Ambareesh passes away: A look at the Kannada star's rise in films, and Mandya's political circuit
Ambareesh was important to Karnataka because apart from being a leading film star, he was an influential politician and a leader of the Vokkaliga community
The death of leading Kannada film star Ambareesh (born as Malavalli Huchche Gowda Amarnath in 1952) was not entirely unexpected since he was known to be in bad health, in and out of hospitals over the last few years and regularly on dialysis. Ambareesh was important to Karnataka because apart from being a leading film star, he was an influential politician and a leader of the Vokkaliga community, to which many key politicians, including former prime minister HD Deve Gowda and his son, the present chief minister of Karnataka Sri HD Kumaraswamy also belong. He was an MLA of the Congress Party, having won from Mandya, a known Vokkaliga stronghold. His Mandya origins were a matter of pride locally and he was widely called 'Mandyada Mandu' or Man of Mandya.
Ambareesh came from an influential family in Mandya district of Karnataka, and his grand uncle was the famous Carnatic violinist, T Chowdaiah. After finishing college in Mysore, he got a break in cinema in the hit film Naagarahaavu (1972), directed by the legendary filmmaker Puttanna Kanagal, in which he played the villain opposite another newcomer, Vishnuvardhan, who also went on to become a leading star. Ambareesh, like Rajnikanth, who also got his earliest break playing a villain in a Puttanna Kanagal film, moved from playing negative roles in the early part of his career to playing the protagonists eventually. He also attracted immediate attention like Rajnikanth with his repertoire of cultivated mannerisms.
In his film career, Ambareesh acted in a record number of films, apparently surpassing both Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan but he is still best known for the supporting roles he appeared in for Puttanna Kanagal – Shubhamangala (1975), Paduvarahalli Pandavaru (1978), Ranganayaki (1981) and Masanada Hoovu (1984). But the film that really saw him rise in stature may have been SV Rajendra Singh Babu’s Antha (1981), later made in Hindi as Meri Awaaz Suno (1981) with Jeetendra. Antha may be regarded as a landmark film in as much as it anticipated many of the motifs of Hindi cinema of the 1980s: the brutal violence and the portrayal of the state as weak and politicians as corrupt. Ambareesh plays a double role here – that of a police inspector and the gangster he is made to impersonate. This is a particularly interesting venture because it seems to work with the knowledge that its preoccupations are national rather than local. The characters, for instance, have Hindi sounding names – Kanwar Lal, inspector Sushil Kumar, Anjan Singh and Kulwanth.
Kannada films are not easily remade in Hindi – less so than Tamil – and my own understanding is that Kannada cinema had, as its original constituency, the public in Princely Mysore, under indirect British rule, while Tamil cinema (like Hindi cinema) catered to a public under direct British rule. Princely Mysore regarded itself as a ‘nation within a nation’ and Kannada cinema still exhibits some insular characteristics. Meri Awaaz Suno was hence not successful, perhaps also because of the difficulty in seeing Jeetendra in the role of a dreaded gangster, something that Ambareesh carried off smoothly. As Ambareesh became more visible on the screen, he was accorded the title of 'Rebel Star' and this may have been on account of his playing some angry-young-man roles, like the one in Chakravyuha (1983) in which the protagonist guns down a number of politicians and ministers, also constituting a criminal network. The film was later remade in Hindi as Inquilab (1984) with Amitabh Bachhan, although also, not successfully.
Given his popularity as a film star and his caste associations, it was only natural that Ambareesh would join politics. There is a general misunderstanding about the success of film stars as politicians but it is usually only stars that can represent a constituency of some sort who succeed as political leaders. The electorate tends to cluster around jati groups and larger-than-life figures from a dominant jati naturally draw people to identify with them. MG Ramachandran does not illustrate this proposition but he came out of the popular Dravidian movement with a ready constituency; NT Rama Rao rode to power on his Kamma associations. In Kannada cinema Vishnuvardhan was a Brahmin; Rajkumar also did not belong to a caste group powerful enough to take him to power but Ambareesh was advantageously placed here. Mandya and Hassan (from where Sri HD Deve Gowda comes) are both Vokkaliga bastions.
As a politician, Ambareesh could be trusted to win elections in his home district but he did not rise to great pre-eminence. He initially joined the Congress but got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 on a Janata Dal ticket in a bye-election. He won again in 1999 and 2004 after he re-joined the Congress party and was Minister of State, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, from 24 October 2006 to 2008. The river Cauvery is very important to Mandya district and the periodical protests over water-sharing with Tamil Nadu tend to originate there. When the decision of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal over water-sharing was unfavourable to Karnataka in 2008, Ambareesh resigned his ministerial post. On the personal front, he married his co-star Sumalatha from TS Nagabharana’s Aahuti (1985).
The death of film stars, even from natural causes, sees violence in Bengaluru, as happened with Rajkumar (2006) and Vishnuvardhan (2009). The violence does not spread to other areas and one senses that it is Bengaluru that is the target. Kannada films have an ambivalent relationship with the city and there are a number of hit films (Jogi, Duniya) about deprived migrants coming to Bengaluru, being forced into crime but living in poverty, to be eliminated ultimately in police encounters. One senses in these films anger at how state/governmental authority in Bengaluru has treated ‘sons of the soil’ and the violence in Bengaluru over the death of film stars may be another manifestation of the same feelings. After the death of Rajkumar, one witnessed a decrepit, old woman (on television) attacking a police vehicle with a rock. Ambareesh was not only a film star representing a Kannada constituency but a successful politician as well, which means that his position is not quite the same as other stars — he was an elected functionary of the government with a prominent position as a resident of Bengaluru.
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