Late K. Vishwanath's films capture the human struggles of people

Deccan Chronicle.  | Srikanth Godavarthi

Entertainment, Tollywood

Legendary director late K. Viswanath. (Photo: Twitter)

In most of the movies of the legendary director K. Viswanath, who died on Thursday, there is no antagonist; there are no bad guys to sabotage the hero; only adverse circumstances are the villains.

Although each narrative has its own cast of characters, they all reflect recognisable archetypes and share many traits. In Sagarasangamam, for instance, Balakrishna Bhagavatar (Kamal Haasan) is a young, handsome, aspiring classical dancer who is ill-prepared to come to grips with life’s setbacks and gets trapped in a situation from which there is no escape.

He struggles with poverty yet hopes to one day fulfill his mother’s (Janaki) dream of becoming a dancer, but when his mother dies suddenly he becomes depressed and alcoholic, emotionally embittered and broken. The suffering of Balakrishna Bhagavatar is shared by his friend Raghupathi (Sarath Babu), a striving poet and writer with little money, inspiring empathy for all forms of helplessness.

The characters are vulnerable, based on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, and sometimes entirely at the mercy of the external realm. With his compelling drama that creates empathy for human pain and helplessness in hostile situations, Vishwanath's films manage to make the audience feel compassion for the characters.

In Sankarabharanam, Sankara Sastry, a famed musician known for playing the raga Sankarabharam, serves as the protagonist, who fights the invasion of banal, contemporary musical trends, alone and in vain. Sankara Sastry is deeply in debt and unable to support himself because he receives no patronage for his music. Although it may appear as though there is a conflict between the many characters, it is actually a struggle they are having with themselves and the system, with people and not the systems taking the spotlight.

Viswanath questions a larger system and established customs and traditions, demonstrating how performing arts such as dance and music have the capacity to change human consciousness, liberate oneself, facilitate the voice of the subaltern, and how these conflicts are transformed into a solution that indicates inclusiveness through the deft manipulation of narratives.

These characters have conflicts with each other, which provides the dynamic for the narrative that can evoke emotions in audiences, resonate with their thoughts and moods. Each story has its defining characters, and in many ways similar.

In Swathi Muthyam, Viswanath details the struggles for survival of the autistic Shivayya (Kamal Haasan) and widow Lalitha (Radhika) who he marries; In Sirivennela, the lyrical flautist Hari Prasad (Sarvadaman Banerjee) and Subha (Suhasini), who are both blind and mute, find common ground in their impairments.

Viswanath's films and narratives appear to be straightforward on the surface, but they are full of profound recurring motifs for those looking for discussions on shifting cultural norms, through his characters' who struggle to break free of age-old conventions.

Those who were critical of Viswanath's films being Brahminical and retrograde, the legendary director silenced them through his progressive thinking that reflects in Sankarabharanam and Saptapadi. In Saptapadi, Kuchipudi exponent Hema (Sabitha Bhamidipati), who marries orthodox Brahmin priest Gaurinath (Ravikanth), struggles for her self-identity and falls in love with a Harijan flautist who is a social outcast, Sankara Sastry defies public opinion by allowing the dancer prostitute Tulasi (Manju Bhargavi), a social outcast, to enter his home and assist him in carrying out his Brahmincal obligations.

In several of Vishwanath's movies, there are many compelling scenes that depict the struggles of these characters: The challenges of a poor and an ailing Kuchipudi doyen Vedantam Seshendra Sharma (Bhanu Priya’s father), and an elderly ‘ganapati’ with hearing loss in Swarnakamalam, both of whom are treated lowly by a government employee when they go to his office to request pensions. These and many other of his characters, who have their roots in the nativity, prompt reflection on major societal concerns like economic disparity, traditions, the swift deterioration of the arts under the influence of Western culture, and crass commercialization, among others. They subtly and tenderly reflect human agony and despair, making them relatable to society.