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For the Kannada film industry, the passing away of Vishnuvardhan and K S Ashwath is more than the end of an era.
Vishnuvardhan and K S Ashwath, the actors who passed away recently, occupy a special place in the hearts of Kannadigas. Though unusual in their acting styles, they were among the most popular artistes in Kannada cinema. Vishnuvardhan, with a repertoire of more than 200 films over four decades, was second only to the iconic Rajkumar, while Ashwath’s five-decade career saw him play supporting roles in 350 films.
It is remarkable that for both Ashwath and Vishnuvardhan, the milestone in their careers was the 1972 film, Nagarahaavu. It was based on three novels by writer T R Subba Rao, and directed by Puttanna Kanagal.
Nagarahaavu was a superhit and gave momentum to the duo’s careers. It was only Vishnuvardhan’s second film and he was already a star. His role as Ramachari, a short-tempered college student, became a reference point for the rest of his career. Critics and fans rate it as his best film. Ashwath, meanwhile, was already a known quantity, but his portrayal of Chamayya Meshtru, Ramachari’s schoolteacher and mentor, gave his career a boost, fetching him a state award.
Nagarahaavu apart, the acting lives of Vishnuvardhan and Ashwath are distinct and unparalleled.
In comparison to Vishnuvardhan, the most popular actor in the Kannada industry, Rajkumar, took 10 years and 50 films to attain stardom. Vishnuvardhan, with his macho looks, played the perfect action hero and quickly became a box-office success. Such was his versatility that he was soon approached by directors in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi cinema.
The 1981 film Sahasa Simha fixed Vishnuvardhan as an action hero. What followed was a number of films with the same formula — lots of fight sequences. The image of Sahasa Simha stuck to Vishnuvardhan, and eventually the tile was prefixed to his name. He began to be called "Sahasa Simha Vishnuvardhan", and he was very fond of this image.
He didn’t mind at all that he was being typecast. In fact, he worked on his action sequences extensively, preparing thoroughly for them. The films Oorige Upakari, Maha Prachanda, Sididedda Sahodara and Onde Guri became hugely popular.
Vishnuvardhan had a unique, successful relationship with Dwarakish, a comedian and producer. The duo worked together on many films — Singapoorinalli Raja Kulla, Kittu Puttu and Kalla Kulla, to name a few.
It is ironic that Vishnuvardhan, who displayed amazing dedication in his macho roles, rarely showed an interest in roles that challenged his acting capabilities. Some films did attempt to bring out the character actor in Vishnuvardhan, such as Indina Ramayana, Maney Maney Kathe, Bandhana, Muttina Haara and Malayamaaruta. Vishnuvardhan’s performances in them are noteworthy. Many fans, in fact, hoped that in the latter stages of his career he would take an interest in character roles. But his demise was untimely. His last films are School Master and Apta Rakshaka, and they have just hit the cinema screens.
K S Ashwath was synonymous with courteousness, loyalty and discipline. He became a household name because of his natural, genuine acting style. Even if he made no more than a two-minute appearance on screen, his dedication and sincerity were both plainly visible.
Ashwath made his entry into the industry in 1955 with Stree Ratna, as the hero. For the rest of his career, though, he was a supporting actor, often playing the role of the lead actor’s brother, father, father-in-law or friend. He was often paired with female actors Pandari Bai and Leelavathi. A gentlemanly actor, Ashwath’s unsullied depiction of film roles won viewers’ hearts.
Ashwath was not from an affluent family. He quit his job and came to the film industry despite opposition from his family. His means may have been modest at first, but money was never his primary concern. Even when his remuneration hardly reflected what he had given to a film, Ashwath took great pains to work on his roles. He believed in doing his homework.
Everyone in the industry, including matinee idol Rajkumar, had immense respect for Ashwath, especially his discipline and punctuality. Ashwath was a role model. He was sincere and ethical. When producers gave him money for conveyance, Ashwath would put down on a piece of paper how much he had spent, and return the extra money to the producers. In an age when we have two-film-old actors throwing tantrums over their fee, people like Ashwath sound like characters from ancient mythology.
In 1995 Ashwath announced his retirement from films. He was hurt by the attitude of the film industry towards supporting actors, and its condescension towards senior artistes. He shared his reasons only with his confidants, maintaining his characteristic dignity even when he had decided to part ways. But Rajkumar, who had been Ashwath’s friend for five decades, forced him make a return in 2000 for his film Shabdavedhi.
One can never forget Ashwath as the naive rural father in Bangarada Panjara, the rich father in Badavara Bandhu, the hen-pecked husband in Nammamana Sose, as the character who stuffed idlis in his pocket and gorged on them in isolation in Janma Janmada Anubhanda, and for his roles in Muttina Haara and Naa Ninna Bidalaare. Ashwath captured the imagination of the middle class in Karnataka. He was the quintessential rational, just and generous man who believed in right action. In the values he stood for, his life was no different from the roles he played. In his death, one also sees the end of a value system.
(The author is a Bangalore-based theatre artiste, musician and entrepreneur)