Luminary, Profile, Telugu

K Viswanath

As a film professor who teaches film appreciation, I am often asked, “Is there any filmmaker you do not criticize? Is there a film you truly appreciate?”

After much serious thought, I answered, “K Viswanath!”

People might assume then that I have rose tinted spectacles on when I deconstruct his films. Of course not. I have found flaws in his films and screenplays too but by and large, most of his films are absolute masterclasses in terms of screenplay writing, film sensibility, character consistency, mise-en-scene, a narratology rooted in Indian culture, visual aesthetics, social reform and an astute leveraging of the rich song, dance and musical traditions of Indian mainstream cinema.

One of my earliest memories as a child is listening to a lullaby my father sang often, Ye Thalli Paadenu Jola – a sad evocative song that I associated with the shimmer of unshed tears in my mother’s eyes. Much later, I saw the film the song is from, Kaalam Marindi (Telugu, 1972) on TV and I cried with the depth of emotion I found in the song, brilliantly enacted by Gummadi Venkateswara Rao and Anjali Devi.

By then Viswanath, who passed away on the 2nd of February, 2023, had already made his directorial debut with the Telugu film Aatma Gowravam in 1965. It being the year I was born, perhaps that is why I am so drawn to him and his work. The film is an adaptation of well-known novelist Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani’s book on a young couple caught between a tug of war between integrity of an ordinary man and the arrogance of a zamindar’s family. It not only won 2 Nandi awards but was also screened at the Asian and African International Film Festival at Tashkent.

My father, a diehard fan of Telugu cinema and K Viswanath, took us to without fail to watch each and every film of his. As a film director, Viswanath tried his hand at varied subjects to hone his storytelling and evolve his own cinematic idiom. His breakthrough films were Nindu Hrudayalu (1969) followed by Chelleli Kapuram, Chinanaati Snehithulu and Nindu Dampathulu (all in 1971), wherein he attempted to traverse the entire gamut of emotions and relationships from sibling love to strong friendships and the marital bond. Then, wanting to try his hand at a heftier subject, he made Neramu Siksha (1973), his take on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It was received well by critics and audiences alike.

I didn’t know it then, but as a 9-year old, I had felt the first stirrings of feminism watching the teenaged Seetha prevail over her tormentor in O Seetha Katha (1974) and clapped in glee.  I remember I wept in the cinema hall when I was ten, watching a young mother gifting her mother the precious gift of a second chance at motherhood in Jeevana Jyothi (1975) and I hope one day I, too, can explain the complexity of that emotion to my daughter. And so, a fan was born.

I delved into information about him and realized he was born on February 19, in 1930 in Repalli in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. His parents Subramanyam and Saraswathamma named him Viswanath (preceded by the family name, Kasinathuni). His ancestry is from Peddapulivarrlu village, a small village near the Krishna River. As he grew up, he went on to study at Andhra Christian College from where he earned a BSc Degree.

Vishwanath’s journey in filmdom began at the age of 21 in the Sound Department. His father was an associate at Vauhini studios and the young graduate started out as a sound recordist under the tutelage of A Krishnan, the head of Sound Engineering. Here, he developed a keen sense of sound, an ear for music and a grounding in nuanced audio and soundscape.  This would later reflect in all his films especially those that revolved around art and artists, of which there are several in his filmography.

When Krishnan graduated to Film Direction, the young Vishwanath was his sounding board for ideas and scenarios. Viswanath was given an opportunity to assist the legendary KV Reddy for Pathala Bhairavi (1952), his first as an assistant director. Later, Adurthi Subba Rao and K Ramnoth at Annapurna Studios put him further on the directorial path as he assisted directorially in landmark films such as Mooga Manasulu (1964), Doctor Chakravarthy (1964), and Sudigundalu (1968), which he also scripted. The last film he assisted on was Pathala Bhairavi under the legendary K V Reddy. With a firm handle on melodrama he independently directed his first film Aatma Gowravam starring the legendary A Nageswara Rao (ANR), Kanchana and Rajasree. The film won two Nandi Award, for Third Best Feature Film and Best Story.

In a career spanning almost 7 decades, Viswanath made over 50 films, mostly in Telugu. Of his ten Hindi films, seven were remake of his own Telugu films. His films have won him 5 National Awards and several Filmfare awards. Some of his films have featured in the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) while others have garnered international recognition at International Film Festivals outside India. His most remembered films, Sankarabharanam (1979) and Sagara Sangamam (1983) often feature in lists of the finest Indian films in the 100 years of Indian cinema. Sankarabharanam also won the Prize of the Public at the Besançon Film Festival of France while Swathi Muthyam (1985) was India’s official entry to the Oscars in 1986.

He was deeply influenced by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, World and European cinema in particular, the New Wave, Italian Neo realism, K Balachandar, and the melodramatic format perfected by his predecessors in Telugu cinema. His ability to blend parallel cinema elements with the popular cinema format and create his own idiom to tell stories in a middle-of the-road approach was a contribution beyond compare.

While the country’ s highest cinema award, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award was conferred on him in 2017, he had earlier had been bestowed with the Padmashri in 1992. He has also been conferred with an honorary doctorate by the Potti Sriramulu University, won the Chittoor V Nagiah Puraskaram and the truly deserving title of Viswa Vikhyata Darsaka Saarvabhowma, which roughly translates to ‘World renowned director on all of Earth’. The title is as grandiose as Viswanath’s film backdrops. He mounts his narratives on large canvases that span the cultural heritage of India and yet he counters it with reformist ideas. Social reform, feminist perspectives, and a Tagoresque liberalism and naturalism permeate all his films.

I do not want to go down the list of his films.  But I would rather focus on the position he holds in the Indian film firmament. From Aatma Gowravam in 1965 to Subhapradham in 2010, the constant refrain in his films is the celebration of the rich heritage of Indian cult-re and the passing on of this legacy to coming generations in some form or the other. His films’ themes have ranged from untouchability, mindless superstitions, blind aping of western culture, the dignity of labor, the dowry system, and other such social concerns to the eternal struggle of the artist to reconcile art and commerce something which all of us assembled here can identify with.

His characters lived in a kind of magical limbo world – where tradition abounds in all its rich variety through classical music and dance in the Indian landscape of a bygone era of values and ethics. His protagonists were often unsullied and pure characters in perfect harmony with nature and art, almost ethereal and filled with altruistic compassion. They lived near lifegiving rivers, on majestic mountains, in metaphoric forests and often clashed with modernity in villages, cities, and metropolitan centers where greed, corruption and materialism rule. He took painful efforts with every scene, every character, every dialogue, supervised lyrics and music composition, sat hours in the edit room and basically extracted the best from his team in all aspects. All the actors who worked with him testify to his intensity, involvement, and implacable demand for perfection.

In film after film, be it Seethamalakshmi (1978) where a sanitation worker turns superstar actress, Swarna Kamalam (1988) – a prodigal dancer who returns home wiser, Sankarabharanam – the art of marginalized communities as hope for the future, Siri Siri Muvva (1976) – disability is not an obstacle to art, Subhodayam (1980) – self respect leads to respect between couples,  Subhalekha (1982) – accepting unconventional relationships, Swayamkrushi (1987) – a strong work ethic as an aspiration, Sirivennela (1986) – art and love are often based on sacrifice, Sutradharulu (1989) – the fight to shape ones own destiny, Subha Sankalpam (1995)  – loyalty, sacrifice and livelihood, Saptapadi (1981) – inspired by Devi (1960) but ends with the woman remarrying for loveor Sagara Sangamam – a unique 3-way friendship between a dancer, a poet and a photographer who grapple with unfulfilled dreams, he was social commentator who turned his powerful  lens onto issues that we could all relate to.

Music plays a crucial part in his films and are as important as dialogues or scene settings. Though in his early films, he worked extensively with S Rajeshwara Rao and KV Mahadevan, he later chose composers who could bring that special something to each story. Composers who are considered doyens in their respective industries have all vied to work with him – TV Raju, RD Burman, Ilayaraaja, Ramesh Naidu, K Chakravarthy, MM Keeravani, Mani Sharma, Vidyasagar, Rajesh Roshan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Anand-Milind have all been fortunate to compose the music for his films in various languages.

Cinematographers and production designers made extra efforts to make his milieu come alive. He was strict in ensuring character consistency and a credible mise-en-scene to sync with his need to present /represent Indian’s cultural heritage. That is probably why he was celebrated with awards for contribution to the arts. His films won awards for wholesome entertainment and promoting national integration. Again, leading cinematographers have worked on his films in every language.

He took on the mantle of acting late in life with Subha Sankalpam (1995) and there was no looking back. But sadly, it also gradually put an end to his directorial efforts. As with everything else, he brought into force all his creative energy and went on to excel in a range of roles across Telugu, Tamil and Kannada cinemas – villain, uncle, patriarch, friend, mentor, joker, et al. Going deeper into that aspect would need another extensive article.

Today, young one-film old directors are celebrated for creating ‘universes’. V not only created his unique universe but also straddled ‘multiverses’. He was a pan-Indian filmmaker much before the term entered common parlance. He was the forerunner of filmmakers like SS Rajamouli from the Telugu film industry to connect with audiences across the country. A man who wore many hats as a writer, sound engineer, poet, director and actor, Vishwanath was a filmmaker par excellence with a firm control of film craft to make his point sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly.

KV leaves a diverse and enriching legacy for filmmakers, film technicians and film aficionados – for filmmakers to aspire to create lasting narratives with values at their core, for artistes and technicians to excel in every department of their craft and for film buffs and critics to expect the best and to demand perfection from the film fraternity. His stories, characters and their dilemmas linger with us just as the songs and dialogues peppered with nativity and nuanced poetry do.  His mastery over the human condition – its frailties and its majesties are captured with equal understanding and compassion. He traverses the navarasas with ease taking the audience with him all along the way transcending barriers of language, caste, creed and religion.

Is Viswanath flawless?  Are there no anomalies in his work? Of course not. A work of art will always be incomplete, flawed to some extent and unappealing to many in the audience. One of the major criticisms is that he pandered to popular taste by toning down the classicism of music and dance in his films. That he reduced them to cinematic clichés and made compromises on the choreography and reductionist postures and gestures. Women were strong leads in his films but at the same time were often sexualized. Viswanath’s argument to this was that he had to draw the audience to the cinema halls to give them unfamiliar or revolutionary ideas couched in the familiar and the stereotypical. As a woman and someone who critiques from a feminist perspective, I do take issue with some of his female protagonist and their choices. But as long as he justified these situations in the cinematic universe he has created, one accepts it. And this being a tribute, not a critique to a Cinema ‘Jambavan’ (Titan) as we say in the South, it is not an appropriate space to dwell on the negatives.

 A few years ago, I had the privilege of introducing him to the next generation of filmmakers at LV Prasad Film Academy, Chennai at our convocation. For them to watch and learn the art of film writing, filmmaking, and film viewing from his vast oeuvre. If I have developed a healthy respect and love for my mother tongue, its beauty and rich nuanced literary quality, for imbibing some ideas, ideology and values that guide my role as a cultural ambassador and a film professor, the credit goes entirely to him. But most of all, I am grateful to have lived in the same time as him.

Viswanath’s passing away leaves a void but also leaves us with hope. He has influenced the younger crop of Telugu filmmakers, who follow in his footsteps reverentially and are now making mark in the international arena. That is his true legacy.

Uma Vangal is a filmmaker, film scholar and a self-confessed, die hard K Viswanath fan.

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  1. Uma , a comprehensive essay on the master and his body.of work..congratulations.
    I am glad that your tribute is minus the acadamese that sets up a barrier for the ordinary reader. I envy your intimate familiarity with his work. I haven’t seen many early and later films because living in Bombay restricts viewing to films that are part of the Indian.Panorama.

    I will now try and his films on OTT platforms.

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