting skills (he was called ‘Karate King’ after this film). Twelve years after his debut, Shankar Nag died in a car accident on September 30, 1990.

Co-written by Karnad and Krishna Basaruru and also starring Padmavati Rao, Anil Thakkar, Sundarraj and Vasant Rao, Ondanondu Kaladalli follows the story of two warring brothers who have murdered their older brother and are now fighting with each other for control of the kingdom. Shankar Nag’s Gandugali, a kingsman-turned-coach, is hired by the elder and weaker brother to train and lead the 22 soldiers in the chieftain’s army to win a war.

The task would have been easy if Gandugali and his employer shared the same ideals. With his hair in a top-knot and his Zen-like demeanour, Gandugali reveals his ruthlessness as a warrior only on the battlefield. But he has his heart in the right place. Even during warfare, he believes in sticking to the rules.

The men Gandugali works for couldn’t care less about playing fair, forcing Gandugali to briefly leave the kingdom in anger. However, his compassion forces him to return to the kingdom to save the one person for whom he has developed fondness: Jayakeshi (Sushilendra Joshi), the son of the murdered older brother who is held hostage by his uncle and forced to tend to the palace’s cattle.

In his first full-fledged role, Nag was given a character layered with complexity and high morals. And the young actor’s portrayal demonstrated how well he understood Gandugali.

The character is a misfit even among mercenaries. Karnad shows this beautifully by contrasting Gandugali with the hot-headed Perambadi (brilliantly played by Sunder Krishna Urs), the mercenary who is in the service of the youngest brother.

Using Nag’s character as a prism, Karnad’s film offers insights into the pointlessness of war and the greed of humans who, for the sake of power, turn on each other in an instant – a lesson that remains startingly relevant.

Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978).