How Dadasaheb Phalke award winner K Viswanath made a mark on Telugu, Tamil and Hindi cinema
By conferring the Dadasaheb Phalke Award on veteran filmmaker K. Viswanath, the government has rightfully honoured one of the most important filmmakers India has ever seen.
A rare instance where a filmmaker has managed to leave an indelible impression on three cinemas — Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi — Viswanath is almost peerless in using cinema to combine various art forms such as music, song, and dance against a backdrop of social and traditional issues.
His body of work seamlessly blends entertainment and messaging.
Spanning across six decades, Viswanath’s filmography far surpasses the few films that he is best known in Hindi cinema for, such as Sargam (1979), Kaamchor (1982) and Eeshwar (1989) and, truth be told, this is not even the tip of his iceberg.
Besides being a near perfect illustration of the ‘social model’ of cinema, Viswanath’s films also feature some of the best-known performances of the actors that he has directed ranging from Kamal Haasan, Jayapradha, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Vanisri, Chiranjeevi, Vijayashanti, and Suhasini.
Kasinadhuni Viswanath was born on 19 February 1930 and began his career in Telugu films in the late 1950s in the sound department.
He wrote a little and even assisted, before making his directorial debut in Aatma Gowravam (1965) featuring A. Nageswara Rao as the lead. The film won the Best Feature Film at the Nandi Award, the highest honour for Telugu cinema.
Viswanath enjoyed great success over the next decade but it was only with Siri Siri Muvva (1976) that he established his fabled mise-en-scène.
Viswanath’s narrative deftly merged traditional Indian art forms along with characters that were at a crossroads of sorts and explored concepts such as inclusiveness. Many of his films end with an initiation of a change in the thinking of society itself.
In a paper titled –‘Inclusiveness through Art films in Telugu: A Modern and Post-Modern Study of K. Viswanath’s Films’ Prof. C. S. H. N. Murthy argues that right from time of Alam Ara (1932) many Indian films have dealt with social themes but there is no director across any Indian language except Viswanath who can be credited with the distinction of producing over 30 films with a focus on “eliminating social caste, economic and religious biases or beliefs through entwining them with the arts of literature, poetry, music, dance, painting and sculpture.”
Beginning with Siri Siri Muvva, which was later remade in Hindi as Sargam (1979), Viswanath’s best-known films – Sankarabharanam (1979), Saptapadi (1981), Saagara Sangamam (1983) are all based on Indian heritage where he shows how traditions repress not just the individual but also communities. And as his narrative progresses he pitches in “the post-modern ideas of ‘self, identity and representation’ as a solution to the upliftment of marginalised individual.”
More than the hidden subtext of Viswanath’s films, it is his understanding of using story-telling elements that are unique to Indian cinema.
At the time when Viswanath started making films, it was not uncommon for filmmakers from the south to direct Hindi films and in fact, in some ways, Viswanath followed in the steps of A. Bhim Singh, who made over 30 films across four languages.
As he also wrote most of his films Viswanath’s narrative was rarely burdened and his finesse for infusing visuals with a certain kind of lyricism, too, never went unnoticed.
Take for instance the manner in which he presented Kamal Haasan in Saagara Sangamam where Haasan played a classical dancer. Even though he was a trained dancer Haasan perhaps would not have agreed to undergo rigorous training with Gopi Krishna, who was one of the film’s choreographers, had it not been for Viswanath.
The dance sequence in the song ‘Naadha Vinodhamu’ still remains one of the greatest onscreen exploits of Haasan.
Be it Saagara Sangamam or the music in Sirivennela (1986) — a love story of a blind flutist (Sarvadaman Banerjee) and a mute painter (Suhasini), where the songs are a beautiful blend of Telugu-Sanskrit lyrics, or even a film like Sargam where songs like ‘Ramji ki nikli swari’ or ‘Dafli wale’ stood out at a time when R.D. Burman was ruling the charts — Viswanath’s music has also stood the test of time.
In a decade where heroes would largely be offered urbane characters, action roles (1970s) or where heroines rarely got author backed roles in commercial cinema (1980s), Viswanath gave some of the biggest stars.
While Haasan and Anil Kapoor (Eeshwar, which was a remake of Viswanath’s own Swati Mutyam  with Haasan) are the first ones that come to mind, Viswanath also gave Rishi Kapoor a chance to break away from the usual characters that he was playing in Sargam, besides giving Chiranjeevi (Swayamkrushi  and Subhalekha ), Vanisri (Jeevana Jyothi , which was incidentally based on a book by this writer’s grandmother K. Ramalakshmi and later remade in Hindi as Sanjog ), Mammootty (Swati Kiranam ) and Jayapradha (Sagara Sangamam, Siri Siri Muvva) and even Madhuri Dixit (Sangeet ) and Jackie Shroff (Sangeet) roles where they could do something meaningful within the realm of popular films.
What’s more, besides writing and directing, K. Viswanath has also charted an impressive inning in front of the camera as an actor in many films.
A true multi-faceted personality, K Viswanath being awarded India’s highest film honour, in a way, would make Phalke proud.